Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Quest of Questions

Who is Joe Brazil? Years back, I had only heard of Joe Brazil as an obscure footnote. Today, I’m learning that he was a saxophonist from Detroit, friend of John Coltrane, teacher and band leader in Seattle, tool and die maker for automobile and airplane manufacturers, screen actor, student of math, programmer in applied physics, race track gambler and researcher of past contact between humans and extraterrestrials.

The chain of events leading up to my finding out about him started 40 years ago in an elementary school gymnasium. It was a night to try musical instruments. The lines of fifth grade kids for trumpet and flute were very long and noisy. But no one was at the table for clarinet and saxophone. Little did I know that the quest for finding Joe Brazil began here with the question: “Can I make a sound on the saxophone?”

I felt the weight of the shiny brass horn around my neck. The mother-of-pearl buttons were smooth on my fingertips. The plastic mouthpiece smelled faintly of human breath as if the instrument were alive – sentient but sleeping. The bamboo reed tasted tart on my tongue. I blew into the J-shaped metal cone. Not a pretty sound. But not too ugly, either. The vibrations of the reed tickled my lips, teeth and nose. My next question, “What sounds do all these buttons make?”

I guess my use of the process of question and answer which leads to another question comes from my father. He was a research cardiologist and ran experiments to unlock the secrets of the heart. Not the secrets of love, but the secrets of the muscle that keeps time. Through questions and answers, he found ways that the heart muscle repairs itself when it can’t get enough blood. He was proving that the heart finds a way to get what it wants. One of the things I have learned about Joe Brazil was that he also searched for secrets. He treated life as a quest for knowledge.

There was a point in my father’s career when he reached a crossroads – would he continue questioning or just give answers? A cardiologist with a lucrative practice on the upper east side of Manhattan needed to travel so he asked my father to cover for him. One patient’s life was saved by my father’s actions. To my father, it was a simple and clear course of treatment. When the doctor returned to the office, he was so grateful that he offered my father a place in his practice.

But my father’s heart was in research. He turned down the opportunity. I remember my father explaining the ramifications of this decision to me. “If I had done gone into cardiology practice, we could be living over there in that nice neighborhood by the lake.”

I thought, “That would be cool, but I don’t feel like I’m missing anything. My dad loves me and loves his work.”

So, as a boy, I experimented with the buttons on my saxophone with the idea that learning something new was more important than earning lots of money. Later I learned that Joe Brazil took a job teaching music for less money than he was making programming computers in a physics laboratory.

While I struggled with my fingers and breath, two events opened my ears. First, a trumpet playing friend hipped me to a record[1] with the sound of a jazz quintet playing live in front of an audience. The musicians made sounds and the audience spoke back. Everyone was clapping and shouting. The celebratory vibe was infectious. THAT was the music I wanted to play. The popular music I heard on the radio lacked call-and-response from listeners. It was missing the sound of community.

Second, my mother, a nurse who was caring for an elderly black woman, invited me to her patient’s Baptist picnic. The mood was more sedate than the jazz record I had heard, but music ebbed and flowed just as smoothly with speaking and praise. At one point during the picnic, each person was invited to address the congregation, including my mother and me. Not from a position in front of the group, or at a podium with a microphone, but just standing where we were.

The request to speak to the gathering was unexpected and I had nothing planned to say. I searched for words of truth. I definitely felt alone as an individual but also intricately woven into the fabric of the moment with everyone around me. “Thank you for inviting us to join you and welcoming us into your gathering,” I said, embarrassed by the attention but supported by it as well.

As I matured, the example of equal opportunity for communication and equal respect for each voice gave me a new way to approach music, audiences and expressions of love. The experience of listening inside for truth and sharing that search with strangers in the moment would become the model for peaks in my musical life. Years later as a seasoned jazz musician and composer, whenever I asked people about Joe Brazil, I was told that Joe didn’t care who you were or how talented you were, he treated you the same. He introduced novices to masters and vice versa. There was no hierarchy. There was no priesthood. Everyone teaches and everyone learns.

To further my passion for music in junior high school, I found friends to jam with. We listened to records and tried to sound like them. We played in garages and basements that led to playing at school dances. We soaked up music while we hung out, dreaming of a life of in music. When Joe Brazil was learning music, he invited friends to play in his basement. One of his friends became one of the most notable artists in the world – John Coltrane.

