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Arts & Culture
Owen McNally writes about jazz and other music events in Connecticut's Jazz Corridor, stretching from the tip of Fairfield County, right through New Haven and Hartford, and on up beyond the state into the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts. Keep up with the best our area has to offer in music.

Hartford Pays Homage to Paul Brown, Longtime Pillar of the City’s Jazz Community

Steven Sussman
Paul Brown.
A flawless timekeeper, Paul Brown was wonderfully and passionately mad about the music.

If you were selecting a patron saint of jazz for Hartford, a strong contender for canonization would most certainly be Paul Brown, a miracle worker whose countless good works for the music and local jazz musicians over many decades brought great joy, peace and comfort to the capital city.     

A biblically prolific bassist, Paul Brown was a sympathetic educator who affected the inner lives and working lives of many musicians. He was the supreme creator of the celebrated Monday Night Jazz Series in Bushnell Park, and an all-round good guy -- gentle, humble, compassionate; an ecumenical spirit, and vigilant protector of a beleaguered art form perpetually in need of miracles and corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

Brown -- affectionately known to his friends and disciples as PB -- died earlier this month after a long illness at 82.

But PB’s priceless legacy lives on through his many students and devoted protégés, and in the memories of the countless tens of thousands who have enjoyed his concert-producing skills at such prestigious events as the Monday night series and the Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz.

It lives on through the legion of local fans who often heard him jamming in local clubs, where for years, he seemed omnipresent, even omniscient, playing bass, always affable, always in the groove.

A consummately flawless timekeeper, he was wonderfully and passionately mad about the music, which he perhaps loved more than anything -- his personal Love Supreme -- right alongside, of course, his beloved family, friends, colleagues, and just about anyone else he dealt with in his daily life.

His world stretched from his jazz kingdom in Hartford to the Big Apple -- where the Maryland native had well-established credentials as a bebop groove meister -- to his globe-trotting tours, especially his pilgrimages to jazz-besotted Japan.

PB was such a felt presence, did so much good for so many people, and achieved so many accomplishments that he, in many ways, became one of Hartford’s living embodiments of jazz.

Credit Steven Sussman
Paul Brown.
PB was genuinely hip -- as ordinary and real a part of his true nature as breathing.

Although exceedingly modest and laid back, he was one of those handful of transcendent figures, including, among other shakers-and-doers, jazz great Jackie McLean, his wife Dollie McLean, and the Hartford Jazz Society’s Art Fine, who helped keep jazz alive in the city even in the music’s darkest of dark ages right up to its remarkable, modern day renaissance.

Among Saint PB’s well-documented miracles were the many times in which he somehow rescued the Monday night series from dying an untimely, ignominious death from lack of funding -- a chronic financial crisis that he battled heroically as summer approached and the series once again faced end times. This was especially so in the latter years of his reign as founder/producer, a demanding yet virtually one-man operation he sustained for decades.

His monumental struggles to come up with the necessary funding at the last moment for the festival -- annual silent film-like, cliffhanger epics that might have been called The Perils of Paul Lean -- always, somehow, had happy endings as against all odds, PB resurrected the series from its death bed, making it dance for joy through the long, hot summer.

Credit Steven Sussman
Paul Brown.

Or to switch the metaphor, Saint PB, in his annual jazz version of “loaves and fishes,” always came up with the bread to sustain the starving series for yet another summer run.

And, lo, thanks to PB, multitudes once again flocked to the idyllic downtown park to hear the celestial swinging sounds of jazz.  

A devout believer in the positive life-force of jazz, PB felt that the music was not just great art, but also an inspiring, healing, spiritual way to bring together all people, no matter the differences in race or class. Jazz, he believed, was a kind of secular communion, virtually a sacrament served in the park to one and all, uniting blacks, whites and Hispanics, old and young, urbanites and suburbanites.  

In PB’s live-and-let-live philosophy and ever open-minded, open-hearted view, jazz in the park brought together everybody and anybody with ears, a heart and soul through which the transformative music could work its magic.

One big advantage that PB had as a bona fide miracle worker was his easy-going, charming, never overbearing or ostentatious personality.

