If you’ve heard any of The Temptations’ live records, you’ve heard Mel Brown drumming. Actually, if you’ve heard any ‘70s Motown records, you’ve probably heard him — this is a guy who learned the soul drumming style from Stevie Wonder himself and appears on records alongside Marvin Gaye.
If you happen to live in Portland, though, it’s much more likely that you’ve seen Brown playing live jazz. In fact, week after week for around a decade, he’s performed with his B3 Organ Group for a warm audience every Thursday night — once at Jimmy Mak’s (R.I.P.), and now at the downtown Jack London Revue.
That warmth doesn’t come from nowhere, though. One thing you’re guaranteed to see any time Brown plays is a huge, sincere smile across his face.
It’s no secret that history doesn’t always proportionately honor those who have contributed the most to a craft, and Brown was cutting records with big names at a time when sidemen weren’t listed in liner notes at all. But it seems he’s never been motivated by fame, or even recognition.
When asked what drives him to keep playing so relentlessly, even as he ages, his answer has more to do with seeing his audience happy than with anything he feels himself.
“Maybe they’ve had a bad day or a bad week,” he said. “The music will help them just kind of take the pressure off.”
This kind of thinking explains the choices Brown’s made in his musical life. Instead of claiming a higher-profile jazz career in New York City that was presumably his for the taking, he moved back home to Portland in the ‘70s and began rebuilding a jazz scene that had shrunk to near nonexistence. Like all the great artists any city can claim, Brown believed in his hometown. He still does.
It may be fitting, after all, that Brown’s work as a sideman went uncredited, because “sideman” doesn’t begin to describe his playing. It’s rare to hear a musician give everything to every show and every audience — let alone to hear them at home across genres as disparate as funk and bebop. For Brown, though, that’s just a weeknight in Portland.