updated 6/9/2005 1:36:10 PM ET 2005-06-09T17:36:10

When it came to enveloping visceral social and political commentary into tuneful, often humorous jazz excursions, singer, songwriter and playwright Oscar Brown, Jr. was peerless.  

Best known for writing timeless pieces, such as “Brown Baby” (once recorded by Mahalia Jackson), “Dat Dare,” and the lyrics to Max Roach’ s epochal, We Resist! Freedom Now Suite, Brown drew upon a wealth of cultural information, ranging from contemporary jazz to blues to African-American folklore, and produced a formidable body work that includes a string of unforgettable albums for Columbia and Atlantic, and a few plays.  Indeed, a rare breed in the history of jazz singers, Brown died from complications of a blood infection, Sunday, May 29 in his hometown of Chicago; he was 78. 

Prominence in the 60's
Brown came into prominence in the beginning of the ’60s, a pivotal point for contemporary American history, when the Civil Rights Movement was getting underway.  In 1960, the same year Roach’s incendiary We Resist! came out, Columbia Records issued Brown’s mesmerizing debut album, Sin & Soul.

At times knee-slapping funny, at other times  tear-jerkingly somber, Sin & Soul contains some of Brown’s most memorable and dramatic works, including his re-workings of Cannonball Adderley’s “Work Song” and Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro-Blue.” The album also boasted Brown’s originals, such as “Watermelon Man,” “Dat Dare” and “Signifyin’ Monkey” – tunes that are now a part of the contemporary jazz songbook.  “Dat Dare,” a song covered by many in the pop and jazz worlds, was dedicated to his son, Oscar Brown III, who died in an automobile accident in 1996. 

He recorded three more delightful albums for Columbia; a stunning live date [Mr. Brown Goes to Washington] for Verve, then moving on to Atlantic, where he recorded some stirring soul-jazz albums in the early-’70s.  Never one to shy away from the thorniest of topics, especially when it came to race relations, Brown, nevertheless, had an engaging, wherewithal delivery that attracted a broad, multiracial demographic.  He was visually compelling on stage as he was on record, a quality that helped him land the MC gig on the "Jazz Scene USA" television series in 1962.

Born Oct. 10, 1926 in Chicago, Brown began crafting his dramatic flair as a teenager by acting on radio dramas. Soon after, he was the host of “Negro Newsfront,” a Chicago radio program.  After serving in the Army for two years, Brown turned his attention toward music, first as a songwriter.

Significant force
Soon after gaining public attention for Sin & Soul, Brown delivered a winning debut performance at New York City’s Village Vanguard in 1961.  In addition to releasing albums and hosting "Jazz Scene USA," he emerged a significant playwright. His 1967 work, “Opportunity, Please Knock,” which featured members of the Blackstone Rangers street gang, is perhaps his most famous.  Other plays include “Kicks & Co.,” “Big Time Buck White,” and “Great Nitty Gritty,” which was revived three years ago.

Brown never became as famous as his contemporaries, like Jon Hendricks or Eddie Jefferson.  Yet he remained a significant force in the worlds of music and theater.  He hosted the popular 1980 PBS 13-week series, From Jumpstreet: The Story of Black Music.

In the early-’90s, Brown was a regular cast member on the ABC drama series, “Brewster Place” and he landed a recurring role on the popular Fox sitcom, “Roc.” Although he took a two-decade hiatus from recording between 1975 and 1994, he made a noteworthy comeback in 1995 with the release of Then and Now (Weasel). 

Brown is survived by his wife, Jean Pace Brown; his son, Napoleon; four daughters, Maggie Brown, Donna Brown Kane, Iantha Casen and Africa Pace Brown; 16 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren.  

© 2013 All rights reserved.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments