A man of many gifts: for Oscar Brown Jr., music and words were a driving force: his art remains an enduring reminder of just how much he enriched American culture with his performances, wit, songs, plays, essays and activism.
Rich as a night
This stanza of lyric from "Afro Blue" typifies Oscar Brown Jr.'s poetic mastery, and it is also an intimation of his artistic versatility with its "shades of delight" and his political insight, which was as deep and as "rich as the night."
A blood infection may have removed Oscar's physical presence from us on May 29, but his art remains an enduring reminder of just how much he enriched American culture with his performances, wit, songs, plays, essays and activism. When the great Paul Robeson declared that his art was inseparably linked to his politics, he presaged Oscar's calling. While Robeson was an interpreter of his "people's songs," Oscar authored them, and none more poignant and pointed as "Bid'em In," "Work Song," "Forty Acres and a Mule," and "Brown Baby."
Toward an Epiphany
To Oscar, music was a healing and liberating force of the universe, and something integral to his existence. "It is hard to imagine any human endeavor that does not benefit from having sympathetic strains of music to accompany and encourage it," he once wrote. "Music is a moving force ... a gathering force. Songs can accompany us even against our wishes just because their melodies are so haunting; their words so unforgettable."
Very early in his gifted life, when he was coming of age in his native Chicago, the force of music "and unforgettable words," consumed Oscar. But it would take a while before he surrendered to their allure, as he obeyed his parents' request to pursue an education that would one day allow him to take over the family business in real estate.
Having been double promoted in elementary school, Oscar was 16 when he arrived at the University of Wisconsin. Other than creative writing, where he excelled, higher education had no great appeal to him, and soon he was back in his hometown working in radio.
After several years as a pioneering newscaster, Oscar began to dabble in electoral politics. In 1948, when he was 22, he ran unsuccessfully for the Illinois legislature. He experienced a similar result four years later when he sought a state senate position. All the while, he was a member of the Communist Party, which he joined in 1946. Ten years later, he quit the Party. "I was too Black to be Red," he quipped.
Unable to secure political office, Oscar returned to radio, a stint that was interrupted by two years in the Army. An epiphany occurred in 1960. Since one of his family's neighbors was the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, Oscar was introduced to her husband, Robert Nemiroff, who worked in a New York-based music company. It wasn't long before Oscar's musical talent was revealed to Nemiroff, who got him a recording contract with Columbia Records, which released his debut album Sin & Soul ... and Then Some.
Suddenly, the world was singing the words Oscar had put to compositions by Bobby Timmons ("Dat Dere"), Nat Adderley ("Work Song"), and Mongo Santamaria ("Afro Blue"). So immediate and overpowering was his success that within a year he had composed his first musical, Kicks & Company, which was directed by Hansberry and coproduced by Nemiroff. The musical bolstered his celebrity, and the small nightclubs where he had perfected his art gave way to such prominent venues as the Village Vanguard, and appearances with Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie, and other jazz luminaries.
Then Europe came calling, and Oscar and his entourage were a smashing success in London, commanding accolades that stamped him with "genius" and "the high priest of hipness." It was just the acclaim needed to earn him a television show, Jazz Scene USA, which was taped in Los Angeles. Other than meeting some of the legends of jazz, the show was where he met his future wife, actress and dancer Jean Pace.
Hosting a TV show was not enough to exhaust an energetic artist with a thousand ideas. Oscar was soon involved with another revue of his creation that in its wake brought to prominence the likes of The Jackson Five and the multitalented Avery Brooks. By 1969, he had converted his play Big Time Buck White to a musical and premiered it in San Francisco, where he and his wife lived. The musical comedy gained wider recognition when it reached Broadway and starred Muhammad Ali, who had been suspended from boxing because of his refusal to be inducted into the Army.
The next three decades were as productive as the preceding one as Oscar immersed himself in political activism against the war in Vietnam; collaborated with musicians from all over the world, including Brazil; continued to write provocative lyrics and plays; and expanded his exposure through appearances in films and on television. In 1996, after slowing his activity, it was jumpstarted again with the CD release of his original Sin & Soul that included five new compositions. The excitement, however, was tempered when his 39-year-old son, Oscar Brown III, a highly respected bassist and composer, was killed in a tragic car accident.
Oscar was stunned by the lost of his son, but a few years later he was again buoyed when his daughter, Maggie, a vocalist, released her live concert recording. Though his legacy now had an additional assurance, the intrepid artist was not about to rest on his laurels.
Whether at a political forum or supporting another artist such as Amiri Baraka or Sonia Sanchez, or demonstrating his verbal skills (which prefigured rap) to upcoming spoken-word folks on Def Poetry Jam, Oscar was ubiquitous.
That same energy and verve that drove him in the past was evident right to the end of his exemplary life. At 78, he still had that ebullience that keenly tuned, rapier-like wit. "He had the capacity to bring glaring inequities to the attention of disparate groups, and hold their attention via his humorous insights with deadly accuracy," wrote journalist Gloria Dulan-Wilson. "Like Will Rogers, you couldn't deny the truth, you couldn't ignore it, and it stuck in your mind in a manner no lecture ever could."
For a more definitive look at the legacy of this great artist, go to www.oscarbrownjr.com.
Herb Boyd is an author and frequent contributor to Black Issues Book Review.
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|Publication:||Black Issues Book Review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2005|
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