Thursday, August 7, 2014

Draft Narrative for "A Cup of Joe Brazil"

By Steve Griggs
© 2014

We live in a city where a mysterious part of jazz was created. And part of that mystery is a Detroit-born saxophonist named Joseph Brazil.

[Play “Joseph Brazil”]

Does anyone here remember Joe Brazil? What do you remember about him?
He was a jazz saxophonist. He taught at the University of Washington and founded the Black Academy of Music. He grew up in Detroit.
I never had the pleasure of meeting him before he passed in 2008. Even though he is not here physically, I invite his spirit to join us here today. He continues to teach me about music, society, and myself.
He is not the first dead musician to mentor me. First, was John Coltrane. He died in 1967, when I was seven. About 11 years later, I heard his music on records and was entranced. The song that first got me was “Village Blues.”

[Band plays Village Blues quietly]

I listened to every Coltrane record I could find. I wanted to play music with that deep vibe, music that put you in a trance and evoked a weighty sincerity. The things that stood out to me were the sound of the whole band, that everyone played an equal part – supporting each other so that the music surpassed any individual talent, and that the sound was a musical abstraction of real feelings, events, and people.

[Band stops]

So when I moved to Seattle, I wanted to find out about the time that Coltrane played here. Coltrane came to Seattle in 1965 to play a week at the Penthouse, a jazz club at the corner of 1st and Cherry. He paid out of his own pocket for a live recording at the club and another in a Lynnwood studio. The music sounded crazy. People were chanting, drums bashing, horns squealing. I couldn’t pick out any recognizable melody or form. It sounded like freedom – spirits unleashed. Emotive motifs turned up to 11!
There was one name on the record I had never heard before, Joe Brazil. Who was he? How did he get involved with Coltrane? What was he doing in Seattle? What was this music about? I was used to learning about famous musicians through lots of commercial recordings. Who was this obscure person? What could I learn from him? I made it my mission to find out.
I found out that Joe lived in Seattle and in 1965, Coltrane stayed at Joe’s house that week. I even saw the cigarette burn on Joe’s piano left by Coltrane. I heard that Joe sat in with Coltrane every night that week. The band rode to the Lynnwood studio in Joe’s Chrysler Imperial. The car had a squeaky door that Coltrane wanted to use on the record.
But the story of Joe and Coltrane starts ten years earlier in Detroit.

[Play Detroit]

1950’s Detroit was a hot bed of jazz. The best musicians from New York had to practice before traveling there because the level of skill in the bands at the local venues was so high. Like many Detroit musicians, Joe Brazil was working at an auto factory during the day. At night, he listened to records, practiced, hit the clubs, and sat in with some of the best artists in the world. He set up his basement with a piano and invited musicians to come jam at his house. Joe’s basement became infamous for being a place where local musicians rubbed elbows with the touring talent in all night sessions. Shoulder to shoulder, 20 horn players would wait in the dark for their chance to solo with the drums, bass, and piano. A single bulb cast a cone of light near the piano. Though the sessions were informal and the relationships between musicians warm, the level of musicianship was sky high along with the tempos set by the drummer and bass player.

[Play Bebop in the Basement]

A frequent visitor to Brazil’s basement was saxophonist John Coltrane. Coltrane would come to Detroit many times in the 1950’s with Miles Davis and want to practice during the day and after the gig. Miles’ bass player Paul Chambers had lived at Joe’s house before joining Miles’ band so Coltrane found out about Joe and started using Joe’s house as a place to work on music when he was in Detroit. By the time Coltrane was bringing his own band to Detroit, Coltrane skipped the hotel entirely and stayed at Joe’s house. Coltrane, Brazil, and a handful of other saxophonists would share ideas, practice, and learn together in an informal but serious setting. I think this casual but passionate and collective way of learning would serve as a model for Joe’s teaching style in the future.
Joe liked to record live music. He often carried a reel to reel tape recorder to clubs. At the Blue Bird Inn he taped Miles Davis. At the Rouge Lounge he taped Clifford Brown, just four months before the young trumpeter was killed in a car crash. At Club 411 he taped himself with saxophonist Johnny Griffin. These tapes were private. He liked to listen to the tapes and study the music.
He also taped jam sessions at his home. Joe left behind a trove of audio tapes that document an important chapter in the development of the music and musicians that went on to achieved legendary status. I hope that one day the public, YOU, will be able to hear this candid and intimate sound of informal music making. Joe and the few people who have heard these tapes are no longer with us. In Joe’s tape collection, I found one box labeled 3am Thanksgiving 1960 with the names John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, and others. Coltrane and his band were in Detroit that week and staying at Joe’s house. Because funds are needed to safely digitize and preserve these recordings, I haven’t yet heard what’s on that tape. But here’s my version of how that early morning Thanksgiving might sound.

