A CUP OF JOE
By Steve Griggs
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
and founded the Black
Academy of Music. He grew up in University
of Washington 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.
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
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
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
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. , 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. Coltrane,
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 Thanksgiving 1960 with the names John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, and others. Coltrane and his band were in
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.
By the end of the 1950’s, industrial work slowed in
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
During the day, Joe worked in manufacturing and studied at the
– mostly math and
computer programming. But he never abandoned music. At night, Joe led a jazz
ensemble called the Jazz Souls. University
[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,
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.
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
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
Middle School, and Seattle Community College, Washington . One friend of Joe’s told me, “Joe was a
prophet. He wanted people to remember the old guys.” Garfield High
Joe and another saxophonist, Byron Pope, prepared a curriculum to teach Black Music as part of the
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. University of Washington
Enrollment and attendance for Joe’s classes grew dramatically while interest in traditional classes at the
shrank. But Joe’s pro-black stance alienated whites when, at School of Music , 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, Whitman
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.
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
Around this same time that Joe was recognized by royalty,
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.
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
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
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.”