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Drumming home the facts.

Byline: FRED CRAFTS The Register-Guard

For the third time in its four-year history, the Lane Jazz Festival's headliner is drummer Mel Brown of Portland.

What does Brown offer that is so special the festival's producers would invite him back two years in a row? Why are they hoping they can get him again next year?

The answers lie not only in Brown's consummate musicianship, but also in his ability to communicate his passion for jazz, his levelheaded professionalism and his world view.

Brown is not alone in this approach. His entire septet - Thara Memory, trumpet; Warren Rand, alto sax; Remota Carinate, tenor sax; Gordon Lee, piano; Andre St. James, bass; and Stan Bock, trombone - shares his commitment to showing younger players the ropes.

All are teachers at colleges in the Willamette Valley (Marylhurst, Willamette and Western Oregon, among them). All are busy, veteran players.

In other words, the Mel Brown Septet is a perfect fit for the education-oriented Lane Jazz Festival, in which Lane Community College hosts several hundred high school musicians from the Eugene area for two days of workshops, adjudications and concerts.

Tonight's concert features an all-star combo of students who are judged to be the best on their instruments, plus the University of Oregon Jazz Ensemble, Lane Jazz Ensemble and Swing Shift.

However, for most concertgoers, the festival's highlight will be Saturday night, when the Mel Brown Septet lets fly with its patented brand of hard bop.

It's a fascinating show - first-rate, high-energy improvisation on classic jazz tunes seamlessly delivered by some of the region's finest players. Once the band starts, it doesn't stop playing - literally - until the show ends with Cedar Walton's tricky "Jody," the band's traditional closer.

All through the extended set (which can last up to two hours), one tune morphs into another, with Memory calling the tunes and Brown's drumming executing the transitions. The musicians seem as surprised as the audience by what turns up. They laugh and kid each other while the music rolls on. In this manner, the show is a captivating mix of professional sheen and beginners' giddiness.

"No one communicates their love for playing music any better than Mel," says LCC jazz professor Ron Bertucci, who heads the festival. "Mel is the consummate professional musician. He has a wonderful command of the drum set and the styles that he plays. He has been in the business for decades and knows all the ropes. He surrounds himself with outstanding musicians.

"Together, Mel and Thara create a union on stage that is electric, organic, authentic, artistic and creative. It's fun to listen to, fun to watch."

Brown, 57, is a Portland musician. Born and raised in the Rose City, he started playing drums when he was in the seventh grade. He graduated from Portland State University with a degree in accounting and still operates a business: Northwest Tax and Accounting.

But Brown is known more for whipping drumsticks than for crunching numbers. He fronts groups Tuesdays through Thursdays at Jimmy Mack's and Fridays and Saturdays at Salty's, both in Portland. This month, he is also playing Sundays on the road with Tall Jazz.

He teaches at the Mel Brown Studios, at the Allegra Drum Crafters plant in Portland and at his summer workshops at Western Oregon University in Monmouth.

A first-call drummer, Brown has worked regularly with such jazz luminaries as bassist Leroy Vinnegar, pianist Jessica Williams, singer Ernestine Anderson, organist Earl Grant and saxophonists Richie Cole and Teddy Edwards. When national figures (such as Linda Ronstadt) perform in Portland, Brown is usually the drummer.

Until he tired of touring in the early 1990s, Brown was the drummer of choice for many Motown artists. Among those who have utilized his services are Diana Ross, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas, the Marvellettes, Smoky Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.

As a teacher, Brown has a leg up on others because students probably already know his work; he has released two CDs under his own name: "Mel Brown Live at Jimmy Mack's" and "Mr. Groove.'

"The thing I try to impress on the kids is, whatever you do, it's going to take some work. Nothing is handed to you," Brown said by phone from his office in Portland. "Musicians who work very hard to perfect their craft will find that (ethic) can move into other parts of their life.

"You have to be disciplined. You have to have a time management about yourself. And that's the biggest problem most young people have."

Having reaped the rewards of hard work, Brown preaches that gospel because has watched the work ethic decline since he was in high school.

"Students today are pretty adept at playing their instruments," Brown said. `But as far as playing music, well, that's a whole different story.

"The younger players have learned to play a nice big band arrangement - they play their parts - but they have never really learned the melodies of their tunes. They've heard a version that maybe John Coltrane has done, and they're learning the tunes wrong.

`They need to have a foundation. They need to play five or six nights a week to learn the music. They need to work with older musicians who can pass that information down.'

One theme of Brown's discourses is the need to be savvy about the business side of making music: tax breaks, budgets, wardrobes, contracts.

Having watched many musicians fritter away their earnings or lose them entirely because they simply didn't grasp business concepts, Brown shares his accountant's knowledge.

Opening eyes and ears is Brown's goal. The key point he tries to get across to students is, "Musicians are just like a doctor or a lawyer. We never know it all. We'll always study for the rest of our lives."

What is the reaction to his admonitions?

"A lot of students are shocked,' he said, `because they want to hurry and get to the top. They don't realize how much work is involved, and that not everybody's going to make it to the top."

Educator Bertucci likes the "professionalism, artistry, passion and honesty" exuded by Brown and his band. "They're not trying to impress or BS anybody. They know tons about what they do, and they can speak volumes about it in terms that students, or anybody else, can understand."

No wonder Bertucci calls Brown and his players "terrific role models. They make good heroes. They can teach students the techniques required to play well and demonstrate the passion required to achieve greatness. They give students the truth about the hard work and sacrifice it takes if one wishes to excel at anything.

"I want students to learn that jazz is great music played by great musicians, great people."

Arts reporter Fred Crafts can be reached by phone at 338-2575 and by e-mail at


WHAT: The two-day festival has the Lane Jazz Ensemble, Oregon Jazz Ensemble and Swing Shift today and the Mel Brown Septet on Saturday

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today and


WHERE: Lane Community College's Performance Hall, 4000 E. 30th Ave.

HOW MUCH: $6 to $12 at the full-service branches of SELCO Credit Union and through the LCC ticket office, 726-2202


Drummer Mel Brown headlines the Lane Jazz Festival.
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Title Annotation:Entertainment
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Dec 7, 2001
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