One of Africa's children, who chronicled the words and
the music of its diaspora, Oscar Brown, Jr., has died.
Here you will find two obituaries May 31 today and
a biographical sketch from the website devoted to him
and a link to an interview with him conducted for the
Refuse and Resist artist's network. Here's the last:
In the essay "Sanctifism", Oscar Brown, Jr. wrote:
"Sanctifism is that complex rhythmic characteristic
possessed by the great majority of Africa's offspring all
around the world. Typically it expresses itself through
their music and dance and has developed several distinct
Caribbean and Central American accents: In Brazil it occurs
as samba. It is rumba in Cuba, the tango in Argentina and
in Trinidad Jamaica, Barbados and the Virgin Islands it
became calypso or reggae. SOURCE:
You can also heard clips of his music at this site.
I've been an admirer of his words and music since the
early 1960s when I first heard them. Some of his music
is available in CD format. He chronicled the highs and
lows, the joys, the absurdities, the truths and the
contradictions of Black life and the racist culture of
the United States, rooted in slavery and its justifica-
tions in unforgettable ways. His music was at the same
time universal and applied to all people, as well as
being specific to the Black experience in the U.S.
Oscar Brown, Jr., Presente!
Walter Lippmann, CubaNews
May 31, 2005
Oscar Brown Jr., 78; Portrayed Black Culture in Music, Poetry
By Jon Thurber
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
May 31, 2005
Oscar Brown Jr., a singer and songwriter whose work reflected
the humor and hard truths of the black experience in America,
has died. He was 78.
Brown died of respiratory failure Sunday at St. Joseph's
Hospital in Chicago, said his daughter, Maggie Brown. She
said her father was admitted to the hospital May 5 with a
bacterial infection and underwent extensive surgery May 16 to
try to stem the infection, but his condition deteriorated
The multitalented Brown was a poet, actor and activist as
well as a musician. In a New York Times interview some years
ago, he said he set out to "deliberately present the culture
in which I'd grown up. I wanted to present a picture of black
culture to anyone who could hear it."
And he did just that in his songs, plays and musicals, which
offered a strong sociopolitical point of view.
Released in 1960, his first album, "Sin & Soul . and Then
Some" on Columbia, was a hit. A mosaic of poetic and musical
images, the album included his lyrics for such popular jazz
instrumentals as Nat Adderley's "Work Song," Bobby Timmons'
soul jazz tune "Dat Dere" and Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue."
It also included the socially charged "Bid 'Em In," a vivid
re-creation of an auctioneer's call at a female slave sale.
The album is still considered a classic by critics and
In his hometown of Chicago, Brown was known in the 1960s for
his theatrical works that offered vivid impressions of urban
life. In one instance, he helped quell gang violence in the
city by employing members of the notorious Mighty Blackstone
Rangers in the revue "Opportunity Please Knock." He also
created the musical version of "Big Time Buck White," which
starred Muhammad Ali and had a brief run on Broadway.
Other theatrical works created during that time included
"Kicks & Co.," which was featured by host Dave Garroway on an
entire segment of the "Today" show in what was in effect a
backers' audition. The musical had a short run
In the early 1970s, Brown premiered a musical drama, "Slave
Song," written in iambic pentameter and rhymed quatrains.
Underwritten by Howard University, it had a short run in
Brown worked as an actor on such television shows
as "Brewster Place," featuring Oprah Winfrey, and "Roc,"
starring Charles S. Dutton. Widely knowledgeable about jazz
and blues, he was the host of two programs on music:
"Jazz Scene USA" in 1962 and "From Jump Street: The Story of
Black Music" on PBS in the 1980s.
His songwriting brought acclaim from critics and leading
Playwright Lorraine Hansberry said Brown had "a startling
genius for rendering sense and nonsense into acutely succinct
and brilliant summaries of life as we live it."
Critic Nat Hentoff said, "Here, finally, is a performer and
writer who is so authentically hip that he never overstates
But Brown's work may have been too hip and authoritative for
the music business. His albums never found a broad crossover
audience and by the mid-1970s he was without a music
contract. His career had gained new interest in the 1990s
after Rickie Lee Jones covered "Dat Dere." In 1994, he
recorded his first album in almost 20 years, "Then and Now,"
for Weasel Disc records.
For much of Brown's career, critics lauded his work and
lamented his lack of popular recognition.
"He was a very riveting performer who could write about
contemporary issues with a lot of bite and wit," Hentoff told
the Los Angeles Times on Sunday. "I was always surprised that
he never got the acclaim he deserved."
