Mel Brown keeps the beat with Dizzy Gillespie's music
Playing drums for stars across many genres, Portland's own legend Mel Brown has many musicians whom he has admired throughout the years.
Dizzy Gillespie is one of them.
Brown never played with the great jazz trumpet player and band leader, but he opened for Gillespie one time, watched him perform many times, and the two had many mutual friends. This week, Brown leads a big band and a septet and works with former Gillespie protege Jon Faddis in playing Gillespie music as part of the Portland Jazz Festival, which celebrates Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Buddy Rich in what would have been their 100th birthday year.
"I grew up a Dizzy fan," says Brown, 72. "Look at my age bracket, I'm not a little kid.
"It was the intricacies of his music, the powerful sound he always had. Diz made it interesting when you went to see him. He played things nicely, like he was always telling a story. And he was always funny, like a comedian. That's what made it fun ... He developed his own sound. A lot of guys copy Diz."
Brown opened for Gillespie in the 1970s in Medford, and "he flew in and the airlines lost his luggage, and he had to play with the same clothes on," Brown says. "He kept me up all night with his stories."
Brown and his 18-piece big band, which includes the septet the Jimmy Mak's All-Stars, joins Faddis at Revolution Hall, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 22. Brown led one of the house bands at Jimmy Mak's before the club closed. He hasn't made many Portland Jazz Festival appearances; so, it'll be a thrill to play with Faddis, who sent Brown the Gillespie charts to prepare for the concert. They'll play "Manteca," "A Night in Tunisia" and "Whisper Not" among the tribute songs.
"Great dude, full of energy," Brown says of Faddis. "Really strong person. Just a strong player."
For Brown, it's been an eventful couple months. To get the boys from Jimmy Mak's jazz club back together again will be exciting. Jimmy Mak's closed in December, and then owner Jimmy Makarounis died in early January after battling cancer.
"That was home for me," says Brown, a native Portlander and 1962 Washington High grad who reached national prominence with the likes of Martha and the Vandellas, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations and Marvin Gaye, before returning to make Portland home again in the mid-1970s. "Jimmy made it home for me. It was like an extended family. I was able to have three bands to play there every week. That's phenomenal."
He misses Jimmy. "He was a very strong person, but very warm, he always had a big, nice smile. He taught me a lot about the music business; instead of having a strong opinion and disliking something, he had a way to look at it both ways," Brown says.
There is a movement, led by former Jimmy Mak's employees, to open another club. Brown says it's a matter of when and not if, and he'll be right back leading a house band.
He doesn't work late nights anymore, although Brown still plays at Salty's on the Columbia River every Friday night. It's an interesting gig, because he basically plays as background music.
"My phone has been ringing off the hook, and I'm lucky that I'm at the point where I can say yea or nay," Brown says. "My wife (Shirley) loves it."
He adds, "It's also a hard time for us" — tax season. He prepares taxes for Metropolitan Accounting and Tax.
Brown started drumming at age 12, started a rock 'n' roll band at 15, and played in a big band and as part of a house band at a strip joint as a teenager, all before he hit it big. Other than being a Motown drummer, Brown played some country behind Ferlin Husky and Ronnie Milsap, and as part of a band doing the March of Dimes telethon — along with the likes of Werner Klemperer of "Hogan's Heroes" Colonel Klink fame ("a helluva trombone player") and Hal Linden of "Barney Miller" fame ("a great sax player").
He still loves to play.
"If anything, I'm smoother," he says. "I don't play as hard; I don't think I have the strength to be playing long hours. I can play loud, but I have to adjust to the room. At Salty's, people are eating dinner, you don't want people to put in an order and have to hold their hand to their ear."
Brown has other connections to the Portland Jazz Festival. He had many encounters with the legendary drummer Buddy Rich ("very strong person to be so small ... he was so good, and quite a phenomenal person ... he was one of the best") and he saw pianist and composer Thelonious Monk play one time while with Martha and the Vendellas. Brown also knows Albert Heath, who'll perform with brother Jimmy Heath in Portland.
Brown has taken in many shows at the Portland Jazz Festival, and he looks forward to playing in it again.
"There are a lot of people I'd like to go see," he says.
The Portland Jazz Festival runs through Feb. 26. For more: www.pdxjazz.com.