Donald Brown

Donald Ray Brown was born in Desoto on March 28, 1954. Brown moved with his family to Memphis, Tennessee at the age of 2. Donald was raised in a musical family that instilled a love for music in him. Early stints on the tuba, baritone trumpet and drums were his first steps into music. He began playing the trumpet in the ninth grade. His talent was evident and he won several awards. Brown’s musical mentors were Lloyd Anderson (a gospel pianist) and Waddia Anderson (a gifted singer/pianist). After graduating high school, Donald applied for a scholarship to Memphis State University (now University of Memphis). However, he soon switched to playing the piano. James Williams, his classmate and friend, convinced him to study jazz while he was in college. Brown was a member the Memphis Three, an outstanding trio of pianists who passed through Memphis State in the 1970s, and gained a lot of performance experience. Donald worked in the studio for Jim Stewart, owner of Stax Records, and Willie Mitchell, owner of Hi Records. Brown spent his college years writing for the university jazz band, sharpening his composing and arrangement skills. After completing his studies in 1975 Donald began performing locally. In the summer 1981, he replaced Williams as drummer in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. At the time, the band included Wynton Marsalis (trumpeter), Branford Marsalis (saxophonist), Billy Pierce (tenor saxophonist) and Charles Fambrough (bassist). Brown toured with Blakey both nationally and internationally. He recorded Keystone 3 in January 1982 with Blakey at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner club. The album reached number 31 on Billboard Magazine’s Top Jazz Album Chart. You can hear the talent of the group best in the closing track, “A La Mode”. Brown is responsible for providing a solid harmonic underpinning to the album by comping between the horns. This results in a stronger and more cohesive sound. Brown’s solo is a masterful blend of melodic sophistication and a tight, poetic voice that unites all the instruments. Brown also appeared on the video Jazz at the Smithsonian Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers that year. This taped concert was taped at the Baird Auditorium at the Museum of Natural History Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. Donald then left the Blakey group after a year due to rheumatoid. He returned to Memphis to continue his studio-oriented work. Brown was offered a Berklee School of Music teaching position in 1983. He held that position until 1985. Donald was a Berklee teacher, where he taught many musicians, including Cyrus Chestnut, Danilo Peez, and Sam Newsome, a soprano-saxophonist. He was also an active composer while he taught full-time. Wynton Marsalis recorded Brown’s “Insane Asylum”, which was released on the album J Mood in 1986. This earned Marsalis a Grammy Award nomination for the “Best Jazz Instrumental Performance by Soloist” category. Brown was also reunited with Blakey that year on the album, along with alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett and trumpeter Wallace Roney. Also, Jean Toussaint, tenor Saxophonist Jean Toussaint and Peter Washington were featured on the record. Donald’s debut album, Early Bird, was released the following year. He enlisted the assistance of bassist Bob Hurst and trumpeter Bill Mobley as well as vibraphonist Steve Nelson, vibraphonist Steve Nelson, and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts to help him with the recording. Brown began teaching jazz history and led student ensembles at the University of Tennessee in 1988. Brown also did sideman work on the Blue Note album I Remember, which was released in 1988. On Steve Nelson’s album Live Session, Volume, in July 1989, Brown was joined by Bobby Watson, Curtis Lundy, and Victor Lewis as alto saxophonist, Bobby Watson, and drummer Victor Lewis. 1. Recorded at Acireale Jazz Festival, it features many originals, including “New Beginning”. A second album, Live Session Vol., was also released that year. 2. Particularly notable is the song “Quartet” because Brown uses lush ornamentations to evoke the nostalgic vibrato of Nelson’s vibraphone. Donald builds his vocals slowly throughout the song, as if he is slowly opening up harmony to new and exciting territory. This concept is further enhanced by Lundy who selects patterns and notes that support Brown’s ideas. Brown recorded prolifically during this period as a sideman. Donald Byrd recorded with Brown on his 1989 album Getting Down To Business. Brown also contributed the “Theme for Malcolm” song to that album. Brown continued to be involved in a variety of projects, including the production and arrangement of Kenny Garrett’s African Exchange Student. In 1990, Donald also appeared on Wallace Roney’s album Obsession and his own album People Music. Brown was featured on Russell Malone’s first album Russell Malone in August 1991. Donald recorded Send One Your Love in June 1992 with Eric Hayes and Charnett Moffett. He also played bass on the album, along with Eric Walker, Louis Hayes, Tom Williams (flugelhorn player), and Steve Wilson (saxophonist). He performed on Billy Pierce’s 1992 album Epistrophy, which was released by Evidence. Brown joined the Contemporary Piano Ensemble in 1993 with pianists Geoff Keezer, Mulgrew Miller and James Williams. The ensemble was formed after one performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival 1991. It consists of four pianists with one standing out and one performing simultaneously with a rhythm section. In the same year, the group recorded Key Players with Christian McBride as bassist and Tony Reedus as drummer. In 1995, Brown released Piano Short Stories, which was his first solo piano album. The album was recorded in Riom, France. It features original music as well as the classics “Take the A Train” (by composer Billy Strayhorn) and “Black Narcissus”, by Joe Henderson, tenor-saxophonist. Donald’s rendition of “On Green Dolphin Street” by Joe Henderson is a shining example of his talents. The pianist treats the melody with insight and clarity, which is a testimony to Brown’s solo abilities. Donald masterfully navigates the melody, adding subtle ornamentations to it and nuances. His left hand controls the mood of the song. It can be the bossa-nova feel or sections that transition to a swing feeling. The result is both a tribute and a reimagining of a jazz classic. Brown and Marion McPartland performed at Merkin Concert Hall, New York City, on Monday, January 13, 1997. Donald was featured on Bill Mobley’s 1998 album, Live at Small’s Vol. 1. These albums are a collection of live concerts recorded in New York City’s club in 1996. The album was released in 2001 by Brown, who showcased a contemporary sound that included funk music. In 2002, Donald released Wurd on Skreet, continuing his prolific recording schedule. This album included contributions by Bill Mobley and Sam Newsome, saxophonist Manny Boyd and drummer Billy Drummond. Essiet Essiet was also a bassist, while Daniel Sadownick was percussionist. Brown’s first album for Blue Geodesics was Autumn in New York the following year. The Classic Introvert was Donald’s 2004 album as a leader. It featured 12 originals, including “Suite Africa”, and “Phineas.” The Knoxville Jazz Orchestra released Blues Man From Memphis on June 27, 2007. This album features arrangements of eight Brown compositions. Brown has been a dedicated jazz educator throughout his musical career. Donald is an adjunct professor at the University of Tennessee. He has also been invited to teach and lecture at several universities, including the Juilliard School of Music (University of the Pacific) and the Brubeck School of Jazz Colony (University of the Pacific). Brown lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, and is currently an associate professor at The University of Tennessee. He teaches jazz history, piano, improvisation, and jazz history. Brown is an active performer and tour leader. from

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