Oscar Brown, Jr. - vocals
George Wein - piano
Slam Stewart - bass
Ben Riley - drums
Humorist, lyricist, singer, poet, playwright and civil rights activist Oscar Brown Jr. made his Newport Jazz Festival debut on July 5, 1964, accompanied by Mr. Newport himself (George Wein) on piano, along with Slam Stewart on bass and Ben Riley on drums. Fresh off an acclaimed one-man show in Los Angeles, "The Many Characters of Oscar Brown, Jr.," the multi-talented entertainer charmed the Newport crowd with his clever lyrics set to existing jazz tunes like Miles Davis' "All Blues,"Bobby Bryant's "Sleepy" and Nat Adderley's "Work Song" while also striding into some politically-charged material, as on his reparations poem set to Slam Stewart's bass line on "Forty Acres and a Mule" and the strident anti-war song "Muffled Drums." As he joked to the audience at one point in his show, "Many of you were lured here with the promise of a jazz festival, but a few insiders know that in reality this is a political rally." In his introduction to the humorous "When My Baby is the First Lady in the Land," Brown alludes to Dizzy Gillespie's faux presidential candidacy that year (Diz was pictured on the cover of Down Beat in a fantasy scene with the bebopper taking the oath of office). And on his original lyrics to Clark Terry's "One Foot in the Gutter" (which he says was inspired by a New Year's Eve episode), Brown sings from the point of view of someone who has had way too much to drink.
Brown is renowned for having written the lyrics to Max Roach's 1960 protest album We Insist!: Freedom Now Suite, which Roach performed in its entirety the day before Brown's appearance at this 1964 Newport Jazz Festival. He also wrote the lyrics to the oft-recorded Bobby Timmons tune, "Dat Dere," and composed tunes for Mahalia Jackson, Lena Horne, Lou Rawls, Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln and others.
Born on October 10, 1926 in Chicago, Brown was drawn to performing at an early age and by 15 was a regular on writer Studs Terkel's popular radio program, Secret City. In 1944, at age 18, he hosted the nation's first black news radio broadcast and in 1948 ran for the Illinois state legislature on the Progressive Party ticket. Following a two-year stint in the Army, Brown became a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, ultimately resigning in 1956 after declaring himself "just too black to be red."
Brown began singing professionally in 1958 and soon after landed a recorded deal with Columbia, debuting in 1960 with Sin & Soul, which featured readings of popular jazz instrumentals like Nat Adderley's "Work Song" and Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue." His lyrics for Miles Davis' classic "All Blues" appeared on his 1963 Columbia recording, Tell It Like It Is!, while 1965's Mr. Oscar Brown, Jr. Goes to Washington contained politically-charged material like "Muffled Drums" and "40 Acres and a Mule."
After relocating to San Francisco in 1969, Brown became more involved in musical theater productions (including Big Time Buck White, which starred boxing legend Muhammad Ali in the title role). Brown spent much of the 1970s as an artist-in-residence teaching musical theater at Washington, D.C.'s Howard University, New York City's Hunter College, and Chicago's Malcolm X College. After a seven-year hiatus from the recording studio, he recorded three albums for Atlantic - 1972's Movin', 1973's Brother Where Are You and 1975's Fresh. In 1980, Brown hosted the acclaimed PBS series From Jump Street: The Story of Black Music, and went on to appear in network sitcoms including Brewster Place and Roc. In 2001, he was the subject of a documentary, Music Is My Life, Politics My Mistress. Brown died from complications from a blood infection on May 29, 2005. (Milkowski)