In the wake of Ornette Coleman and the post-“Giant Steps” developments pioneered by John Coltrane, many listeners to free jazz heard anger and unrest. Through the tumult, though he was in the heat and hurly-burly of the movement, Marion Brown (1931-2010) managed lyricism, logic and quiet beauty. He was an alto saxophonist who never attracted the recognition accorded peers like Coleman, Coltrane, Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor. Nonetheless, the impression he made lasted, and now the leader of the state where he spent much of his life has given Brown official recognition. Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts is the son of another important avant garde saxophonist who was Brown’s contemporary. On New England Public Radio’s Jazz Music Blog, Tom Reney posted an extensive account of what led to the governor’s decision and of Brown’s life and career, some of it based on Reney’s friendship with the musician. Here is an excerpt.
Marion moved to New York during a period of intense foment in the jazz world and there began his long association with the avant-garde. Ornette Coleman loaned him an alto saxophone, and in 1965 he made his recording debut with Archie Shepp on Fire Music. That same year he appeared on John Coltrane’s Ascension, a recording so emblematic of the sonic force of free jazz that Marion said, “You could use that record to heat up an apartment on a cold winter day.” He acted in Leroi Jones’s (Amiri Baraka) play “The Dutchman,” and of his time with the autocratic Sun Ra, he said, “You played your instrument, and he played you.”
Tom Reney tells of Brown’s heroes and of the dedication that drove him to seek an advanced degree.
But while he served in adjunct or artist-in-residence capacities at Bowdoin and Amherst and Brandeis, a tenured gig proved elusive. Brown was a man for whom one naturally wished a more substantial measure of income and security.
The piece ends with the recording of a touching 1992 performance. To read the whole thing and hear Marion Brown, click on this link.