[Play Thanksgiving]

By the end of the 1950’s, industrial work slowed in Detroit. Joe spotted an advertisement on the factory bulletin board – Boeing in Seattle was hiring. Joe got a job as a tool and die maker and moved out just as Century 21, the Seattle World’s Fair, got underway.
The contrast between Detroit and Seattle was stark. Joe stayed at the Y downtown and when he looked out his window he said to himself, “Where are all the black people?” Seattle was and still is one of the whitest cities in America. Joe had to search for blacks here. In other American cities, musical community leaders had wider influence – Horace Tapscott in Los Angeles, Julius Hemphill in St. Louis, Muhal Richard Abrams in Chicago. But Joe had migrated to a city with a small black community, so his influence was constrained.
During the day, Joe worked in manufacturing and studied at the University of Washington – mostly math and computer programming. But he never abandoned music. At night, Joe led a jazz ensemble called the Jazz Souls.

[Play Jazz Souls]

So when Coltrane came to Seattle in 1965, Joe Brazil and Coltrane reunited. For that week, around the clock, they were inseparable. They shared what they were working on in music and learning about spirituality. Coltrane was interested in the many versions of the Bhagavad Gita he found in Joe’s house and decided to recite the text from chapter 9, the Yoga of Mysticism, during the studio recording. Some listeners, including myself, have thought the music sounded angry, chaotic, expressing pain. Brazil explained in an interview that the musicians were trying to reach another level of consciousness, a state of exhilaration and joy, striving for a sound that would help people come together.
A few years later, Brazil collaborated on a piece called “Levels of Consciousness” where he improvised on saxophone while a dancer moved and an actor recited quotes of John Coltrane. Here is our version of Consciousness.

[Play Consciousness]

In 1967, Coltrane died and I imagine that Joe must have been devastated. I wonder if Coltrane’s death and Martin Luther King’s death the following year inspired Brazil to think about his own mortality. Coltrane was just a year older than Brazil and King was two years younger. This existential reckoning may have urged him to pass information on to the next generation. Joe began teaching music in Seattle schools – Seattle Community College, Washington Middle School, and Garfield High School. One friend of Joe’s told me, “Joe was a prophet. He wanted people to remember the old guys.”
Joe and another saxophonist, Byron Pope, prepared a curriculum to teach Black Music as part of the University of Washington’s new Black Studies program. Joe used his network of musical friends to bring major artists to lecture and demonstrate for the rapidly growing classes. Joe broke new ground by video taping the artists speaking to the students. Among the many artists in Joe’s class were Earl Hines – the father of modern jazz piano, Dizzy Gillespie – one of the inventors of bebop, and Herbie Hancock – eventually a winner of 14 Grammies for creating popular new jazz styles. Translated to classical music contemporaries, this is roughly the equivalent of having piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz, modern conductor Leonard Bernstein, and contemporary opera composer John Adams address a class of undergraduates.
Enrollment and attendance for Joe’s classes grew dramatically while interest in traditional classes at the School of Music shrank. But Joe’s pro-black stance alienated whites when, at Whitman College, he addressed an African American Cultural Festival with a lecture emphasizing the African ancestry of Beethoven and Haydn. But Joe wasn’t making it up. At the time there were already three books documenting the composers’ dark complexion and African facial features. In his lecture, Joe went on to demand equality in teaching black music in schools. Joe said, “Americans are usually proud of their achievements. It is ironic; here is one of the most important cultural subjects, and we are not teaching it in a meaningful way. We teach the European music, but we should be pushing American music just as heavily. If you cancel out the music of the blacks, America would be culturally bankrupt.”
I call this song, “Beethoven Was Black.”

