Saturday, January 1, 2011

Ear Conditioning with Tenor Saxophonist Ted Brown

Perhaps there’s a simple reason why followers of creative improvisation are inspired by and have embraced the music of the school around pianist-composer Lennie Tristano. Tenorman Ted Brown, who began studying with Tristano in November 1948 and continued working with him throughout the 1950s, puts it this way: “Tristano taught me how to get as free as possible on a tune and its structure. We would practice a tune enough that it became second nature – it was a feeling more than something strict or clearly laid out.” Ted Brown is one of the lesser-known disciples of Tristano and his music, whose tone is equally allied with predecessors Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, and whose approach to improvisation is given to flights of airy delicacy and fluidity while also putting forth significant, flinty weight.

Brown was born December 1, 1927 in Rochester, New York and had the good fortune of a musical family. His father was a banjoist and four-string guitarist in a traditional jazz band, and he taught Ted to read music at age six. “I got lessons from both my father and my grandfather, and I began to play the violin in sixth grade. There was a woman who I liked from the Eastman School of Music who came to our school to teach; I started practicing three or four hours a day on violin until the eighth grade.” Brown’s uncle played tenor sax and clarinet, and it wasn’t long before an interest in the woodwind family was instilled in him – while taking violin lessons, Brown also got lessons from his uncle on the clarinet. He and a cousin, a saxophonist, began rehearsing stock arrangements to play at the school dances – dance bands had impressed him, but the absence of a violin chair had nudged Brown in the direction of the reeds. Brown’s father, a professional pilot, was recruited by the Navy following Pearl Harbor, and was eventually stationed in California, necessitating a move to the West Coast in October 1942. “By the time I got to Redondo Beach High School in the fall, all the classes had filled up and I wasn’t sure what to take. I wasn’t planning on taking music classes, but band was one of the few things still open, so I joined the school band.” The band was led by a trumpeter who also had an after school rehearsal band as well as a gig at the local country club, which got Brown into playing out at a young age.

Christmas 1942 was good to the Brown family – his father bought him a tenor and a clarinet of his own, as well as a phonograph and recordings of clarinet and tenor solos (including Hawkins’ “Body and Soul”), which his father helped him transcribe. “I got a good feel for playing solos, and it helped to be able to memorize them from records.” Brown graduated in 1945 from Long Beach High School, where he’d transferred a year earlier, and had started playing in an impressive area rehearsal band. Later that year he began playing in a big band in Huntington Beach, which afforded him lots of tenor solo spots. “I got on a USO tour of the Army bases that fall; we went up and down the West Coast. In January 1946 I was in a road band that toured bases in Texas and the Southwest, but even though the war was over, I got drafted because they’d discharged so many soldiers. My father sent me a telegram that I’d gotten my notice while I was on the road and the guys in the band were giving me all sorts of advice to help me fail my physical – staying up all night, drinking tons of coffee, pretending to be mentally ill, but none of it worked and I passed. I was shipped off to Virginia for eight weeks of basic training, but since I listed my occupation as a musician, I was assigned to Army Band Training School. It was very boring – our training was like how to go up and down a C major scale. I got to know some other musicians, though, like the Chicago saxophonist Lloyd Shad, who really got me listening to Lester Young. Don Ferrara was also there, and Red Mitchell. I first heard Charlie Parker in the Army. Warne Marsh was in another company, but we were stationed on the same base and I knew him a little then, too.” After being transferred in 1946 to the Post Band at Camp Lee in Virginia, Brown’s duties included “keeping up the library, having hour-long rehearsals and we were free on the weekends – it was very easy, so there was a lot of time to transcribe records.”

It was also during his service that he visited New York City for the first time, and saw Lester Young, Allen Eager and Bud Powell at the clubs on 52nd Street. “Bud was playing a tune I’d transcribed, “Koko” (which is based on “Cherokee”) but he played it so fast – I’d never heard anything like it.” After being discharged, Brown went back to Southern California, sitting in on sessions in LA and San Pedro. It took a bit of work to be accepted into the Central Avenue scene around saxophonists Teddy Edwards and Sonny Criss – “they’d call these obscure bebop tunes, ones they thought I wouldn’t know. But I’d go out and buy the records so I’d make sure I knew them by the next week. It got to a point where they couldn’t call anything I didn’t know, so at that point they were cool with me.”

