Clip: RIP Oscar Brown Jr.
- I'd bet money this is the only NY Times story ever to mention both Steve
Allen and the Blackstone Rangers.
Oscar Brown Jr., Entertainer and Social Activist, Dies at 78
By PETER KEEPNEWS
Published: May 31, 2005
Oscar Brown Jr., a singer, songwriter, playwright and actor known for his
distinctive blend of show-business savvy and social consciousness, died on
Sunday in a Chicago hospital. He was 78 and lived in Chicago.
The cause was complications of a blood infection, his family said.
Mr. Brown was most often described as a jazz singer, and he initially
achieved fame by putting lyrics to well-known jazz instrumentals like Miles
Davis's "All Blues" and Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue," but efforts to
categorize him usually failed. As a performer, he acted his songs more than
he sang them; as a songwriter, he drew as much from gospel, the blues and
folk music as he did from jazz. He preferred to call himself an
entertainer, although even that broad term did not go far enough: he saw
his art as a way to celebrate African-American life and attack racism, and
it was not always easy to tell where the entertainer ended and the activist
His song "Brown Baby," recorded by Mahalia Jackson and others, was both a
lullaby for his infant son and an anthem of racial pride. Other songs, like
"Signifying Monkey" and "The Snake," took their story lines from black
folklore. The album "We Insist! Freedom Now Suite," for which Mr. Brown
wrote lyrics to the drummer Max Roach's music, was one of the first jazz
works to address the civil rights movement.
His commitment to art as a tool for change was most evident in the numerous
stage shows he wrote and directed in his native Chicago, which addressed
social issues and often had poor black teenagers in their casts. The most
famous of these shows, "Opportunity, Please Knock," was created in 1967
with members of the Blackstone Rangers, a street gang. His most recent
production was a 2002 revival of "Great Nitty Gritty," a show about gang
violence that he had first staged 20 years earlier with young residents of
the Cabrini Green housing project.
Oscar Brown Jr. was born in Chicago on Oct. 10, 1926. His performing career
began early: he acted in radio dramas as a teenager and was the host of a
local radio program called "Negro Newsfront" while still in his 20's. But
he did not become actively involved in music until after he had worked
briefly for his father's real estate business, run unsuccessfully for
public office twice, and served a two-year Army hitch.
After a few lean years as a songwriter, he was signed by Columbia Records
as a singer in 1960. Things happened quickly after that: his first album,
"Sin and Soul," was released to critical acclaim, and in 1961 he made a
triumphant debut at the Village Vanguard in New York and presented excerpts
from "Kicks & Co.," a musical for which he wrote the book, music and
lyrics, on the "Today" show. "Kicks & Co." never made it to Broadway,
closing a few days into its Chicago tryout that fall. But Mr. Brown did
reach Broadway in 1969 when Muhammad Ali starred in "Buck White," his
musical adaptation of "Big Time Buck White," Joseph Dolan Tuotti's play
about a black militant leader. (Mr. Brown himself starred in a San
Mr. Brown's career never reached the heights some had predicted for it, but
he remained a cultural force in Chicago. He also continued to tour
occasionally, often in musical revues that he wrote, most of which also
featured his wife, the singer and dancer Jean Pace Brown. She survives him,
as do a son, Napoleon; four daughters, Maggie Brown, Donna Brown Kane,
Iantha Casen and Africa Pace Brown; 16 grandchildren, and 4
great-grandchildren. His son Oscar Brown III, a bass player, died in an
automobile accident in 1996.
In addition to his other activities, Mr. Brown made several noteworthy
television appearances over the years. He was the host of "Jazz Scene
U.S.A.," a syndicated series produced by Steve Allen in 1962, and "From
Jumpstreet," a 13-week PBS series that examined the history of black music
in 1980. In 1990 he was a regular on "Brewster Place," a dramatic series on
ABC that starred Oprah Winfrey, and two years later he had a recurring role
as a jazz pianist on the Fox sitcom "Roc."