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Brown, Marion

Alto saxophonist Marion Brown played on John Coltrane’s Ascension, and he has worked closely with leading figures of the jazz avant-garde, including Sun Ra and Archie Shepp. However, his lyrical - and even tender - tone sets him apart from the more strident voices of his musical generation.

“Some musicians go through some awfully weird stuff just to get people to pay attention,” Brown told Jazz & Pop magazine in 1967. “Well, I’m not about to play the fool. I’m not going to let my hair grow long or wear funny hats. I’m not even particularly interested in having people look at me when I play. I just wish they’d listen. I hope my horn has enough hair and funny hats coming out of it."

Marion Brown was born on September 8, 1931 in the Collier’s Alley section of Atlanta, Georgia, and grew up in the Buttermilk Bottom and Beaver Slide neighborhoods. He was born at his grandparents’ home, and delivered by a nun. His mother, a singer and pianist, was only fifteen when Brown was born.

Growing up, Brown was privy to his mother’s jam sessions at home, which touched on the blues, gospel music, and even free improvisation. These sessions welcomed both secular and religious musicians.

“They all jammed together, and I heard some of everything,” said Brown. “There was a lot of free playing then – it isn’t really all that new.”

One of these musicians, an alto saxophonist named Rufus Tucker encouraged the ten year old boy to play music, and soon he was learning on a C-Melody saxophone. He later transferred these skills to the alto.

Brown heard other music, too, in the Buttemilk Bottom and Beaver Slide neighborhoods: jug bands in the streets, street vendors singing, and a neighbor’s jukebox, left out on their front porch. The jukebox seemed to play blues music “all day and all night,” Brown recalled, and he would stay up late and listen.

When he was 13, he and his mother moved to the Morningside Heights section of Harlem in New York City. There, he often skipped school, and went to museums or the zoo instead. Often during this period, he would go to instrument shops but refrained from entering, preferring to stare at saxophones in the store windows. He was sometimes accompanied by a girlfriend, Bernice, and they would look at the saxophones together.

While in 10th grade, Brown got kicked out of school, and joined the army. He spent the next year and a half with the First Cavalry Division Band, stationed on the island of Hokkaido, in Japan. In the army, he played alto saxophone, baritone saxophone and clarinet.

Following his time in the army, Brown moved back to Atlanta, and based on the strength of his GED score, was able to enroll at Clark College. There, he majored in music education, and studied with jazz flautist and saxophonist Wayman Carver, but eventually became disillusioned with the school's music instruction and left without graduating.

“It was a Negro college, but they were mainly concerned with European forms and methods,” Brown said. “Whatever interest there was in our own music was not officially recognized… Someday there will be jazz majors, and all of the people like me won’t have so much trouble in dealing with the community.”

While at Clark, Brown and a fellow student formed a band to play rock and roll music at college dances. This group was sometimes augmented by the percussionist Babatunde Olatunji, who was studying at the nearby Morehouse College.

Following his time at Clark, Brown married and became interested in the Civil Rights movement, which him to enroll at Howard University in Washington, D.C in 1959. There, he majored in political science, and minored in economics and history, but became dissatisfied with that experience as well, calling his time at Howard “the worst 2˝ years of my life.”

“To begin with, I just didn’t melt in with the social cliques and classes there,” he recalled. “They didn’t like me and I didn’t like them, so I kept to myself. I guess I was too intense for the superficial types who were always trying to outdo each other.”

The saxophonist’s years at Howard were not a complete loss, however. There, Brown took classical guitar lessons with Bill Harris, and played with the trumpeter Charles Tolliver, who was studying to be a pharmacist. He also began to listen to recordings by John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, and read the works of A. B. Spellman and LeRoi Jones, who would later endorse Brown in his writing.

In June, 1962, with his marriage on the rocks and his interest in his studies at Howard wearing thin, Brown moved back to New York City, where he became homeless and did not own a saxophone until 1965. He got through these lean years with the help of some new acquaintances, like Ornette Coleman, whose album Something Else made a major impact on Brown when he heard it on the radio in Atlanta.

“The biggest help in those early days was Ornette,” Brown said. “I met him during his ‘exile’ period, when he was studying the trumpet and was not playing in public. I used to go over to his house to talk to him all the time. He must have grown tired of me hanging around so much, not doing anything. ‘Well, don’t just sit there,’ he finally said. ‘Here, play my horn.’ We ran some parts through, Ornette on trumpet and me on his plastic alto. He told me that I should be playing regularly. That was enough for me!”