But New York was calling, so Brown moved there in September 1948 and immediately got a day job working a sales floor on 5th Avenue preparing for the holiday rush. Brown’s army buddy Bob Stacy, a clarinetist, was a student of Lennie Tristano and recommended he stop by a session; that November, Brown began studying with him. “I finally found someone to answer my questions about chord changes and progressions (because my father had only taught me melodies), and I also wanted to become more confident in my improvising. Lennie convinced me that I only needed some basic information, and helped me to understand chords and rhythmic figures. After my first lesson, he told me to write a tune to bring in to my next lesson, and to write a solo that I would like to play if I could. I had to memorize these pieces, and he liked what I wrote so I had to bring something new in each week for the next two years.”

There wasn’t really anywhere for Tristano and his students to play; they’d rented studios occasionally, but in 1951 Tristano found a loft on E. 32nd St., and brought in all his high end recording equipment from his home on Long Island. “At the beginning, sessions were on Wednesday and Saturday. I played with Lennie and the drummer Al Levitt on Wednesday nights while Warne and Lee played on Saturdays. When Lee went on the road with Stan Kenton in 1952, I substituted with him on Saturday. Lennie would have another pianist there – Ronnie Ball, whom I liked very much – and he would instruct from the control room.” This was the nexus of the Marsh-Brown band with Ball, drummer Jeff Morton and bassist Ben Tucker that eventually recorded three albums of music on the West Coast. From 1952 through 1955, Brown had a lesson once a week with Tristano and made the Saturday sessions, which usually lasted until 2AM. “One night, while they were playing cards, I grabbed a pair of brushes and started playing on a snare. Lennie liked what he heard and walked over and started playing the piano – he told me to keep it up. I had a little money in savings, so I bought a snare, bass drum and a ride cymbal and began playing along with records. One night while Lennie had his stand at the Confucius Restaurant, he asked me to sub for a couple of nights while the other drummer was away. I got through it, but we played at a slower tempo. Lennie had taught me to feel the pulse of a tune in my head, and I suppose I always had a good feeling for rhythm and drummers.”

The 32nd Street studio was condemned in 1956, forcing the end of the New York school. Marsh, Morton and Ball moved to Los Angeles to find work, and Brown, who had recently married, followed suit that year; he hadn’t seen his family since moving to New York and felt like it would be a good change. “Ronnie, Warne, and guitarist Don Overberg had a gig and Don left, so I came in and everything fell into place. We had some pretty good gigs at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach and in Hollywood. Three weeks after I got there, Warne had a date for Imperial, which came out as Jazz of Two Cities. Dates for Kapp (one side of the compilation Modern Jazz Gallery) and Vanguard (Free Wheeling) followed, with the latter released under Brown’s name because of contractual issues. “Ronnie arranged the tunes initially for two horns plus rhythm; we brought Art Pepper in as well, and Ronnie re-arranged the charts for him. I doubt Art even looked at them – he came in and of course played wonderfully.”

Marsh’s manager was pushing him toward a group with Pepper, so Ted left the band and, tiring of LA, returned to New York in April 1957 to begin raising a family. “In 1961, my day job was with a company that went bankrupt right before Christmas – I had two kids and a wife, and I wasn’t sure if I could make rent. My wife was from Massachusetts so we moved to Lawrence, Mass. and I got a job in a textile mill, which I completely hated. I read an article that said musicians made good computer programmers because of their creativity, so in 1963 I started doing night school in Boston to learn computer programming. I wanted to leave the mill, of course, but my boss – once he learned that I was studying to be a programmer – convinced me to stay because they were going to institute computers in the mill. He put me in charge of the computer department.” Music wasn’t plentiful at this time, though Brown had a gig with a trio in Lawrence and also played a little bit with the bandleader Herb Pomeroy and drummer Alan Dawson. “I was trying to figure out how to get back to New York, so I accepted a job as a computer programmer at CBS, and then once that job got consolidated, I moved around to other programming gigs in the City. My old job at the mill wanted me to come back – they doubled my salary, so I took the job, but work took more time than I realized it would, and music was out. Besides, nobody was really playing the kind of stuff I was interested in.”

