Music | Local

Five Questions For Drummer Mel Brown

OPB | Jan. 29, 2013 7 a.m. | Updated: April 2, 2013 10:03 a.m.

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Portrait of Mel Brown

Portrait of Mel Brown

Diane Russell (www.dianerussell.net)

Known for his sleight-of-hand drumming skills, Portland native Mel Brown has finessed the drumsticks and brushes since he was a teen. Though equally at home with funk, country & western and Easter Seal Marathons, he’s best known as the quintessential jazz drummer. Deborah DeMoss Smith, host of KMHD‘s Tuesday AM edition of The Bridge, took five questions to Brown.

1. You speak the language of jazz fluently; how does jazz speak to you?

When I was very young, what I’d do is listen to certain things. Being around older musicians, they’d play things for me and would say ‘Listen to this, listen to how the drummer plays with Count Basie. Listen to how Sam Woodyard plays with Duke Ellington.’ So I was constantly feeding myself with the music. I used it as therapeutic music when I was doing my homework. My mom would say, ‘How can you listen to that and do your homework?’ And I’d say, ‘How can I do my homework and NOT listen to it?’

2. You’ve played many jazz festivals; is playing a festival any different than a regular gig?
First off, you don’t play as long. Then, secondly, the kind of people that are there. They’re there to really hear the music, for the most part. Everybody’s having fun, but they really come to hear the music. There are venues happening all over town; people pick and choose which venue they want to go to, whereas if you go to your regular club and play, people are there to see you … or there to meet their friends … or some are there by accident.

3. So an audience affects you as a musician?
One of the ways it affects local musicians, or someone like myself, is that you have to play the best you can play, though you should do that every night. [Bassist] Leroy Vinnegar and I used to discuss that we all had the feeling that when you’re playing and your other colleagues are out there, you have to kind of play to them. You’re trying to say, ‘Let me show you what I can do,’ as opposed to saying, ‘Let’s play a groove and we can all smile.’ You play outside of your abilities. But you can make some really bad mistakes. When I was at the Apollo Theater in New York, one of those weeks when everything I was playing just came out beautifully, I looked over in the wings, and there’s Miles Davis staring at me! I thought, ‘Oh man, I wish I could get a gig with Miles.’ I tried to impress him playing things I don’t normally play, then I started screwing up royally, whereas if I’d just kept playing straight and didn’t pay him any attention, maybe I’d have gotten the gig before Al Foster — because Miles left the Apollo and went up the street and hired Al!

4. Let’s say you come upon Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Art Blakey. You can sit down and learn from one of the veterans. Which one would you choose?
All three of them! Those were the people I’d really taken a look at when I was young. At the time for me it was Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones and Art Blakey. I took the strong points from each one of them and I tried to master those things. I wanted to have that fire like Art Blakey, but I wanted to have the precision of Max Roach. Max could play things so fast; you could barely count it with your foot. It was always so clean, so melodic. Philly Joe just had that smoothness about him that I loved. He taught me ear training. Ear training came from he’d go in one room and I’d go in the other room. He’d have me play something and he’d tell me which rudiment I was playing and which hand I’d I started with. Then I got to be so good at it that, when I got back to Portland, I could put on one of Miles Davis’ records with Philly Jones and close my eyes and I could tell you which rudiment he was playing, which hand he started with and which drum he started from.

5. You have a lauded summer jazz camp. Did your early days of wanting to be around older jazz musicians influence its creation?
At the camp, students learn to play with older musicians. When I was in high school, I was too young to be in a jazz club. So, I’d stop my bicycle near a club where they were playing early morning jam sessions. I was throwing newspapers and I’d stand by the door, because it had to open sometimes with people going in and out, and I’d peek in just to see the musicians inside!

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