Monday, May 30, 2005

Oscar Brown, Jr.

If it hadn't been for the great Oscar Brown, Jr., who died day before yesterday in Chicago at age 78, I would never have had the chance to sing with Charles Mingus. Let me explain.

(Flashback accompanied by music from Mingus' "Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.")

It's a quarter-century-or-so ago---maybe more---and my friend Jo Hart, who's had a long, checkered and complicated past with Mingus, has invited my good friend and constant traveling companion of (now) the last 35 years, David Ehrenstein, and I to spend an evening with herself, Mingus, and a few others at New York's (another now) legendary jazz club, the Five Spot.

My longterm memory remains killer (just can't remember what I had for breakfast) for I can still recall that the band that night was Jackie McLean's with a guest appearance by Japanese trumpet player, Terumasa Hino, who today is a household name in Japan. The Miles Davis of. . . I suppose. I don't know if he was so famous back then, though. But I wouldn't be me if I didn't digress, and so I will "Cut to the verb!," as my friends are sometimes wont to scream at discursive little me. And so, back to the flashback:

At one point, Mingus says to no one in particular (maybe McLean has just played the song):

"Someone should write lyrics to Bobby Timmons' "Dat Dere.'"

And I have the brassbound temerity to say (as if any further proof were needed that great minds truly do think alike):

"Oscar Brown, Jr. already has."

And with very little in the way of prompting from Mingus I then proceed to sing the lyrics, with him joining me midway, humming along. "Hey daddy, what dat dere and what dat over dere and daddy, etc."

Suddenly I'm reminding myself of Gloria ("Well, it was the very semi-finals of the ping pong tournament. And the door was locked. Well, don't you see? The very semi-finals!") Upson in Auntie Mame. i.e., "I mean there I was singing 'Dat Dere' with Charles Mingus. At the Five Spot! Can you imagine?!"

Not too long ago I even had a brush with Oscar Brown Jr. greatness at the California Afro-American Museum where I was curating a show about the history of blacks in Hollywood. I was sitting at my desk, when the door opened and one of my co-workers walked in accompanied by a pleasant looking black man somewhere in his sixties.

"I think here's someone you'd like to meet," my associate said. I recognized the "someone" at once as none other other than:

"Oscar Brown, Jr. It's an honor!"

I stood up, we shook hands, and Brown seemed genuinely stunned that I actually knew who he was. Or perhaps he was just surprised at seeing a white face in what he probably perceived as an otherwise all-black operation.

We chatted for a while, and he couldn't have been nicer. No points for that in my book. But for all the wonderful music he wrote. . . lots and lots of points. The twilight of the gods, I tell you. The twilight of the gods. Or as the Incomparable Hildegarde was overheard saying not long ago to a friend while standing in line at the Planetarium Station post office on New York's Upper West Side: "Talent is a thing of the past."
Or as I was saying to David only this morning, "How can I be expected to take the high road when it's not just shut down for repairs, but permanently closed." Courage!

I wonder? Is this the only "hit" you'll get on Google if you put in: "Charles Mingus" + "Jackie McLean" + "Oscar Brown, Jr" + "Hildegarde" + "Auntie Mame"?

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