Featured Musician - December 2012  

Christopher Brown
Christopher Brown

Name: Christopher Brown

Instrument: Drums and alto saxophone.

Early Years/Education: It’s funny how I got interested in music. It grew out of me wanting to cut class. In the fifth grade, kids were disappearing at a certain time of day. I asked, ‘How do you get to leave?’ They said, ‘If you learn to play an instrument, you get to cut class.’ ‘Sign me up!’ I said. I got stuck on flute because that’s all that was available. Then my flute got stolen at the video store, and that ended that. The following year, I still wanted to play. I wanted the bass, but the sax was the only thing left. It looked intimidating with all those buttons, but I started studying the saxophone in the sixth grade.

The following year, my band director, Larry Nobori, made me give a demonstration of how to play the drums in front of the class. I was too shy to tell him I didn’t know what I was doing. He said, ‘You’ll be fine,’ and told me to play something on the bass drum, then the hi-hat, etc. He gave me a rhythm, and I thought, ‘Maybe I can do this.’ That’s what sparked my interest in drumming.

From there, I quickly gravitated towards it. My dad is drummer Mel Brown. I watched all of his videos over and over. I listened to recordings of him; he was the first person that informed my idea of how to play. I didn’t listen to anyone else. I started learning about other drummers later.

My mom played piano. When she was younger, she played the clarinet. Music was always on at the house, mostly Motown and whatever was on the radio. My mom, who was from Birmingham, Alabama, raised me.

I spent my freshman year of high school at Grant but went to Wilson the remaining three years. The band director there was Greg McKelvey. Through high school I continued to play both drums and alto sax. I also picked up piano in the eighth grade because I wanted to go to the Mt. Hood Festival Jazz Workshop. I didn’t get to go until the tenth grade.

Marines: After graduating from Wilson I joined the U.S. Marine Corps for four years. I thought it would give me a chance to grow up, get some discipline and earn my own money. I was a drummer in the Marine Corps Band. It was a great place to practice, travel and network. While stationed in New Orleans, I began an association with Jason Marsalis and his dad, Ellis. By the time I got out of the military, I was on the East Coast in New Jersey.

It prepared me for New York. I spent four months beating the streets, and Jay Collins (another graduate of Wilson High School) got me my first New York gig. I then auditioned for Rutgers University and got in. I was there from January 2000 -May 2006 and got both undergraduate and graduate degrees in Jazz Studies/Performance. While there I joined the N.J. Army National Guard and became their principal saxophonist. This helped pay for college. Now, I do the same job here in the Oregon Guard Reserve.

After graduating from Rutgers, I came back to cover my teacher, Ralph Bowen’s Jazz Theory course, while he went on sabbatical. After William Felder died in 2009, I was asked to teach his Jazz History class there, which I did from Fall 2008 until Spring 2011. (William Felder was the legendary trumpet professor in both the classical and jazz worlds who was Wynton Marsalis’s first teacher and, coincidently, Thara Memory was Felder’s first student.)

Portland: Just moved back in June. My Mom died last year, and my younger brother lives with me now. It was also a good time for me to leave the Northeast. I’d gotten out of it what I needed. New York is a great place, sometimes a little overrated. From a musician’s standpoint, once you’ve learned what you need to learn, what’s the point of paying such high rent when you are not actually going to be there, if you’re a traveling musician? New York is incredibly inconvenient, but you’ll put up with the inconvenience if you’re getting what you want. We’ll put up with great inconvenience because we’re getting a great education. Once you get the information, why continue to be inconvenienced?

Bands: In Portland, I’m the drummer in the Ezra Weiss Sextet, Stan Bock’s group and Farnell Newton’s band. Back East, I work with Conrad Herwig, Ralph Bowen and Stanley Cowell. I was on Cowell’s last recording.

Writing: I’ve written a book about demystifying the process of becoming a great jazz musician. I believe I found a way to codify those “magical moments” so you have more of them, whenever you want them. It’s about understanding a means of developing to the best of one’s ability but yet in a way where there’s still room for moments of wonderment (like a baby). It’s a way of taking pressure off when they play. One of the things we’re all concerned with is being wrong. A lot of musicians are more concerned about not looking wrong than they are about doing things right.

Musical Influences: Jeff “Tain” Watts - he was on Wynton Marsalis’s “Black Codes From The Underground”; from the moment I heard that recording, I’ve been trying to learn how to play that type of music; that’s why I went to New York. In my opinion, “Tain” Watts changed the way we approach playing jazz drums over the past 30 years. Another influence was Ralph Peterson, Jr., my teacher at Rutgers. There was a group of “young lions” at Blue Note called OTB, and both of my teachers from Rutgers were on that recording: Ralph Peterson, Jr. and Ralph Bowen. Kenny Garrett is a huge one. The way I play the saxophone is very Kenny Garrett-esque.

Christopher Brown
Christopher Brown
Freddie Hubbard is another huge influence. I like things clear (something my dad’s always telling me). When Freddie plays a line, you can sing it back. Ralph Bowen is an enormous influence. I’’d say a third of my conception of how I approach music comes from him. Other influences include Victor Lewis, Conrad Herwig, Lewis Nash and Branford Marsalis. Branford is a huge influence. His recording, “Crazy People Music,” has a lot of freedom but there’s a clear sense of structure going on.

Most Satisfying Experience: It has to be the European tour I did with Roy Hargove. It exposed me to a wider audience, both non-musicians and musicians. The band had Gerald Clayton on piano, Gerald Sanders on bass, Justin Robinson on the saxophone and of course Roy on trumpet.

All the guys who over-looked me before I made it out there with Roy were acting friendly to me while I was with him. That is because once you’ve been accepted in that arena, they might use you -- not because of the way you sound, but because they want to have relationships with your relationships. It was a great experience for me to see behind this curtain. It gave me access to a lot of new information and new friends. A great learning experience.

Favorite Recordings: Wynton Marsalis - “Black Codes from the Underground”; OTB - “Out of the Blue”; Miles Davis - “Kind of Blue,” “Four and More” and “Milestones”; Kenny Garrett - “Triology” and “Songbook”; Herbie Hancock - “The New Standard”; Ralph Peterson - “Art of War”; Branford Marsalis - “Crazy People Music.”

Discography: 2003 - Searching w/Jason Teborek (No Label); 2007 - Coming of Age w/Zen Zadravec (No Label); 2007 - Honestly Speaking w/Stafford Hunter (Staff Music Records); 2009 - Blame It on My Youth w/Lucine Yeghiazaryan (No Label); 2009 - Splendia Lucia w/Antonio Barbagallo (No Label); 2010 - Hop Scotch w/Todd Bashore (No Label); and 2012 - It’s Time w/Stanley Cowell (Steeple Chase Records).

Future Plans: To dive a little deeper into teaching as a traveling clinician. It would be nice to have a college gig.

Other: Back East, the one thing that’s on a lot of people’s mind is making their rent. It forces you to be hungry. You have to figure stuff out very quickly to survive. Here, you have time to figure it out. As a result, the musicians may not be as edgy. The idea of trying to get better at all costs with every fiber of your being, to sound better week to week, is not as apparent here. I’m not seeing that constant growth like I’ve seen back there.

As a teacher, I try and impart certain concepts to my students so they don’t have to go through the same mistakes I went through. The whole purpose of a teacher is to save you time, as if I’ve given you the Cliff Notes of what I learned so you can take it further.

-- by Rita Rega