[Play Beethoven Was Black]

Joe was on the leading edge of introducing academia to the community and culture of Black America, but the white faculty did not welcome that change and did not grant Joe tenure. Given the rising class enrollment and access to outstanding artists as a unique benefit he brought to the job, Joe attributed the vote of no confidence to racism. An inside investigation did not find legal evidence to support Joe’s claim.
There was a definite lack of respect for Joe’s informal style and popular subject. Individual style, story telling, casual adherence to schedules, mistrust of administration, expression of feelings related to oppression, and public airing of grievances – these did not fit the mold of the UW School of Music.
Brazil was replaced by Milton Stewart, a black professor from the University of Michigan. He was treated with even less respect than Brazil. When Stewart was denied tenure in 1982, he wrote to the NAACP. “They desperately wanted me because I was a black person with a Ph.D. in music who taught jazz and other Afro-American music courses. One of their ‘reasons’ for terminating Joe Brazil was that he didn’t have academic credentials. I was used as a foil to make what they were doing to Mr. Brazil appear legitimate.”
Ironically, as Brazil’s career at UW drew to a close in 1976, rallies and press coverage about him increased. Meanwhile, he founded a non-profit music school called the Black Academy of Music or BAM. He received funding from the Seattle Arts Commission, Seattle Model Cities Program, and the National Endowment of the Arts to teach music at little or no cost to students and lead a community orchestra. Through BAM, Brazil brought music to inmates at Washington prisons. While the UW was ignoring Brazil’s significant role in the community, the King of Sweden, Carl Gustof, presented Brazil with a service award. The king was in America at the time for the bicentennial. He is the same person who bestows the Nobel Prize.
Around this same time that Joe was recognized by royalty, Brazil also appeared on a record by vibraphonist Roy Ayers. I decided to mix these two events into a song called “Royal Heirs.”

[Play Royal Heirs]

I found a single page of an autobiography Joe started but never finished. He wrote, “My life has taken a number of directions, but all seemingly with a purpose. Along the way I have come in contact with some remarkable people. Most have had some positive impact on my life. I have also come in contact with many racists and bigots.
“I feel the information that I share about my life may help to bring about some awareness that will bring us earthlings a step closer together.”
“Bring about some awareness.” That’s a message from Joe. When I contemplate Awareness and how to bring people closer together, this is how I think it sounds.

[Play Awareness]

Joe Brazil spent his life making space for the community involved in music to grow. That’s why he became respected by artists, novices and everyone in between. And that’s why I am so curious about his story. I believe that music improvisation is a wonderful embodiment of human freedom. Joe was involved with expanding that freedom. He performed some of the freest sounding music with John Coltrane. He sought recognition of that freedom’s importance and everyone’s right to exercise that freedom. I’m listening to what Joe had to say because I think it is just as relevant today. I cherish the freedom to improvise and I want Americans to recognize how black music traditions enrich our culture.
Joe struggled for his whole life against racial discrimination. He grew up in a time when he was often the first black person where he lived and worked. And in the Pacific Northwest where blacks are marginalized, he repeatedly advocated for education and employment of blacks. If Brazil had lived in Los Angeles or New York City his impact would have been enormous.
Joe Brazil’s example and advocacy for social justice made a difference in the lives of many people. But, pioneers often encounter obstacles when blazing a new path. I am grateful for the trail Joe made and the struggles he shouldered. Joe was an important figure in the civil rights movement here in Seattle – one of America’s whitest cities.
James Baldwin said in 1963, “The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and to try and change it and to fight it—at no matter what the risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.”

[Play Hope]


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