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Oscar Brown Jr.: 1926-2005
Oscar Brown Jr.

Born: October 10, 1926 in Chicago, IL
Died: May 29, 2005 in Chicago, IL

Legendary jazz vocalist, poet and social activist

by Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2005 Todd S. Jenkins

Oscar Brown, Jr., who parlayed a brilliant career as a singer, songwriter and poet into a sideline as a civil rights activist, died on May 29, 2005, from complications of the bone disease osteomyelitis. He was 78 years old.

Chicago-born and bred, Brown came into the world on October 10, 1926. He studied music and theater as a child, performing on a radio soap opera while still in his teens. He held various unrewarding jobs, including a black-oriented talk show on WVON, before trying his hand as a professional songwriter. He penned a tune for the Vee-Jays, an early rock-and-roll group, and his “Brown Baby” was recorded by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson in 1960. That heralded the beginning of a career that resulted in over one thousand songs. Brown collaborated with bop drummer Max Roach on the “Freedom Now Suite” (sung by Abbey Lincoln on We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, Candid, 1960) and began earning more attention for his own humorous, distinctive and socially conscious singing.

In 1960 Brown signed on with Columbia Records and produced Sin and Soul, which remains his best-loved work and one of the premier vocal jazz albums of all time. Among its highlights were Nat Adderley’s “Work Song” and Bobby Timmons’ “Dat Dere”, both with lyrics by Brown, and his own “Signifyin’ Monkey” (a nod to African American folklore) and hilarious “But I Was Cool”. In 1962, the year that he recorded In A New Mood and Between Heaven and Hell, Brown was selected as the host for the short-lived television series “Jazz Scene USA”. He continued to record albums until 1974, when he began a twenty-year hiatus from the studio.

During his time away from jazz, Brown continued to compose and wrote over a dozen stage shows, among them the 1969 Broadway musical “Big Time Buck White” (which starred Muhammad Ali in its tiny run) and two productions aimed at urban youth, “Great Nitty Gritty” and “Opportunity, Please Knock”. With those shows and his charity work, Brown helped to turn around the lives of countless gang members and drifting youth in Chicago and elsewhere. His skills as a poet were embraced by younger generations, leading to Brown presenting hard-edged, political yet humorous pieces like “Bullshit” on the Def Comedy Jam administered by rap impresario Russell Simmons.

By 1995 the time had come for Brown to return to jazz, and his comeback was heralded by the brilliant, fresh material on Then and Now (Weasel Disc). He established the Oscar Brown, Jr. HIP (Human Improvement Potential) Legacy Foundation to archive his works and continue his policies of social activism. A documentary film about Brown’s life, “Music is My Life, Politics is My Mistress”, was recently completed.

Oscar Brown, Jr’s survivors include his daughter, singer Maggie Brown, with whom he had frequently performed.

Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.


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