Brown also befriended the writer LeRoi Jones around this time, calling him “one of the first minds that I had respect for, and also one of the first people to dig me and my mind.” In 1965, Jones wrote that “Brown’s style, while still formative, can be described as post-Coleman, but he is just beginning to stretch out, though he is, by most standards, already into something startlingly his own.”

Brown spent time with Sun Ra’s group during these years, and began working with the saxophonist Archie Shepp, whom he had met while visiting Jones: Shepp lived downstairs from the writer at the time. Brown spent six months in Shepp’s group in 1965, and recorded for the first time on Shepp’s Fire Music album in February and March of that year. A live version of the lead track from that album, “Hambone,” can be found on a 1995 CD reissue. Later in 1965, through his association with Shepp, Brown recorded for the second time on John Coltrane’s seminal Ascension.

It was also during his tenure with Shepp that Brown finally managed to purchase his own saxophone. Presumably, he had been borrowing Coleman’s plastic alto up until this point.

In November, 1965, Brown debuted as a leader with Marion Brown Quartet. The album, released by ESP, featured Rashied Ali on drums, the bassists Reggie Johnson and Ronnie Boykins, the saxophonist Bennie Maupin, and the trumpeter Alan Shorter. In December, Brown recorded with the Burton Greene Quartet, and followed up his first date as a leader with Why Not in October 1966.

In February 1967, Brown recorded on an unissued session with Coltrane’s last quartet. Following Coltrane’s death in July of that year, Brown left for Europe, where he would remain until 1970. There, Brown collaborated with many of that continent’s leading jazz musicians, like the drummer Han Bennink and the multi-instrumentalist Gunter Hampel. Albums like Porto Novo, Gesprachsfetzen and In Sommerhausen were recorded during this period.

In 1970, Brown returned to the U.S. where, after a brief stay in Atlanta, he settled in New England, and began a career in education. He has taught at Bowdoin College, Amherst College, Brandeis University and Wesleyan University, where he earned an M.A. in Ethnomusicology.

Also in 1970, Brown recorded one of his most celebrated albums, Afternoon of a Georgia Faun, for the ECM label. Georgia Faun featured a number of distinguished players, including pianist Chick Corea, drummer Andrew Cyrille, vocalist Jeanne Lee and the saxophonists Anthony Braxton and Bennie Maupin.

In 1977, while living in Northampton, Massachusetts, Brown launched his own label, Sweet Earth Records. Albums issued on the label included his own Solo Saxophone and Poems for Piano, an album of Brown’s compositions as performed by the pianist Amina Claudine Myers.

Brown recorded Songs of Love and Regret, a duo album with the pianist Mal Waldron, in 1985. A second duo date, Much More!, followed in 1988, and was accompanied by a month-long tour of the U.S. and Canada that year.

Health problems have plagued the saxophonist in recent years, but he has continued to work, and he performed at New York’s Vision Festival in 1998. He lives in Hollywood, Florida.

Select Discography

As a Leader:

Marion Brown Quartet – ESP (1965)

Why Not – ESP (1966)

Juba-Lee – Fontana (1966)

Three For Shepp – Impulse! (1966)

Porto Novo – Freedom (1967)

Gesprachsfetzen – Calig (1968)

In Sommerhausen – Calig (1969)

Afternoon Of A Georgia Faun – ECM (1970)

Geechee Recollections – Impulse! (1973)

Sweet Earth Flying – Impulse! (1974)

Solo Saxophone – Sweet Earth Records (1977)

Soul Eyes – Baystate (1978)

November Cotton Flower – Baystate (1979)

Recollections: Ballads And Blues For Alto Saxophone – Creative Works (1985)

Offering – Venus (1992)

With John Coltrane:

Ascension – Impulse! (1965)

With Archie Shepp:

Fire Music – Impulse! (1965)

Attica Blues – Impulse! (1972)

Attica Blues Big Band: Live At The Palais Des Glaces – Blue Marge (1979)

With Burton Greene:

Burton Greene Quartet – ESP (1965)

As coleader with Mal Waldron:

Songs Of Love And Regret – Free Lance (1985)

Much More! – Free Lance (1988)

Contributor: Brad Farberman