Death attributed to complications from blood infection.
Oscar Brown Jr., singer, composer, lyricist, playwright and black culture activist, died May 29 in Chicago from complications from a blood infection in the lower spine. He was 78.
Brown burst out of Chicago and onto the national music scene in 1960 as a vocalist with a jazz-tinged, theatrical approach, presented in a supple, finger-popping style. He quickly became one of the first artists of the civil rights era to open an unflinching window to the joy and pain of the black experience in America.
To younger music fans, he is best remembered as the hip, urbane narrator of the well-received PBS program, “From Jump Street: The Story of Black Music” in the early ’80s. Twenty years before, he also hosted Steve Allen's short-lived TV series, “Jazz Scene U.S.A..”
Brown made a series of well-received albums for Columbia Records in the early ’60s, highlighted by his vocal versions of contemporary soul jazz and modal jazz favorites, including Bobby Timmons’ “Dat Dere,” Nat Adderley’s “Work Song,” Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro-Blue” and Miles Davis’ “All Blues.” In each case, he provided memorable lyrics for the previously instrumental classics.
“He had a prodigious talent,” says Joel Dorn, who produced “Sin and Soul—And Then Some” (Sony/Legacy), an expanded reissue of Brown’s 1960 landmark album. “He wasn’t just a guy who put hip lyrics to jazz tunes. He also wrote his own songs, like the beautiful lullaby, ‘Brown Baby.’ Or he’d take a Gwendolyn Brooks poem, ‘Elegy to a Plain Black Boy,’ and put his music to it. So he could do it all.”
None of Brown’s albums made it to the top of the charts, but his singles became favorites of the jazz cognoscenti and staples on jazz club jukeboxes.
His charming, non-threatening style onstage, which allowed him to work before black and white audiences, fell out of favor when a new generation of music reflecting militant black pride emerged by the mid-’60s.
Brown also wrote and produced a number of plays for the stage, including “Joy” “Summer in the City,” “Opportunity Please Knock” and a musical version of the comedy, “Big Time Buck White,” featuring Muhammad Ali in the lead role. None clicked.
While his later attempts in the ’70s to reinvent himself as a funk artist fizzled, Brown’s contributions place him in the line of African-American commentators/artists that runs from Langston Hughes to Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye to today’s socially conscious hip-hoppers.
Brown also worked with young performers. In 1968, he hosted a Gary, Ind., talent show that led to his discovery of the Jackson Five. In the ’70s, Brown was an artist-in-residence at several colleges and starred in a Chicago-market production for CBS-affiliated WBBM-TV, “Oscar Brown is Back in Town,” which gained him two local Emmys.
At the time of his death, he was also VP emeritus, poet in residence, and director of spoken word and rap music for NETunes.