Writing in The Times in 2002, critic Don Heckman offered
similar thoughts: "Every time Oscar Brown Jr. shows up in Los
Angeles to deliver one of his inspired performances, I'm
mystified about why he does not receive wider
The son of a lawyer and onetime head of the local National
Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, Brown was born
in Chicago on Oct. 10, 1926. While in high school, he
appeared on Studs Terkel's children's radio series,
"Secret City," but did not immediately launch an
From the early 1940s to the early '50s, he attended several
colleges and worked in a variety of jobs, including
advertising copywriter, real estate agent and publicist. He
ran unsuccessfully for the Illinois General Assembly
on the Progressive ticket in 1948 and was the host of one of
Chicago's first televised newscasts aimed at a black
audience. He ran for Congress in 1952 and lost.
After all that, he spent two years in the Army. Although he
had written poetry and songs over the years, he turned to
professional songwriting only after his discharge in 1956.
His first recorded composition was "Brown Baby," written
after the birth of his son, and recorded by Mahalia Jackson,
Diahann Carroll and Lena Horne, among others.
In 1960, he collaborated with drummer Max Roach on "We
Insist! Freedom Now Suite." The same year, he was signed to a
recording contract with Columbia.
He wrote more than 500 songs and added lyrics to such jazz
favorites as the Miles Davis composition "All Blues."
For much of his performing career, Brown worked with his
wife, singer Jean Pace Brown, who survives him. In addition
to his daughter Maggie, who also performed with her father,
Brown is survived by daughters Africa Pace Brown, Iantha
Brown Case and Donna Brown Cane.
He is also survived by 16 grandchildren and four great-
grandchildren. His son, Oscar Brown III, a bassist who
performed with his father in the 1980s, died in 1996.
Oscar Brown Jr., Entertainer and Social Activist, Dies at 78
By PETER KEEPNEWS
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Oscar Brown Jr., a singer, songwriter, playwright and actor
known for his distinctive blend of show-business savvy and
social consciousness, died on Sunday in a Chicago hospital.
He was 78 and lived in Chicago.
The cause was complications of a blood infection, his family
Mr. Brown was most often described as a jazz singer, and he
initially achieved fame by putting lyrics to well-known jazz
instrumentals like Miles Davis's "All Blues" and Mongo
Santamaria's "Afro Blue," but efforts to categorize him
usually failed. As a performer, he acted his songs more than
he sang them; as a songwriter, he drew as much from gospel,
the blues and folk music as he did from jazz. He preferred to
call himself an entertainer, although even that broad term
did not go far enough: he saw his art as a way to celebrate
African-American life and attack racism, and it was not always
easy to tell where the entertainer ended and the activist
His song "Brown Baby," recorded by Mahalia Jackson and
others, was both a lullaby for his infant son and an anthem
of racial pride. Other songs, like "Signifying Monkey"
and "The Snake," took their story lines from black
folklore. The album "We Insist! Freedom Now Suite," for which
Mr. Brown wrote lyrics to the drummer Max Roach's music, was
one of the first jazz works to address the civil rights
His commitment to art as a tool for change was most evident
in the numerous stage shows he wrote and directed in his
native Chicago, which addressed social issues and often had
poor black teenagers in their casts. The most famous of these
shows, "Opportunity, Please Knock," was created in 1967 with
members of the Blackstone Rangers, a street gang. His most
recent production was a 2002 revival of "Great Nitty Gritty,"
a show about gang violence that he had first staged 20 years
earlier with young residents of the Cabrini Green housing
Oscar Brown Jr. was born in Chicago on Oct. 10, 1926. His
performing career began early: he acted in radio dramas as a
teenager and was the host of a local radio program
called "Negro Newsfront" while still in his 20's. But he
did not become actively involved in music until after he had
worked briefly for his father's real estate business, run
unsuccessfully for public office twice, and served a two-year
After a few lean years as a songwriter, he was signed by
Columbia Records as a singer in 1960. Things happened quickly
after that: his first album, "Sin and Soul," was released to
critical acclaim, and in 1961 he made a triumphant debut at
the Village Vanguard in New York and presented excerpts
from "Kicks & Co.," a musical for which he wrote the book,
music and lyrics, on the "Today" show. "Kicks & Co." never
made it to Broadway, closing a few days into its Chicago
tryout that fall. But Mr. Brown did reach Broadway in
1969 when Muhammad Ali starred in "Buck White," his musical
adaptation of "Big Time Buck White," Joseph Dolan Tuotti's
play about a black militant leader. (Mr. Brown himself
starred in a San Francisco production.)