He was hip and cool, his longtime friend and colleague, the savvy Hartford-based saxophonist/arranger Norman Gage said. But PB’s hipness was completely natural -- as ordinary and real a part of his true nature as breathing. It was, as Gage said, totally unaffected, as organic and authentic as the DNA that made him such a committed musician and a compassionate humanitarian worthy of at least secular sainthood.

PB didn’t play a hip musician on TV. Instead, he was the real deal, genuinely hip and authentically gracious in his own unique way, happily and hiply totally immersed in music, his life, and the lives of others as well. 

Credit Steve Sussman
Paul Brown on stage in Hartford with young, up-and-coming musicians.

Always, as Gage said, PB was the absolute antithesis of the more common brand of bogus hipness rooted in the hipster/poseur’s egotistical persona that constantly flaunts trendy, over-the-top affectations in stagy, meaningless ways.

Gage -- an invaluable, intellectually reflective musician who worked many times with the bassist -- also praised PB for the good deeds he did for many Hartford musicians over the years. An example of this, he said, was PB’s practice at the Monday night series of always featuring Hartford area musicians as the opening act for the evening’s headliners.

With his eminently likable personality, PB made many great friends while gigging and networking with premier musicians in New York City.  Out of these connections, he was able to tap into a giant talent pool for his popular Hartford series that often featured such Big Apple pals and colleagues as Junior Cook, Bill Hardman, George Coleman, Walter Bishop, Harold Mabern, Clifford Jordan, and a host of other worthies. 

Credit Steven Sussman
Norman Gage.

Monday night was an off-night on the New York City jazz scene, so PB was able to persuade members of his Big Apple coterie to play on Monday nights in the Hartford park. Early on, when the series was just forming with concerts on streets in the North End, PB brought such luminaries to town as Cannonball Adderley, Muddy Waters, and Clark Terry’s Big Band.

Because the festival’s finances were tight and PB, quite blessedly, was tight with so many greats, he was often able to get top-ranked musicians to play at amazing discount rates.

In one major coup, for example, he was able to bring the Modern Jazz Quartet, then one of the world’s priciest, most prestigious chamber music groups, to play in Hartford for the astoundingly low fee of $400, or, in an astonishing piece of math, a measly $100 apiece, including even the MJQ’s world-celebrated vibraphonist Milt Jackson.

Giants like Bill Evans, Charles Mingus, Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, and Jackie McLean are just a few of the many jazz immortals that PB brought to the series over the years for his fabulous, free, al fresco summer festivities.

It was all so great and mesmerizing when it was actually happening that I think many of us communicants in the park took it and PB’s largely unheralded miracles for granted, as if none of the joys of summer would ever end.

Appropriately, PB’s lasting legacy and winning personality will be celebrated this weekend with lots of hot and cool jazz, warm tributes and the sharing of a wealth of fond memories, as well as hilarious anecdotes at Faith Congregational Church at 2030 Main Street in Hartford. A member of the congregation, PB played bass in the church’s choir and at special occasions like jazz vespers.

Memorial visiting hours and a swinging tribute jam session will be held on Friday, May 27, from 5:00 to 8:00 pm at the historic church. Funeral services will be held on Saturday, May 28, at 10:00 am.

Organized by drummer/percussionist Michael Scott, Jr., who toured and recorded with PB, the Friday night tribute jam runs from 6:30 to 8:00 pm. Open to all musicians, the session will be propelled by three alternating rhythm sections, with the opening backup featuring pianist Emery A. Smith, bassist James Daggs, percussionist Abu Carter and Scott, a longtime PB friend and protégé, on drums and percussion. Other featured jam participants TBA.

The band for the Saturday morning service features pianist Alex Nakhimovsky, Daggs on bass and Scott on drums, with vocals by Kitty Katherine, one of PB’s innumerable and frequent collaborators.

Please submit press releases at least two weeks before publication date to omac28@gmail.com. Comments welcome.

Owen McNally writes the weekly Jazz Corridor column for WNPR.org as well as periodic freelance pieces for The Hartford Courant and other publications.

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