The Beautiful One
Published: December 29, 2010
Calling something beautiful shouldn’t be faint-praise damning, but during New York’s boundary-expanding free and avant-garde jazz scene of the 1960s, sensuality sometimes took a back seat to extended technique, ecstatic density, and political potency. Alto saxophonist Marion Brown, who died Oct. 18 after many years of illness, dared to be beautiful, but he did so in a way that coexisted with and complemented the decade’s more radical ideas. His lithe touch still makes his music and playing feel refreshingly sublime.
Brown announced his arrival in New York’s frenetic jazz and African-American arts community as a sideman on two of the more kinetic albums recorded in 1965: Archie Shepp’s Fire Music and John Coltrane’s monolithic Ascension. While musicians had been pushing jazz outside bop and bebop since the ’50s, by 1965 artists such as Max Roach, Charles Mingus, and Sun Ra had expanded jazz’s horizons. The ESP-Disk label began documenting NYC’s more abstract players, and 1965 alone witnessed such heady and impassioned statements as Don Cherry’s Complete Communion, Sam Rivers’ Contours, Sun Ra’s The Magic City, and Ornette Coleman’s Chappaqua Suite.
One late 1965 album, however, hits the ears with a disarmingly gentle warmth. Brown’s Quartet (ESP-Disk), his bandleader debut, revealed an artist who could pack his humanity into music as lyrical as it was impressive, as poetic as it was intelligent. “Capricorn Moon,” the 22-minute opening song that occupied the entirety of the LP’s first side, finds Brown’s sunny alto riding a strolling pulse traced by drummer Rashied Ali and bassist Ronnie Boykins. And for the first eight minutes of the song, Brown’s dancing solo takes you on a bucolic carnival ride.
Brown would continue charting his own musical path for the next few decades. Born in 1931 in Atlanta, Brown completed a military stint before heading north, attending college (studying music at Clark College and prelaw at Howard University), and arriving in New York in 1962, where he started hanging out with Amiri Baraka (then Le Roi Jones), Coleman, and Shepp. Brown had many talents and interests—he penned “The Negro in the Fine Arts” for 1966’s The American Negro Reference Book and a memoir of his Georgia youth; earned a doctorate in ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University; taught at Bowdoin, Amherst, and Brandeis; and took up visual art in the ’80s—but music remained his principal voice. A ’70s trio of musical meditations on his roots—Afternoon of a Georgia Faun, Geechee Recollections, and Sweet Earth Flying—are often cited as his best works, but there’s something about his collaborative work (such as with Mal Waldron or Gunther Hampel) and more expansive outings (such as 1976’s Awofofora) that best showcases his range of ideas and expressive range.
Sadly, his recent life was hard. In a 2003 allaboutjazz.com interview, Brown related that he had had brain asurgery, all of his teeth removed, and his left foot amputated. He was living in an assisted-living home in Hollywood, Fla., at the time of his death.
> Email Bret McCabe