Throughout the summer the our team met up with MJF 2019 artists at a few of our favorite neighborhood spots. This interview with Mel Brown and Gordon Lee took place at Portland Piano Company, located at 8700 NE Columbia Blvd., on July 5, 2019. Portland Piano Company has supported Montavilla Jazz Festival as a Gold Level Partner since 2014…
Describe the project you’re bringing to the festival.
GL: Well, I’m very happy to be playing with Mel who has played with me in so many situations–thousands of situations–over the years. But this is actually the first time that we will have played my music together in a big band format. Though I believe he’s heard the big band and a couple of times, and Mel has played smaller group versions of some of these songs, because I’ve been working with the Mel Brown Septet for all these years, and before that the sextet, and before that that quintet–we keep multiplying, you know. Mel has played some of these songs, but I change the arrangements, the instrumentation, depending on who is playing the music. It’ll be exciting for me to do this music with Mel.
MB: Yeah, it will be exciting and new for me too because I don’t know what the charts are going to look like.
GL: They’re going to look okay (laughs).
MB: I’m looking forward to seeing the charts because, you know, I’ve been listening to the CD, and I’m reminded that when we used to rehearse, we would get together at Gordon’s house–this is with the quintet, and later with the sextet–we would take the music and pull it completely apart and put it back together again. Within an hour’s time we would come out with ten or twelve well-arranged tunes. The way we rehearsed, we didn’t just sit there and jam. We wanted to know exactly how the music was going to be played. We played it very slowly, and we would work out the quirks, and then play as fast as we were able, and then we would work at the tempo it was intended to be played on the gig. There were no solos in rehearsal so that when we went to work you didn’t know what that part was going to sound like, and that kept everyone’s attention. No one came to the gig and went to sleep.
You know, Gordon writes some difficult stuff but certain times you need a magnifying glass to see it because on his charts he would write so small!
GL: No, no, I use Finale now.
MB: Oh, yeah. Well that’s different. Well, that’s great.
Can you describe what it will be like to work with the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble (PJCE) on this project?
GL: I’m excited to be working with the PJCE because I did a concert just a couple of months ago with them that I feel came off really well, which is great because it’s a jazz composers orchestra. They don’t want just the standard stock arrangements. They want something that’s going to be different. I’ve always thought of my writing style as a little different, and I think Mel would agree. Honestly, I’m so used to people looking at my music the first time reading through it and, seriously, they just go, “what the?” That’s almost always the first reaction and I say: “Let’s play it a few more times and you’ll start to hear it and then you’ll start to get it”. It happens so often that I expect that now.
I write a lot of counterpoint in my music for large ensemble. So that’s a little different than some jazz arrangers where everything happens as an ensemble. I’ll pit the first tenor against the second tenor sometimes which takes some getting used to.
Is there a story behind project?
GL: We’ll play a song that I played a lot with Mel in the septet called Vicious Cycle, and we will do a big band arrangement of that. I wrote that song when I was living in New York and it was a dog-eat-dog, very competitive scene. I was trying to survive working as a musician. “Vicious Cycle” was very appropriate for describing that scene at the same time. I think it’s sort of an upbeat positive song actually, but to me, the meaning behind it is you have to persevere. There’s also a pun there because the cycle of chords is not easy. So it is a vicious cycle of chords as well. We’re very fortunate to have John Gross and Renato Caranto in the band, and I’m going to try to match them up, maybe more than once. So we’ll have some serious tenor battles. Neither one of those guys is a slouch. When they square off there could be some heavy weight punching happening.
Which artists are you excited to hear at MJF 2019?
MB: I’d like to see everybody on the festival because the problem that I have around town here is that I’ve got the steady gigs and I don’t get the chance to get out and see these other groups play. By the time I finish up and pack up the drums, they’re packing up. It will be interesting to see it from beginning to end because some of these groups, I don’t know what they sound like. Oh yeah, it’s going to be good.
GL: I notice here that a few of the people here on this program were students of both Mel and I. Sherry Alves was a student of mine. Dana Reason was a student of mine. Ian Christensen, I knew him when he was this little young tenor player. He was at the Mel Brown Jazz Camp I think for several years.
