Jazz Philadelphia's Hometown Heroes: Spotlight on Bassist Tyrone Brown
Bassist and composer Tyrone Brown has been an all-around musical maestro in town for a long time. Leafing through the jazz listings of the last four decades in Philadelphia, it’s easy to see that Brown has played everywhere with almost everybody in the city.
One night, he’d be with pianist Bob Cohen and singer Donna Jean at the Borgia Café. Another night, Brown would be alongside trombonist Slide Hampton, drummer Philly Joe Jones, pianist Eddie Green, and Johnny Coles at Barber’s Hall at Broad and Oxford. There’s an ad for the Painted Bride where Brown would be holding down the root with pianist Sumi Tonooka, percussionist Akira Tana, and singer Michelle Beckham. And then there’s the bassist at the Philly Mellon Festival with drummer and bebop pioneer Max Roach’s Double Quartet with saxophonist Odean Pope, trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, and the Uptown String Quartet. You can hear this instrumental configuration on the bebop classic “Confirmation,” and if you look closely, you’ll see violinist Diane Monroe in the mix!
Even with Brown’s ubiquitous presence in Philly clubs and venues, it wasn’t a given that he’d end up as a professional musician. His brother-in-law, Rashid Ali, had a huge record collection that included Charles Mingus’ album The Clown.
“It inspired me. I had a solid career as a furniture upholster and had no interest in becoming a professional musician, but I knew I had to have a bass in my life at least as a hobby so I purchased one.”
And within six months, Brown said goodbye to textiles and hello to life as a full-time musician.
“I got a call from a band leader to audition for his band. It was magic and I never returned to upholstering again. I was driven and compelled to live up to the great history of Philadelphia bassists.”
Since that time, Tyrone Brown has been ever present—but not just in Philly. He toured and recorded with Max Roach for 19 years all over the world, creating some astounding music. In fact, Brown has recorded 130 albums, including two Gold records (Live at the Bijou and Reed Seed) with Grover Washington, Jr. as part of his legendary band Locksmith. Brown holds forth on two albums with Philly singer Rachelle Ferrell, four with guitarist Pat Martino, and scads of other recordings with Philly notables.
Harpist Gloria Galante, who co-produced an album with Brown called Kusangala, was quoted in a 1994 Philadelphia Inquirer interview that summed up this bassist’s charm in what could be a cutthroat music biz.
“I call him the silent angel to so many careers in music…you just don’t get to meet genuine people like him every day,” Galante said.
But there is no doubt that Tyrone Brown always had his eye on his own experimentations as a leader and composer. And it seems to have all started when he was booked for a solo bass concert at the Moers Jazz Festival in Germany in 1996. He so entranced the thousands of people there that he was immediately offered a record contract by the festival director, Burkhard Hennen. Of course, Hennen felt Americans weren’t sophisticated enough to dig an entire album of just bass, so he asked Brown if he had any other ideas. He did, and The Tyrone Brown String Septet – Emerald Valley, was born. His work with strings would extend to other recordings, stretching the boundaries of presentation.
Most of these would include a collaboration with master violinist John Blake Jr. One recording received special acclaim: A Sky With More Stars: A Suite for Frederick Douglass. Brown’s album was an 11-part suite set to 13 speeches by the great abolitionist. Philadelphia Inquirer jazz critic Karl Stark wrote in 2010, “Brown and Blake, both lions of the Philly jazz scene, compose music that wraps around the words, or plays between the speeches, all in service to a quaint 19th century vibe.”
Growing up in North Philadelphia, the heart of black culture and music in the 1940s through the early 1960s, Brown had a very fateful opportunity that would change his life when he was hired in 1970 to teach underprivileged children in the Model Cities Cultural Arts Program back in his old neighborhood. It was there that Brown would collaborate with pianist Eddie Green and saxophonist Odean Pope. That partnership would result in the musicians recording as part of the ground-breaking funk-fusion band Catalyst that would later be re-issued in 1999 as a boxed set titled The Funkiest Band You Never Heard.
The city had an enormous impact on Tyrone Brown, and it’s clear the local jazz audience has shaped his aesthetic.
“Philadelphia fans are also known to be extremely supportive of local musicians, as they regard us as being their own! That also served as a motivating factor to keep my musical standards high, as they are also known to let you know when you’re not living up to the Philly tradition of staying progressive!” Yes, Tyrone Brown has won a plethora of awards, and in addition to a fellowship from The Pew Center of Arts & Culture, he has also received recognition from the National Endowment for the Arts, Pennsylvania Performing Arts, The Independence Foundation, as well as composition and recording commissions from the University of Rochester. Brown was twice voted ‘Best Acoustic Jazz Bassist’ by Philadelphia Magazine, but it wasn’t because of all the institutional acclaim. His loyal fans would probably tell you it was the Friday nights at Slim Cooper’s on Stenton Avenue with pianist Eddie Green and drummer Jim Miller when that powerhouse trio would slam into Duke Pearson’s “Last Time I Saw Jeannine.” And the room would go wild.