Clifford Brown Jr., a Bay Area radio personality on jazz station KCSM-FM 91.1 and son of the legendary trumpeter, is teaching Survey of Jazz on campus for the first time this fall. The master jazz historian was raised in the company of many musical heroes and innovators. He comes to SF State after teaching at several area colleges. “Mr. Brown’s status, expertise, reputation and entrepreneurship in the field of jazz is a boon to SF State,” says Professor Dee Spencer, chair of the School of Music and Dance.
Brown is also the owner of Brown Radio and Audio Solutions. He has received numerous awards including the Ampex Award of Excellence as the top jazz programmer in the U.S. and the Golden Mic for being the Bay Area’s top radio personality.
How’s your Survey of Jazz class going? How are you liking it?
I’m loving it. I’m very passionate about jazz. Not just as a music, but as an art and as a contributor to our society, so getting to talk to people about this music, taking a look at the history of it, how it’s affected society, how it’s affected me personally — it’s just fun.
Are you still doing your radio show?
I do a syndicated jazz radio program. I have a small company that provides outsource services for radio stations, and we make a ton of radio commercials every week … for radio stations all over the country. Those are the things I primarily do, and then I do a little bit of nonprofit work. I have the Clifford Brown Jazz Foundation, and I’m on the board of directors of the California Jazz Conservatory. So I keep a lot of balls in the air.
What does the class cover? How far back does it go?
We started with percussive music from Africa, to the trip over with slave ships. We went through the sugarcane triangle and the influence of that music on the island of Cuba and how that came over to the United States. We picked up on jazz in the late ’20s, got real serious through to the ’60s and (continued) all the way to today. Obviously, you can’t cover an entire history of an art form in a one-semester class, but we hit some of the highlights.
Are there plans to do more than just the one-semester class?
Oh yeah, hopefully so. I really enjoy it so we’ll see how we can work it out. Scheduling is the only issue, but I really enjoy it a lot. It’s not only fun for me, but it’s been educational for me.
Most of the times that I lecture — I lecture a lot (outside of SF State as well) — I’m talking to people who are jazz fanatics, historians, people who know far more than I do. What I add to it is that my dad was a jazz musician, so I grew up around some of the greatest jazz musicians that the world has ever known. Because of that, I have a unique perspective and cool stories and things like that. This is different because I’m talking to an audience of students who, some are Music majors, a few are jazz lovers, but most of them really know nothing about the music, the art form.
Who are a few of your favorite musicians?
If I had to narrow it down, my favorite musician in all of history, period, is John Coltrane. I love particularly his lyrical stuff ....
I like trumpet players. My dad was a trumpet player; obviously I like him, Clifford Brown. There are a lot of things that Miles did that I dig, but probably my two favorite trumpet players after my father end up being Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan. And there are a lot more contemporary musicians that I like a lot, too.
You mentioned the Clifford Brown Jazz Foundation. Tell me a bit about that.
My son, Clifford Brown III, is the president now. It was founded by my mother. The goal is to help educate students about the music that we call jazz.
We generally start with the younger people, sometimes as young as 5 or 6 years old. We have a program that’s called “music and you,” and we introduce them to different instruments and introduce them to jazz so that they grow up understanding what jazz is. For kids who are a little bit older, we have an instrument loan program .... We give music lessons in the schools.
The whole idea being just to help music in general, and jazz in particular, be a part of people’s lives. We have some people who have come through our program who end up being very good musicians, but a bigger part than making musicians is breeding people who appreciate the music. Because the greatest musicians in the world still need an audience.
What do you think of the future of jazz? Where’s it going?
Well, as far as the commercialization of jazz, I really don’t know. I think jazz as an art form will continue, but the only question is whether it’s profitable enough that record labels continue to support it, whether club owners and venues continue to support it.
There are a lot of people who still love jazz, both young and old people. As it’s done through the years, though, jazz is changing. People who are “jazz purists,” they’re a little slow to accept change, and sometimes they never accept the change. They say, “Well that’s not jazz because this is jazz, what I’ve listened to for years and years.” But the truth is jazz has always been evolving — it’s always been a living music that has changed …. I think jazz is growing and jazz will be fine, but it’s the whole record industry that’s changing now.
Why would you say that jazz history is important?
I think first and foremost if you’re looking at the history of any people, and in this case we’re looking at the history of the people of America …. You can’t learn about any people without learning about their art and culture.
In my opinion, as the only indigenous American art form, jazz has to be part of that study. Also, as you look at the history of jazz, it very often mirrors a lot of things that were going on in our society. From what was happening during prohibition, the fight for civil rights and human rights, to economic declines and increases.
Any thoughts for budding musicians, especially jazz musicians?
For any musician, the first thing is to be true to your art and be true to your craft. Then you want to practice as much as you can so that you can become the best musician that you’re capable of. I think those are the two biggest things.
Some people look more toward the commercial side initially, but, and this probably goes for all walks of life, all aspects of life: If you first perfect your craft and do what you’re passionate about, then the other stuff can follow.