So, you know Mel Brown and I had a jazz camp at Western Oregon University and I believe Ian was a student at the camp more than a few times. It’s cool when you get to be our age and you start to see your students as professionals. These are talented people, and look, they’re doing something with the music!
Sherry started as a counselor and then she went on to become the camp coordinator, and she also ran the vocal portion of the camp.
MB: I’m trying to put that list together of all our former students at the Mel Brown Jazz Camp because we did that thing together for nineteen years. We got the gig because of Gordon. Gordon got the job teaching down at Western Oregon. And we got the camp started there and all of a sudden the name Mel Brown Jazz Camp got really big. Yeah, and the next thing you know we were competing with Portland State, Mount Hood, Clark and we began to draw in all the best of the young High School talent down to Monmouth. So next thing I know I start getting phone calls: “Hey Mel, if you need an extra trumpet player or an extra tenor player to come teach at your camp give me a call”.
We’re here at Portland Piano Company, they provide the Steinway for our main stage. Tell us about the piano.
GL: You know, I remember really enjoying playing this piano at the festival before and it’s so great that Portland Piano is our piano sponsor. There is a huge difference between playing a piano and playing a keyboard. So I relish the opportunity to play a real piano that responds. There’s a different energy coming out of an acoustic piano and I always prefer that that sound if possible. So I am so thankful to have that opportunity.
Do you have any words of wisdom for young musicians that might be reading this?
MB: That’s a good a question, because I would be speaking from my experience of what I did to get to where I am right now. The kids of today did not grow up the way I grew up. You have kids that are going to school and they learn to play their instrument really well, but they have not had a chance to work six nights a week playing in a band five hours a night. And they may not have the opportunity from that type of experience to learn how to work well with other musicians in a band.
I’ve noticed that people don’t spend as much time practicing time like drummers do. Certain guitar players or saxophone players, they practice scales and everybody in the band might feel the time differently, and the first thing they’re going to do is blame the drummer, you’re dragging, you’re speeding up. So what we used to do with the quintet, and Gordon will tell you this, if someone in the band did something like that I would stop playing and leave him out there on a couple of choruses by himself. That’s when you’ll find out how well you play time by yourself.
So practicing playing time is key, but also knowing that this is a business. Just because you are an excellent musician, that doesn’t mean that if you get a record contract, you’re gonna make a million dollars. You have to deal with managers, the people booking shows, and the whole bit. If it’s something that you really like to do, please pursue the musical life, but you have to have something as a back-up plan. If you can’t make it in the music business, what do you do? So don’t lose the dream but also have other dreams that you can get into.
GL: Well from my perspective I think what’s consistent about creative music is that improvisation is very important. All the great composers going back hundreds of years, they were great improvisers and they got a lot of their ideas for composing their music from improvising. There should be a big focus on rhythm, your rhythm should be perfect or as solid as it can be. You need a complete understanding of melody and a complete understanding of harmony. I try to find what’s consistently present in a great hip-hop artist nowadays, in Miles Davis in the 80s, and in Coltrane in the 60s, in Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk in the 40s. The one thing that all these people have in common is their rhythm is or was great. They all have a great way of playing time and they really understand harmony and melody. So I think it’s important for young people to employ that understanding, use it in whatever style they want, but that it’s really important to understand those basics.
What’s your take on the jazz scene in Portland?
GL: When I first came here in 1977 because I had become friends with Richard Burdell, a trumpet player. I met Richard at Indiana University when I was a student playing jazz. He talked about Portland like it was the promised land. He would say: “There’s so many gigs and great players”. So I came here and I immediately fell into this thing, I started playing with all these really great players. So then by the 80s I had moved to New York and lived there for five years, I came back to Portland because the pace was slower, it was easier, it wasn’t as expensive. I think that it’s the lifestyle that attracts so many great musicians like Leroy Vinegar, Dave Frishberg, or Randy Porter, you know, great musicians that would stand out in any scene anywhere, and yet they live here because there’s something about the lifestyle. They realize maybe they’re not going to be rich and famous, but they’re going to have a good life and they’re going to play good music with good musicians. That’s a very rare thing. I don’t think there’s many other places, well maybe in the world, but certainly in America where that’s true.
