Four-plus decades in any business is bound to produce a few good stories.
Mel Brown hasn't spent four-plus decades in just any business, though. The 66-year-old Portland native has played drums professionally his entire adult life, and they've taken him from his hometown to cross-country tours with the Motown family to New York City and back to Oregon, where he's among the most vital cogs in the city's jazz scene.
They'll also bring him and his Mel Brown Quartet to Bend this weekend to kick off The Oxford Hotel's new jazz series (see “If you go”).
Along the way, Brown has picked up a few better-than-good stories, like when he was 15 and he sat down at a kit to play a show, only to see a woman emerge from backstage and begin removing her clothes, unexpectedly — to him, at least.
“I just thought I was playing jazz. They looked at me like, ‘C'mon drummer, don't you know what to do?'” Brown said in a telephone interview last week. “And I'm saying, ‘This lady's pulling off her clothes! Somebody call the cops!' And they said, ‘No, dummy, this is a floor show.'”
Brown has seen a lot of things since then. He grew up playing drums in school bands and eventually earned a music scholarship to Portland State University. (He was also a star athlete and turned down athletic scholarships to other schools. “I took a look at some of those (football players) in college and it was like, man, some of those guys from Southern Oregon were pretty big,” he said. “Even though I was very fast, you can't turn the corner all the time.”)
In his early 20s, Brown began playing drums for Martha and the Vandellas, which led to a gig as staff drummer for the Motown Record Corporation, where he recorded and toured with The Temptations, The Supremes and Smokey Robinson. Alas, he has no great stories from life on the road with Motown. He spent much of his time on tour studying for correspondence marketing and economics courses at the University of California at Berkeley, where he was a grad student.
Later, he worked with big names like Diana Ross and Pat Boone before returning to Portland to help build a jazz scene there. In 2002, he received Oregon's Governor's Arts Award for his contributions to the state's cultural life.
That's a pretty strong resumé for a guy who can be seen anchoring bands three nights per week at the popular Jimmy Mak's jazz club in Portland's Pearl District. His septet plays Tuesday nights, his organ group plays Thursdays, and the Mel Brown Quartet — featuring Dan Balmer on guitar, Tony Pacini on piano and Ed Bennett on bass — holds down Wednesday nights.
The MBQ came together years ago to play tight, hard-swinging bop in a style somewhat similar to that of one of Brown's heros, Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers. The group has been described as a quartet of bandleaders, though Pacini is the official music director, leading the MBQ through its vast repertoire of originals and standards “with a different twist,” Brown said.
“(The band) is kind of like my background — the way I was raised, the music I grew up on,” Brown said. “We play straight ahead, and it feels really good. Everybody plays and we listen to each other a lot.
“Plus everybody likes each other,” he continued. “In most bands you get something good going and all of a sudden there's an internal fight, and that's because you're around each other too much. I see some of these guys once a week, so we don't have time to get mad. Hell, we're just happy to be playing.”
Happy to be playing. It's an attitude that has come to define Brown's life in Portland. He was given the nickname “The Godfather” because he started so many bands, jams and regular nights back in the day “to get more jazz musicians working,” he said.
“When I came back from New York in the '70s, all we had was country and western,” Brown said. “I started to go back to New York and my mom said, ‘Don't run from a problem. You solve the problem.' And so by having a lot of different bands, it keeps everyone on their toes.”
And at 66, Mel Brown seems more agile than players half his age. After four decades keeping time, he still has the ability and opportunity to do what he loves, and he recognizes what a blessing that is.
“I've got lots of energy. I'm doing exactly what I want to do, so life is good,” he said. “When I'm on vacation and I don't have a drum set, after about three or four days I'm chomping at the bit, like just give me some sticks, man. Let me sit down and play some music. I've got to.”
Central Oregon's jazz fans have plenty of reasons to be excited right now. Not only is The Oxford Hotel kicking off its new series this weekend, but there are a couple other opportunities to hear the cool sounds of hot jazz.
Just Joe's welcomes the Rose City quartet
Joe Rohrbacher at Just Joe's Music has been putting on quality jazz shows for years now, first in his music instrument shop in south Bend, and now at Greenwood Playhouse (148 N.W. Greenwood Ave., Bend).
He's up to what he calls “volume” 28 in the series. Congrats, Joe!
This month's show will happen at 7 p.m. Saturday and will feature the Rose City Jazz Quartet, a foursome of talented players who've played the series before. The RCJQ includes Phil Baker on bass, David Goldblatt on piano, David Evans on tenor saxophone, and the legendary Ron Steen on drums. “I guarantee it to be a swingin' affair,” Rohrbacher said.
The performance will double as a fundraiser for the Summit High School band's upcoming trip to Carnegie Hall in New York City. Twenty percent of all ticket sales will go to help with the band's travel expenses.
Tickets cost $25 each, and you can request one by visiting www.justjoesmusic.com/jazzatjoes/events.htm.
Cascade music school looks to revive Be Bop feel
Gather 'round, children. It's story time with Old Man Salmon: Years ago, there was a little java shop on Division Street. It was called Be Bop Coffee House, and it hosted regular jazz shows by local and out-of-town artists. It was also a terrific place for area high school kids to hone their chops.
Alas, it didn't make enough money to stay afloat, and despite the efforts of Be Bop's hardcore fans, it closed for good in 2007.
Now, the Cascade School of Music hopes to re-create Be Bop's popular Sunday-morning series in its new home at 200 N.W. Pacific Park Lane in Bend. They're calling it The Re-Bop Jazz Cafe, and the first installment coincides with CSM's grand opening event Sunday.
The lineup includes The Groove Merchants and some of their friends, plus coffee and “yummy pastries and treats” offered by a local bakery. (Now I've got your attention, huh?)
The show will run from 10 a.m. to noon in the school's new office, which was formerly occupied by the Bend Parks and Recreation District. CSM Executive Director Dillon Schneider said the new space has been revamped, with plenty of natural light and wonderful acoustics.
“We do feel like we have the right space to create a very comfortable jazz cafe. We hope folks will want to join us long term for their Sunday morning coffee and to listen to some great jazz,” he said. “For now, we'd love for them to come out and see our new home at our (grand opening).”
The Re-Bop Jazz Cafe is free, but donations at the door are appreciated. Call 541-382-6866 for more info.
— Ben Salmon