As I learned more about music in high school, I became critical of what I heard. After a concert, my teacher asked his assembled students their impressions. Several of us responded with condemnations of technique, conducting and ensemble performance. Our teacher frowned. He pointed out that finding fault was easy. He challenged us to find at least one good thing in what we heard so that we would learn something useful. This lesson set me on a course of approaching music with love and humility instead of criticism and arrogance.

In college, I got up the courage to take my saxophone into clubs. When asked to sit in, I did. I learned the music in the moment. Then, I went home to learn it better. A teacher asked me to transcribe a solo from a record. When I turned in the written music, he gave me one he had done. We formed a band that copied and performed jazz from the 1950’s and 60’s. Almost all the music was from black men and most of them were dead. We were learning from the dead to keep their music alive.

The band spent long nights listening to records. Sensing the heartbeat of the bass, I felt the strength of musicians pushing and pulling against the beat. My ears picked up unusual choices of pitches and rhythms while recognizing unique sounds developed by each artist. Invisible structures built by melodies on top of harmonies appeared in my brain. I followed the back and forth musical conversation between soloist, drummer and pianist. As we listened, we exchanged glances. When the musicians on record played the truth, we smiled and said, “Yeah.”

I began to hear improvised music as communication. Humor and wit could be expressed by quoting[2] a tune over the chords of another song. Drama could be evoked by moving forward or backward relative to the tempo. Expectation and surprise were effects of repetition and variation. Melodies and harmonic progressions were phrases composed of objects, verbs, subjects and other linguistic symbols. Instruments could imitate voices and vice versa. Music could abstract meanings from real events, ideas and people.

One of the most dedicated and disciplined artists I listened to in those days was John Coltrane. He died when I was seven, years before my interest in his music. I didn’t know anyone who had known him, but his records remained for me to discover when I was ready. I collected as many of his recordings as possible and listened to them in chronological order so that I could grasp the trajectory of his musical progress. I read everything I could find about his life. Early in his career, influences from band leaders are audible – blues saxophonist Earl Bostic, trend setter Miles Davis, inventive composers Tadd Dameron and Thelonious Monk. Coltrane’s technical development can be heard in songs that sound like harmonic and melodic etudes and exercises. Once he found strong musical partners in pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Elvin Jones, popular songs became trance-inducing vehicles for superimposing his harmonic adventures. For example, Coltrane recorded a 13 minute version of “My Favorite Things” in the studio that stretched to 20 minutes or more on stage. Eventually, Coltrane would play a single song for an entire 90 minute matinee performance. Fatherhood sparked spiritual inspiration for his music. The week his first son was born, he penned a suite dedicated to God entitled “A Love Supreme.” His musical groups expanded and loosened while the music grew dense. His wife became a musical collaborator. Despite aging and illness, Coltrane sought wisdom and mentored others. Audiences were frequently surprised by unknown and unannounced “guests” appearing on stage with him. He continued to search and practice up to his death in 1967 at the age of 41.

After a graduate degree and work in New York City, I moved to Seattle in 1993, three decades after Joe Brazil arrived. Like Joe, I worked outside of music to earn a living. Joe was interested in math and engineering. I was interested in data and programming. Joe had followed the shift in defense manufacturing work from Chrysler in Detroit to Boeing in Seattle. I followed the shift in pharmaceutical research from Pfizer in New York to biotechnology at Immunex in Seattle.

After moving to Seattle, I wanted to learn about the city’s jazz history. One historic event was the 1965 visit of John Coltrane to a club called the Penthouse, on the corner of 1st Avenue and Cherry Street. Coltrane was at a peak of success. He had an album at the top of the charts. He won popularity polls by fans and critics. He was touring the world with three other musicians and the group’s synergy created music at levels of intensity that would be aped by amplified rock and roll bands years later. The strength and resolve in Coltrane’s music fit the rising passions of the civil rights struggle. His tone resembled the arc of Martin Luther King’s voice and in a 1963 song “Alabama,” he memorialized the four girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church.

In this midst of this, Coltrane experimented with new directions for his music. The songs became more abstract, the roles of the musicians less defined, the personnel onstage less traditional, the sounds more dense and searching. This change came as a challenge to his fans. It even challenged and eventually jettisoned the musicians in his quartet. Club owners were unhappy because the audience was put in a trance by the music and didn’t order drinks. Coltrane decided to invest in a recording of his live performance in Seattle and also record in a Lynnwood studio. One of the musicians listed on the recordings is Joe Brazil.