In 1972, a former student who was interested in learning some of Tristano’s lines asked Brown to sit in, which got him playing again. He returned to New York in 1976 after the mill laid him off; Brown began spending time with Lee Konitz and they gigged together in New York and New Jersey, which resulted in the Konitz-Brown quintet recording Figure and Spirit (Progressive), with Joe Chambers, Albert Dailey and Rufus Reid. After more schooling to learn new programming developments, Brown worked as a programmer for Polygram until 1982, and then as a database manager for a commodities trading company. Music was becoming, once again, a major factor – in 1987, he went to Holland with pianist Hod O’Brien, playing the BIMHuis with drummer Johnny Engels and bassist Jacques Schols, and he later worked gigs with Konitz and Dutch pianist Rein de Graaff. This European live presence, though still sporadic, resulted in recordings for Criss Cross Jazz and Steeplechase, including dates with Konitz, pianist Harold Danko and guitarist Steve LaMattina. The Japanese jazz public also turned out to be rabid Ted Brown fans, which resulted in a 2009 gig at Tokyo’s famous Pitt Inn and a resultant recording. As for his current group, bassist Joe Solomon, a student of Tristano, invited Brown to a session with pianist Michael Kanan, who was very much a disciple of Ronnie Ball. “He impressed me right away; I could sense where he was, and everybody was listening and interacting. Of course, Ronnie was one of the swingingest pianists around and since Michael sounds a lot like Ronnie, it’s a great fit. Improvising in this way, when it happens and everyone is aware, is what keeps me sane and healthy.” At 83 years old, we can only hope for many more opportunities like this from Brown and his mates.

This article appears in abbreviated form in the January issue of All About Jazz New York. Images courtesy the archives of Ted Brown. Visit Ted Brown's website.

Complete Discography:

Ronnie Ball All About Ronnie (Savoy, 1956)
Warne Marsh Jazz of Two Cities (Imperial, 1956)
Various Artists Modern Jazz Gallery (Kapp, 1956)
Ted Brown Free Wheeling (Vanguard, 1956)
Warne Marsh & Ted Brown Live in Hollywood (Marshmallow, 1957/2010)
Lee Konitz & Jimmy Giuffre Lee Konitz Meets Jimmy Giuffre (Verve, 1959)
Lee Konitz Figure and Spirit (Progressive, 1976)
Ted Brown & Jimmy Raney In Good Company (Criss Cross, 1985)
Hod O'Brien I Hear a Rhapsody (Blue Jack, 1987)
Ted Brown Free Spirit (Criss Cross, 1987)
Lee Konitz Sound of Surprise (BMG, 1999)
Lee Konitz & Ted Brown Dig It (Steeplechase, 1999)
Ted Brown Preservation (Steeplechase, 2002)
Ted Brown Shades of Brown (Steeplechase, 2007)
Ted Brown Live at Pitt Inn, Tokyo (Marshmallow, 2009)
Ted Brown & Gene DiNovi Live in Yokohama (Marshmallow, 2009)
Ted Brown & Kirk Knuffke Poundcake (Steeplechase, 2012)
Ted Brown & Brad Linde Two of a Kind (Bleebop, 2012)

List of Recorded Compositions:

“Blimey” (1985, 2012)
“Dig-It” (1976, 1999, 2009, 2012)
“Featherbed” (1956, 1957, 1976, 1999, 2012)
“Jazz of Two Cities” (1956, 1987, 2009, 2012)
“Little Quail” (1956, 2002)
“Preservation” (2002, 2012)
“Smog Eyes” (1956, 1957, 1976, 1999, 2012)
"Slippin' and Slidin'" (2012)

1 comment:

  1. Dear Mr. Allen,
    With your permission, I'm going to post a link to this wonderful interview on my blog JAZZ LIVES ( and, to return the compliment, I have been posting videos of Ted with Joel Press, Michael Kanan, Brad Linde, and Joe Solomon -- from gigs in 2010 and 2011 in New York City. They are the perfect sight-and-sound-track to this post! Cheers and thanks, Michael Steinman