Brown sees his music as ‘way to serve the world’
HELAINE R. WILLIAMS
Jazz guitarist Norman Brown has garnered more than a few eloquent descriptions.
Look at the Grammy winner’s online biography (normanbrown.com) and you’ll see he’s been dubbed “one of the 50 greatest guitarists of all time” by uDiscover Music. JazzTimes Magazine describes Brown’s gift as “a culmination of Jimi Hendrix and George Benson with some of Wes Montgomery thrown in.” Benson, the legendary fellow jazz guitarist, refers to Brown as “one of the greatest and most articulate guitarists out there.” No need for Calgon to take one away. Brown’s guitar — a buttered-velvety stream of
intricate sound that weaves its way elegantly through the songs it dominates — is all about hope and optimism, tropical vacations, playfulness, romance and more.
Jazz fans in Little Rock will get a chance to experience all this for themselves on Saturday. Brown is the featured artist for the final night of Art Porter Music Education’s 13th “A Work of Art” week (see Entertainment Notes, above).
This will mark Brown’s first time playing Arkansas, but not his first time in the state.
Currently living in Atlanta, Brown was born in Shreveport and raised in Kansas City, Kan. “I used to go to Arkansas all the time as a kid,” he says. “When I was a young fella, we used to drive from Kansas City to … Louisiana and we’d go through Arkansas, go through the Ozarks, and my father would always stop and let us look around.” This time, he won’t just be passing through.
“I’m looking forward to playing in Arkansas. Absolutely.”
DEBUTED IN 1992
It was 1992 that Brown came on the scene with the album “Just Between Us.” “After the Storm,” which went gold and won Soul Train award distinction; was released in 1994; “Better Days Ahead” followed in 1996. Brown has in fact worked steadily throughout the years, releasing solo albums and collaborations with other artists. His 2002 “Just Chillin’” album, to which singers Miki Howard, Chanté Moore and Michael McDonald lent their voices, won Brown a Grammy for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album. It was also in 2002 that Brown, saxophonist Kirk Whalum and trumpeter Rick Braun formed the group BWB, releasing “Groovin’.” (The trio also had releases in 2013 and 2016.) In 2012, Brown released “24/7” with saxophonist Gerald Albright and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Instrumental Album. Last year, Brown’s 13th album, “Let’s Get Away,” was released on Shanachie Entertainment, his fourth with the label.
During a recent interview, Brown remembers coming to the realization that his music was more than just about him.
“It developed from something I thought I loved to do and was good at, into something that I was chosen to do … something that I was chosen to do to serve the world,” Brown says. “I thought I was just doing something I liked and that I was good at.” His favorite fan comment, Brown says, was a comment that came via online.
“Basically I think it was saying the music is everything — to summarize — therapeutic, inspiring, comforting, informational and unique.” He recalls a letter from a prisoner on death row. The man expressed how deeply he’d been affected by Brown’s music. “He was able to die in peace, meet his Maker, confess his sins and ask forgiveness” thanks to the title track of “Better Days Ahead.” “[At] that point, I knew I was doing service for the world that I was chosen to do,” Brown says.
His online biography reveals the story of how Brown, who’d been playing since he was 8, would wait for his late older brother — Roy Brown Jr., nicknamed “Popsicle” — to leave the house so he could get on his brother’s six-string guitar.
“Man, that was amazing to see him playing,” Brown says of Roy Jr. “I had known him for eight years at that point; I didn’t even know he played a guitar, or that there was a guitar in the house. And to see that blew my mind.
“My brother was my angel. He allowed me to play his guitar when I thought I had to sneak and play it. Then he convinced my father to buy me my own. And then, before he left the planet, he bought me my first professional set of equipment and left me enough money to get to California and to go to school and put myself in a position to do what I’m doing.”
Th e m u s i c i a n s w i t h whom Brown has collaborated during his career are, not surprisingly, a Who’s Who in Smooth Jazz list.
His favorites include “my hero George Benson. Yeah, we made a record together; I got to play on his ‘Nuthin’ But a Party’ song. And I got to perform with him live a couple of times.” Others, he says, include “Dave Koz. The BWB group ... . And the collaboration album I did with Gerald Albright. Working with Brian McKnight was great; working with Peabo Bryson was incredible. Patti Austin. Brenda Russell and Jeff Lorber — those are the ones [who] come to my mind.” And of course, “it was great playing with Art Porter [Jr.],” for whom “A Work of Art” is named. Brown is credited on Porter’s “Undercover” album, lending his talent to the cuts “After Hours” and “Phases of the Heart.” “He was a beautiful man,” Brown says. “And his saxophone playing reminds me of my guitar playing. That’s one musician that I could relate to … . So we did some shows together.
“We got a chance to play together actually, for the Lou Rawls Parade of Stars [Telethon] one time. And I will tell you, after that show, I came into the dressing room. And he started lecturing us all” — fellow musicians that, recalls Brown, included such big names as Everette Harp and George Duke. “Art came in and he says, ‘Man, we’ve got to start keeping in touch with each other. We don’t call each other and say hi. We need to call each other and just say ‘Hi, how you doing,’ and checking on each other, man, before we’re gone. We don’t know how long we’re going to be down here.’” It wasn’t long afterward, Brown adds, that Porter died in a drowning accident in Thailand.
SHARING HIS GIFT
Bearing the knowledge that his music isn’t just for him, Brown has taken advantage of numerous opportunities to work with young people, passing his gift on. He taught at Musicians Institute in California for 13 years. He did master classes in Africa for the Ghetto Classics, an orchestra program for impoverished schoolchildren in Kenya. He has taught for the Urban League of Seattle’s summer youth program. And, going beyond music, he taught a three-hour seminar on “Service to the World” at a high school in Georgia.
“I love to empower people,” Brown says. “And I think that’s how I’m here to make the world better is to … make better people. You know, we don’t have an institution set up to do that.”
Art Porter Music Education Presents “A Work of Art” 2023 music festival 8 p.m. Saturday, William Grant Still Ballroom, Robinson Center, 426 W. Markham St. at Broadway, Little Rock.
Tickets: $65 Information: (501) 492-9120; artporter.org