I began asking around about Coltrane’s 1965 gig and Joe’s role. It turns out, in the Seattle area there were two Joe Brazils. One is the black saxophonist/flutist on the Coltrane recordings. The other is a white saxophonist named Joseph Mario Brazil. It also turns out that several people I know were present the week that Coltrane performed. Disk jockey Jim Wilke broadcast one evening on live radio. Some musician friends were underage at the time and snuck into the coat closet to hear the sounds. I started interviewing them and recording oral histories.

I went to the library to look up old newspaper mentions of Joe Brazil. I found club listings, television listings, articles about him teaching at high schools and universities, Black Panthers demanding his hire at the University of Washington, his establishment of the Black Academy of Music, filing racial discrimination suits, winning at the race track, performing with legendary musicians. A search of the internet turned up pictures of a memorial concert in a Seattle park.

I scoured archives at the University of Washington, City of Seattle and King County Courts. I found memos from the UW President’s Office, School of Music, Office of Minority Affairs, Affirmative Action, Equal Opportunity Employment, NAACP, Model Cities Program, U.S. Congressman John Conyers. Old city directories listed some addresses and phone numbers. I saw listings for Joe and Frances Brazil. Could this be the Joe Brazil I was seeking? Would he still have the same phone number today? I dialed. A woman answered. I explained who I was and that I was interested in learning about Joe Brazil. She said she was Frances, Joe’s first wife.

She agreed to a visit. She told me the story of Joe stopping in after gigs to visit her while she worked as a waitress in Detroit. He walked her home. She showed me photos from their first date. After they moved to Seattle in the early 1960’s, Joe built a rehearsal room on the back porch. She pointed to a burnt spot on the piano. John Coltrane had left a lit cigarette there when he stayed at their home in 1965. It may have been a trivial finding for a historical scholar, but my first visual clue to the relationship between Brazil and Coltrane stoked my curiosity. Frances opened a tin box of home movies. One was labeled Alice Coltrane, University of Washington, 1972. When I looked at a digital version of the film, everything was out of focus with no sound. In a few frames I could make out Alice (John’s second wife) at a piano. Joe walks into the frame and shakes her hand. In Alice’s biography[3], a drummer from Detroit recalls the time when John first met Alice nee McLeod in Joe’s Detroit basement. The piano that would later be burnt by John’s cigarette was there, too. Alice probably played Joe’s piano.

As I spoke with more people, rumors swirled around tapes that Joe had made of Coltrane practicing. I heard stories of Joe frequently carrying a portable tape recorder to capture music and voice. But where were the tapes? In 2012, I wrote an article[4] to summarize what I knew about Joe. Someone from Berlin read the article and contacted me. I found out about a saxophonist[5] who worked with Joe to develop the 1968 curriculum for black music at the University of Washington. He was currently living in Switzerland.

Then, I started a blog[6] to post findings from my research. My phone rang. It was Joe’s second wife, Virginia, calling to say one of her relatives found my blog. She had a bunch of Joe’s tapes. My phone rang again. It was Joe’s neighbor from 60 years ago in Detroit. He found my blog after asking about Joe in the Chrysler Talk Tent at the Detroit Jazz Festival.

Meanwhile, people were taking stories to their graves. Ed Lee, Joe’s trumpet playing band mate for decades, died. Jerry Heldeman, Joe’s bass player and Seattle club owner, died. Yusef Lateef, Joe’s saxophone friend from Detroit, died. Time was working against gathering first hand recollections.

If I was going to learn from Joe, I needed to find people fast. Here is what I heard of Joe’s story and I hope you find lessons in it that are still helpful today.


[1] Cannonball Adderley Live at the Club.
[2] I will never forget a concert by trumpeter Clark Terry. Almost every phrase he played was a different song. The audience was laughing at each quote like he was a stand up comedian delivering punch lines. The concert took place at Stephens College in Columbia, MO and the band included saxophonist Joe Ford, bassist Victor Gaskin and pianist John Campbell.
[3] Franya J. Berkman Monument Eternal: The Music of Alice Cotrane, Wesleyan 2010.
[4] “Justice for Joe” in Earshot Jazz, April 2012, pp 5-9.
[5] Byron Pope.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing this! January 1, 1968, I put a record on my turntable that a friend had suggested I listen to. It was A Love Supreme. I sat & listened & then I began to write a poem. I had never written a poem in my life. 47 years later, I'm still writing poetry & still listening to Trane's music. His music changed my life, & his example has been a guide for me in any creative work I have pursued. On that New Year's night when he began to chant, "A Love Supreme…A Love Supreme….", he opened a new world for me. May Peace Prevail!