Mr. Brown's career never reached the heights some had
predicted for it, but he remained a cultural force in
Chicago. He also continued to tour occasionally, often in
musical revues that he wrote, most of which also
featured his wife, the singer and dancer Jean Pace Brown. She
survives him, as do a son, Napoleon; four daughters, Maggie
Brown, Donna Brown Kane, Iantha Casen and Africa Pace Brown;
16 grandchildren, and 4 great-grandchildren. His son Oscar
Brown III, a bass player, died in an automobile accident in
In addition to his other activities, Mr. Brown made several
noteworthy television appearances over the years. He was the
host of "Jazz Scene U.S.A.," a syndicated series produced by
Steve Allen in 1962, and "From Jumpstreet," a 13-week PBS
series that examined the history of black music in 1980. In
1990 he was a regular on "Brewster Place," a dramatic series
on ABC that starred Oprah Winfrey, and two years later he had
a recurring role as a jazz pianist on the Fox sitcom "Roc."
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
BIOGRAPHY from the Oscar Brown, Jr. Website
Oscar Brown Jr.
Oscar Brown Jr. is a native Chicagoan who has become a
legendary recording artist - as both a singer and a
songwriter. At age15, Oscar made his professional debut in
the national radio series, Secret City. And by 21,
Oscar had become the first to broadcast new about "America's
largest minority" during his daily Negro Newsfront radio
program. During this period, Oscar attempted two unsuccessful
bids to hold political office -first for the Illinois State
Legislature and then for Congress. It was during this time
that Oscar also began seriously composing songs, which he
had previously only done as a hobby. Efforts by his father to
steer his son into a business career provided to be
unsuccessful. Oscar Brown Sr. was a prosperous South Side
attorney and real estate broker.
At the 1958, Chicago opening of A Raisin in the Sun, Oscar
Brown Jr. met Robert Nemiroff, a professional manager of a
New York music-publishing firm. Nemiroff brought Oscar to the
attention of Columbia Records. Soon afterwards, Oscar signed
a recording contract and his career as a singer was
While recording his first album, Sin and Soul, Oscar also
signed with Nemiroff to produce Kicks & Company. This
ambitious musical was crafted during the period when Oscar
was supposed to be trying to sell real estate.
Upon the 1960 release of Sin and Soul, Oscar Brown Jr. began
a new life. Producer Al Ham left Columbia Records to become
Oscar's first manager. Together, they secured an engagement
at the Village Vanguard in New York City and Oscar was an
overnight sensation - rarely had an artist burst on the
entertainment scene to such acclaim.By then, the aspiring
young playwright was presenting Kicks and Company. All of
these efforts culminated in an unprecedented two-hour
appearance on NBC at the invitation of Today Show host Dave
Although Kicks and Company never made it to Broadway, Oscar
Brown Jr. was no longer an unknown. He was now listed as a
playwright in America's publication of "Who's...Who." Oscar
began sharing the bill with such greats as Miles Davis, Dizzy
Gillespie, John Coltrane, and Cannonball Adderly. These
appearances earned him great critical acclaim from coast to
coast. His one-man show, Oscar Brown Jr. Entertains, resulted
in his being hailed: "A musical genius.", ".the high priest
of hip." and ".all the great ones rolled in to one."
Reflections of a Living Legend:
How I became a living legend I will never know. For forty
years I've tried to make a public spectacle of myself with a
paucity of publicity. This is interesting, considering where
I come from. I had a fairly uneventful upbringing in Chicago,
Illinois, where I was born in 1926. I was smart enough to
have been "double promoted" twice in grade school so I was
only sixteen years old when I enrolled at the University of
Wisconsin in the fall of 1943.
I proceeded to flunk out of that and five other institutions
of higher learning. However, I had discovered my unusual
talent for composition and was determined to become a
My father was an attorney and had wanted me to follow in his
footsteps. However, when I obtained employment as a radio
actor in high school, making sixty four dollars and sixty
cents a week for only six hours of work at a time when others
were making forty dollars a week for forty hours of work,
the choice to get involved in the arts was a "no-brainer."
The creative side of me prevailed, and I wound up on record,
onstage and on TV instead of on a corporate payroll or in a
law office. My talent began to clear paths for me. One of my
first major radio employments came with "Negro News front," a
pioneer effort in which I spent five years as the world's
first Negro newscaster.
