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Drummer and local legend Mel Brown endures as the humble godfather of Portland jazz

Mel Brown, 2019 Montavilla Jazz Festival
Mel Brown, 2019 Montavilla Jazz Festival

Mel Brown's family moved to Portland, Ore. from Arkansas in the early 1940s. He was born in 1944 — the last of six siblings and the only native Oregonian. By high school, Brown's skill for drumming was plain, and by the time he was 19 he had already secured a gig playing with soul-jazz breakout Billy Larkin and Delegates. That band's hit record, "Pigmy," would end up giving Brown an early taste of success — and the confidence to approach Miles Davis' drummer Philly Joe Jones for lessons.

Brown's buoyant pocket was slick and nimble, which served him well in jazz settings. But he knew how to bring the funk: George Benson and Dr. Lonnie Smith hired him for soul-jazz sessions and, from the late '60s to the mid-'70s, he served as a house drummer for many Motown revues, in which a house band would stay put while different headliners (including Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross) would come on and off the stage. Brown also toured with The Temptations for seven years, during the contentious post-David Ruffin era.

When his time with the Temps was over Mel returned to Portland, where he started a family and rejoined the jazz community by creating new infrastructure to support it. That work began with a weekly jam session, then weekly gigs; Brown found himself playing jazz for his parents' generation and loved it. As did they.

He also opened a drum shop, offering lessons and later bootstrapping a jazz camp that continued for nearly two decades. Throughout it all, Brown performed regularly at venues like Jimmy Mak's and the Jack London Revue. With both his septet — modeled after Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers — or his B-3 organ group, he fused the precision of Motown with the elasticity of bebop.

Mel Brown, 2019 Montavilla Jazz Festival Interviews
Kathryn Elsesser / Kathryn Elsesser Photography
Mel Brown, 2019 Montavilla Jazz Festival Interviews

In this episode of Jazz Night in America, we'll hear a burning concert by Brown's organ quartet from the 2019 Montavilla Jazz Festival. And he'll share some colorful stories in a conversation with our host, Christian McBride (a diehard Temptations fan). Brown's son, Christopher, says that he "always wanted to be a boots-on-the-ground kind of guy," which suggests that his career is a dream fulfilled. "He's the consummate professional," Christopher adds, "and understands that he's got to go the way and show the way."

Musicians: Mel Brown, drums, Renato Caranto, tenor saxophone; Dan Balmer, guitar; Louis "King Louie" Pain; organ

Set List:

  • Four on Six (Wes Montgomery) 
  • Brulie (Louis Pain) 
  • Milestones (Miles Davis)
  • Billie Jean (Michael Jackson)
  • Me and Mrs. Jones (Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, Cary Gilbert)
  • Big Brothers  (Louis Pain) 
  • I'll Be There (Berry Gordy, Bob West, Willie Hutch, Hal Davis)
  • Shotgun (Autry DeWalt) 
  • Blues 1 & 8 (Jack McDuff)
  • What's Going On (Al Cleveland, Renaldo Benson, Marvin Gaye)
  • Bry-Yen / I Believe In You (Louis Pain, Don Davis)
  • Credits: Writer and Producer: Alex Ariff; Host: Christian McBride; Recording Engineer: Rick Gordon and Patrick Brewer; Mixing Engineer, David Tallacksen; Archival audio and Mel Brown Interview Engineer, James Theory; Field Recordist, Meg Samples; Project Manager: Suraya Mohamed; Senior Producer: Katie Simon; Senior Director of NPR Music, Keith Jenkins; Executive Producers: Anya Grundmann and Gabrielle Armand.

    Thanks: Neil Matson, Ryan Meager, Kim Gumbel, and Matt Fleeger


    Copyright 2021 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center.