Drummer and saxophonist Chris Brown says jazz musicians not only share the love of jazz with one another, but also something else: an intense preoccupation with history and learning. Recently I spoke with the ever-in-motion native Portlander.
Was there something that surprised you when you became a professional jazz musician?
I love that question. The answer is that somehow there’s this pot of gold or all these riches with playing this music. You go to play New York, you say “OK, I just got a gig playing with so-and-so; my career should be catapulting soon.” That’s not the case. Oftentimes it’s just that one gig. That’s it. So the idea of what the lifestyle of a musician really entails, that’s always changing. Nowadays they have to concern themselves with so much more, in large part due to social media, and being able to use social media as a means to promote yourself.
Have you ever found yourself in a place where you think that the people get jazz and that it might be a nice place to live?
Yes, New York City. Portland is one. There’s a devoted following here. Certain small towns … an untapped market … are usually places that don’t have that many options for other things. I remember I did a gig in Yellowknife, Canada, and maybe 3,000 people came out. How often do you have 3,000 people show up for a jazz gig? The place was slammed packed! It got me thinking that there’s more to this.
You come upon four drummers: Shelly Manne, Philly Jo Jones, Max Roach, Joe Morello; which one would you choose to talk to?
Philly Joe Jones, not only because of the way he plays, but more importantly the company you get with him. My access to him would sort of give me access conceptually to all the people he surrounded himself with: John Coltrane, Miles Davis and so forth. I’d like to hear as many stories as possible about his connections to those people, that whole scene. People say cliques are bad, but you still have cliques anyway. We always are being clique-y in some way. I’d like to know about that clique of musicians.
What ear-catcher tune would you play for someone who never really listened to jazz?
I Thought About You. That’s actually an incredibly relevant question because that’s what we musicians think about literally every time we sit down to play: who’s sitting in front of us. We’re trying to reel them in, so we’re trying to read the room to get an idea where the people are and try to meet them half way. Most of our audience is the kind of people on the fence, especially in restaurant gigs. Because not everyone is there because they knew you were going to be there, but they’re there to eat. So I find myself hooking them in with songs like that; however, it’s not a song that hooks them in, but how the musicians deal with that song.
Are you a different musician in 2014 than you were when you first expressed music?
Absolutely. I’m different today than I was last month. I’m constantly getting better, because I have no choice. There’s no job security in what I do. It’s literally a life-or-death situation, so I have to be the best that I can. I learn something new every day that I sit down and practice, or every time I have a conversation with someone who’s better than me at something.