MB: You know, I think what has happened is that there are a lot of people here in Portland that really enjoy the music and they like the idea of having places to go to hear the music, but they’re not going to be the first one to make a move. When I first got back here from New York in ’75 they had hardly anything going on around town jazz-wise. So I just went out and rented a place not far from the Crystal Ballroom. I was a big fan of Michael Corleone from The Godfather. I started something on a Sunday from three o’clock until eight o’clock, because here in Portland, in the winter time it rains, and after the football game, and after church, what do you do? You stay inside. But there was no place for guys that wanted to play so I just took my own money and rented a place––I think it’s a tuxedo place now over by I-405. People said: “Hey, Mel Brown came back and he’s the drummer that was with the Temptations, let’s see what’s going on”. So I started a group, a quintet, with a piano player from a group called Pleasure. We had a bass player who was a student at Mount Hood Community College, that was Essiet Essiet, and we had George Lawson playing alto, and I had Thara Memory playing trumpet, and myself.
We charged a dollar a head to come in and after a couple of weeks, I was paying the guys like eighty-five dollars per musician. Someone says: “This guy came back from New York, this black dude, and he’s semi-famous, let’s start something over here like what he’s doing”. So all of a sudden there was a place that was over by the old Candlelight Room and they started having sessions on Sunday: “Let’s compete with them over there”. Okay, cool, I thought, at least there’s another place opening up. That’s when I decided to change it up, I went to a place called the Prima Donna that was right on the corner, an Italian restaurant, and I started to play four nights a week.
Then we had this place that eventually turned into the Jazz Quarry, they started having music. Somebody else started having some music at another place and all of a sudden the competition thing got to be real strong. I said: “Okay, I’m going to Japan with the Supremes. I’ll leave Thara in charge”. And then eventually I came back and things were not running as well as I would have liked, and I jumped back into it again.
At that time I wanted to do something to get away from the Motown thing. I love Art Blakey. So we started the group in ’86 with me and Gordon, Michael York, and Tim Gilson, and Thara. We started playing at this place called The Hobbit and what happened was that the band was so strong, that I wanted the group to do a show kind of like we did in Motown, which meant once we start playing we don’t stop. We used to play for two and a half hours non-stop, but you never knew what was going to come next. We didn’t just play tunes where everybody takes a solo and then we move on to the next song. We would have maybe two soloists and then maybe Tim (on bass) would set up something for the next tune. I did that on purpose because most of the time if you get down to a bass solo people start talking, then you have to get their attention again. My thing was that if you have to go to the bathroom, go now or you might miss something. We had everybody’s attention.
Then all the horn players in town starting trying to compete with what we were doing. At that time everybody was playing in trios in the small clubs. Gradually the horn players started getting together, and they started forming big bands like the Mount Hood Kicks Big Band and other groups. Yeah, and by building the scene we got most of the musicians really working. These guys are saying, “this is great, I’m starting to make some money now, I met a lady who’s got a nine-to-five job, I’ve got some kind of backup, I’ve got a house I can stay in, I’m not staying in an apartment sharing it with four or five other people” like we used to do in New York.
And plus you can go outside and see grass, you don’t have a train running outside your door. And then other musicians are thinking, “Hey, why don’t we move here to Portland?”
In Portland we welcomed musicians from New York and the East Coast because it’s somebody new the jazz community can learn from. They would say: “Hey man, nice to see you come into town, if you need a place to stay you can stay at my place until you get on your feet”. Musicians welcomed each other. There wasn’t a backstabbing type of thing like in some scenes.
That’s what caused the change musically around here. After a certain period of time of a lot of musicians who couldn’t get into the studio in L.A. started moving up here because they have relatives or they look at music scene and they think, “Hey, I kind of like this”. In Portland people like each other, they help each other out, whereas in L.A., it was totally different. In L.A. it was like: “Hey, listen, I’m in the studio if I get you a gig, you owe me. So next time you get a gig, you better call me or I’m going to defriend you”. And all of a sudden they started moving up here.
We didn’t have the social media thing, people just knew where we were playing because of the regularity. That’s what’s missing right now. We just need more venues.
Photography by Kathryn Elsesser.