My father and the enterprises that he owned spawned the
newscast. It was an enriching experience, made all the more
exciting by the fact that I had become a card carrying
Communist at age 20. My left leaning kept me in hot
water with the station owners. "Negro New front" was
eventually kicked off the air due to my "subversive"
Ironically, I was also too "subversive" to the predominately
white Communist party, because I kept bringing up the race
question. I was accused of "Negro Nationalism." But the
Communist party at that time was the only outlet
available to participate in the struggle for black people. My
political ideas even led me to run for political office. I
sought to become an Illinois State representative in 1948,
and, undaunted by an overwhelming defeat, I ran again in 1952
in the Republican Primary for 1st District Congressman. I was
defeated still, but I felt I was able to introduce issues
that were of great significance.
Political zeal characterized my life during the decade from
age 20 to 30. At age 30, I had reached a crossroads. I had
three choices. I could work at my father's real estate
corporation, become a Democrat and pursue a career in
politics, or try somehow to break into show business. I chose
the latter and began my career first as a songwriter. I wrote
my first major musical, Kicks & Co. in the late fifties, and
ran around from one jazz club to another trying to interest
people in my songs.
I became a professional singer due largely to the efforts of
Robert Nemiroff, the husband of Lorraine Hansberry, the
author of A Raisin in The Sun. Robert introduced my work to
the recording world and I eventually landed a contract with
Columbia records where I recorded Sin and Soul, Oscar
Brown Tells it like It is, and Between Heaven and Hell. On
the Fontana label I recorded Mr. Brown Goes to Washington and
Finding a New Friend. Other records soon followed. At the
onset of my career, I received many significant blessings.
On February 28th, 1960, the acclaimed network television host
of NBC's Today's s show, Dave Garroway, devoted the whole two
hours of the show to fund raising for my musical, "Kicks &
Co." Unfortunately, "Kicks & Co." did not appear to bless
Dave Garroway. The script had to be adapted to fit the
Today's show format and the political content of it prevented
it from being mass-produced.
Garroway eventually was fired as the Today's show host,
suffered severe personal tragedy, sank into deep depression
and soon died. Although "Kicks and Co." closed during a 1961
preview in Chicago and never made Broadway, I was no longer
an unknown and had scored a success with my one-man show,
"Oscar Brown Jr. Entertains," in London, England.
Critics proclaimed: "Sammy Davis move over!" They called me
a "genius, "the high priest of hip," and "all of the greats
rolled into one." I appreciated all of their kind words, and
I just knew that my career would soon go into stellar orbit.
It flew, although it didn't exactly reach the stratosphere.
It did fly though.
I reached many peaks in my career during the sixties. I had
the chance to host Jazz Scene U.S.A., a Steve Allen produced
show that is available now on VHS. I performed with the likes
of jazzmen Nat and Cannonball Adderley, and opened for Miles
Davis in Hollywood, California. I would often put lyrics to
"Worksong" was for Cannonball and Nat and "All Blues" was for
Miles. Miles used to say that performing after me in
Hollywood was like "following World War III" and after three
nights the concert producer, Danny Gordon, had the trumpeter
opening for me. Needless to say, we never appeared on the same
During that decade I also wrote and produced musicals like
Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow with the great music of Phil
Cohran for the score. We also produced Joy 66 and Summer in
the City. I produced Opportunity Please Knock in 1967 with
the participation of the notorious Blackstone Rangers
Street gang. My wife, Jean Pace and I, had the chance to
produce the show in Gary, Indiana and we "discovered" such
talent at Avery Brooks and the Jackson Five. The sixties were
an exhilarating period in my life as an artist.
In the seventies I became an artist-in-residence at Howard
University in Washington, D.C., Hunter College in New York
and Malcolm X College in Chicago. By 1975 I had ten recorded
albums under my belt and I won two local Chicago Emmy Awards
for my WBBM special Oscar Brown Jr.'s Back in Town.
The spotlight's been good to me. Real good. I hope it's even
better for those who come after me. Since the early eighties
I have written, produced and directed a musical called the
Great Nitty Gritty, about Chicago youth growing up in the
housing projects. I love it. It's a real grassroots
project, working with kids. We recruit kids from such places
as the Ida B. Wells housing development and find scores of
shining talent every year. It's amazing the talent we have in
this city. My daughter Maggie continues to be an amazing
performer and seeing her and the rest of my children succeed
has made me extremely proud. I hope one day that their lives
in the spotlight can be as bright as mine has been.