November 11th: The Musician’s Musician

11 Nov

Portland State Music: 30 for the 30th

Name: Mel Brown

Instrument: drums

Student of Gordon Solie, John Steen

B.B.A 1965 Portland State University

Putting Music Forward

Mel Brown’s entry in the Oregon Encyclopedia is unequivocal: “If one had to choose a single musician to represent the history of jazz in Portland, it would be drummer and bandleader Mel Brown.”

In a career spanning more than 40 years, Mel has performed with a who’s who of  jazz artists including Gene Harris, George Benson, Teddy Edwards, Joey DeFrancesco, Bill Watrous, Leroy Vinnegar, and many more.  His accomplishments and enormous contributions to today’s rich Oregon jazz scene prompted Portland to designate  June 22nd 1989 “Mel Brown Day.”  In recognition of his contributions to the cultural life of Oregon, Governor John Kitzhaber awarded him the 2002 Governor’s Arts Award.

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Putting Skills to Work

It was in the band at Washington High School that Mel Brown decided music would be his life.  He attended Portland State College on a music scholarship, continuing his classical training while playing jazz on the side with Billy Larkin and the Delegates.  His professional career began with the pianist/organist Earl Grant. A subsequent gig at Whiskey a Go-Go in Los Angeles with  Martha and the Vandellas led to his employment as a staff drummer for Motown Music Corporation. At Motown he recorded and toured with The Temptations, The Supremes,  Smokey Robinson and others.  The ensuing ten years found him working with entertainment legends like Diana Ross, Suzanne Somers, Hal Linden, Connie Francis, Pat Boone and Stevie Wonder.

Mel returned home to Portland in the early 1970’s and was a key component in Portland’s resurgence as a jazz town.  From 1978 through the mid-1980s he toured with Diane Ross.  He ran The Mel Brown Drum Shop on Southeast Grand Avenue until 1984 and later operated a bookkeeping service, Metropolitan Accounting and Tax.  All the while Mel played nightly at famed Portland jazz venues like The Hobbit.  in 1989 the Mel Brown Septet won the prestigious International Hennesey Jazz Search, beating out more than 700 bands from all over the world.

Perhaps Mel’s greatest legacy is his role as the heartbeat of Portland’s thriving jazz scene.  Beginning with the first Mel Brown Trio in 1979,  through his  collaborations in the 1990’s with jazz legend Leroy Vinnegar, to his current working ensembles: the Mel Brown B-3 Organ Group,  Mel Brown Septet, Mel Brown Quartet,  the drummer known as “The Gentleman of Jazz” has provided the  soundtrack to the city of Portland, night after night, year after year.

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Adding Something Unique

In addition to establishing himself as one of America’s foremost drummers, Mel has remained a passionate educator, continually working with students, conducting jazz workshops and serving as an adjudicator in the United States and abroad.  He has served on the Boards of Directors of the Portland Youth Philharmonic, Portland Music Association, and the Mt Hood Festival of Jazz.  Each year, at Western Oregon University in Monmouth, as many as 158 students receive the ultimate education during the Mel Brown summer jazz camp.

As David Hudson, Director of the Regional Arts & Culture council wrote when Mel received the Governor’s Arts Award, “Oregon is widely recognized for its rich jazz scene, and the enormous following supporting that genre. Mel Brown is largely responsible for this phenomenon.”

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What Did PSU Music Mean to You?

“I chose Portland State College because I wanted a classical music background.  And it was where I could use my scholarship.  All of my friends chose U of O because it was a party school. My scholarship took care of my first two years and then I switched to business administration to have a backup plan.  Professors John Steen and Gordon Solie were responsible for putting me on the right track. Plus, I could live here at home and learn Jazz from the local professionals.   P.S.  Tuition was $300.00 per year.”


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