There are many avenues one can take as a jazz artist. Dr. Leonard Brown is one who has bridged the music with the Black American culture from whence it came. As a saxophonist, Brown has performed widely with many well-known figures. As a scholar, he has written prolifically about jazz and the Black community. In many ways, Brown has achieved an ultimate position in jazz, as a figure who experienced the life of a jazz musician but found a way to give a more explicit message through his scholarship. Brown’s music enhances his writings, and vice versa.
Brown, associate professor of music and African-American Studies at Northeastern University, comes to D.C. this weekend for a book signing and consecutive gigs at Bohemian Caverns. A luminary figure in jazz, he is an author and the co-founder and producer of the John Coltrane Memorial Concert in Boston, the longest-running Coltrane tribute concert in the nation. Brown’s new book is titled John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom, Spirituality, and the Music.
Brown has a searing attack on both soprano and tenor saxophones, but also a meditative patience with the notes he engages. Bridging avant-garde impulses and classic hard-bop, he treats rhythm and tempo loosely, often stretching his phrases and emphasizing their most salient moments with a light growl or subtle repetition.
I had the pleasure of engineering a radio interview between Brown and D.C.’s own luminary jazzologist, Tom Porter. In the talk, Brown went into depth about his work on the book – a collection, which he edited and contributed to, of scholarly articles and interviews. Essentially, the book aims to “look at and examine John Coltrane within the context of African-American culture. Not as a jazz musician, but as a Black American who became an incredible musician,” Brown said. “In order to understand Coltrane, you have to look at him as a Black person growing up in the United States in the time he grew up.”
The book includes thoughts and recollections from many jazz scholars and musicians – luminaries such as Billy Taylor, Anthony Brown, Salim Washington, Yusef Lateef and George Russell. Sound, music, spirituality and freedom are the reflecting points from which the book is written. Coltrane, of course, made significant contributions to each, and they are also important facets of the Black American experience.
Brown will surely be pleased to present both his music and his scholarship at Bohemian Caverns, which is owned by his son, Omrao Brown. The Caverns were recently dubbed D.C.’s best jazz club by Michael J. West of the Washington City Paper (although those within the local jazz community have known this to be true for some time). Brown will perform on Friday and Saturday nights with his group, Joyful Noise, at the same venue where Coltrane himself performed many times in the 1950s and ’60s. Joyful Noise includes pianist Bob Butta, bassist James King and drummer Nasar Abadey. On Saturday, Brown will also be presenting and signing his book at a free, mid-afternoon event.
Leonard Brown and Joyful Noise perform at Bohemian Caverns on Friday and Saturday, at 8:30 and 10:30 each night. Brown will hold a discussion and book signing for his new volume John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom, Spirituality, and the Music at 2:30 on Saturday, also at Bohemian Caverns.