Marion Brown

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Marion Brown
Background information
Born(1931-09-08)September 8, 1931
Atlanta, Georgia, United States
DiedOctober 18, 2010(2010-10-18) (aged 79)
Hollywood, Florida, United States
GenresAvant-garde, jazz
Occupation(s)Musician, ethnomusicologist
Instrument(s)Alto saxophone
Years active1962–1993

Marion Brown (September 8, 1931[1] – October 18, 2010)[2] was an American jazz alto saxophonist, composer, writer, visual artist, and ethnomusicologist. He was a member of the avant-garde jazz scene in New York City during the 1960s, playing alongside musicians such as John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, and John Tchicai. He performed on Coltrane's landmark 1965 album Ascension. AllMusic reviewer Scott Yanow described him as "one of the brightest and most lyrical voices of the 1960s avant-garde."[3]


Early life[edit]

Brown was born in Atlanta in 1931[1] and was raised by a single mother.[4] He was the grandson of an escaped slave from Georgia's Sea Islands.[5][6] He began studying the saxophone at an early age, inspired by Charlie Parker.[4] He left high school in the 10th grade and joined the army.[7] During his three-year enlistment, he played alto saxophone, clarinet, and baritone saxophone, and was stationed in Hokkaido for some time.[7]

In 1956, he returned to Atlanta and enrolled at Clark College, where he studied music,[7] taking lessons from Wayman Carver.[5] After graduating, he moved to Washington, DC, where he enrolled at Howard University's law school.[5] During this time, he began listening to musicians such as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Archie Shepp, all of whom he would soon meet and come to know.[7]

Early career[edit]

In 1962, Brown left Howard and moved to New York City, where he befriended a number of musicians, as well as writers such as Amiri Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones), who was also a Howard drop-out,[8] and A. B. Spellman, a Howard graduate. According to Brown, "The writers who listened to me and liked my playing, they inspired me to be better, and I inspired them to keep listening. LeRoi Jones opened the door for me; he introduced me to the world. He was a very beautiful and very smart person."[9]

He also met Ornette Coleman and Archie Shepp, and introduced Shepp to Baraka.[8] Brown recalled that Shepp "offered me the opportunity to play with him. But I didn't have a saxophone, so Ornette Coleman let me use his white plastic saxophone to get started."[4]

According to writer Aldon Lynn Nielsen, Brown's "conversations with Baraka and Shepp aided them in their thinking through of the relationships between the American jazz avant-garde and African musical traditions."[10] Brown later played a minor acting role in the original production of Baraka's Dutchman.[8]

In 1964, Brown performed with Shepp and Bill Dixon in "Four Days in December", a series sponsored by the Jazz Composers Guild.[9] The following year, he participated in the recording of Shepp's Fire Music[11] as well as John Coltrane's Ascension.[12] According to Brown, he was introduced to Coltrane by Shepp: "Archie told him about my music and he started to listen to it and he liked it. And then, several times, he would come to hear me play and he liked that. So when he decided to do Ascension, I fit the picture of somebody that he wanted in it."[4]

Regarding the music on Ascension, Brown stated: "You could use this record to heat up your apartment on a cold morning."[13] Regarding the recording session, he recalled: "We did two takes, and they both had that kind of thing in them that makes people scream. The people who were in the studio were screaming. I don't know how the engineers kept the screams out of the record. Spontaneity was the thing. Trane had obviously thought a lot about what he wanted to do, but he wrote most of it out in the studio. Then he told everybody what he wanted: he played this line and he said that everybody would play that line in the ensembles. Then he said he wanted crescendi until we were together, and then we got into it."[14]

During the mid-1960s, Brown began recording under his own name: Marion Brown Quartet, recorded in 1965 and released on ESP the following year;[15] Why Not?, recorded in 1966 and released on ESP in 1968;[16] Juba-Lee, recorded in 1966 and released on Fontana in 1967;[17] and Three for Shepp, recorded and released in 1966 on Impulse!.[18] Coltrane had used his influence at Impulse! to secure Brown his own recording date with the label.[19] Brown also performed with Sun Ra[5] and Pharoah Sanders,[20] and recorded with Burton Greene on the album Burton Greene Quartet.[21]

In Europe[edit]

In 1967, Brown moved to Europe, where he continued performing and recording, and where he developed an interest in architecture, Impressionistic art, African music and the music of Erik Satie. He was an American Fellow in Music Composition and Performance at the Cité internationale des arts in Paris.[22] On a show on French television, he played a version of Sound Structure with drummer Eddy Gaumont.[23] Late that year, while in Holland, he recorded Porto Novo with Han Bennink and Maarten Altena.[24]

While in Europe, Brown met and befriended Gunter Hampel, and in 1968 they recorded the soundtrack for Marcel Camus' film Le temps fou, with a band featuring Steve McCall, Barre Phillips, and Ambrose Jackson.[25][26] Brown and Hampel recorded two more albums, Gesprächsfetzen (in 1968)[27] and Marion Brown In Sommerhausen (in 1969).[28] While in Europe, Brown also performed in duos with Leo Smith,[29] recording Creative Improvisation Ensemble.[30]

Return to U.S.[edit]

In 1970, Brown returned to the United States, settling in Connecticut, where he at first worked in elementary schools, "teaching children how to make instruments and create their own music,"[4] and where he continued his musical partnership with Leo Smith.[1] He composed and performed incidental music for a Georg Büchner play, Woyzeck.[22]

From 1971 to 1976, he taught at Bowdoin College, Brandeis University, Colby College, and Amherst College,[7][22] and in 1976 he earned a master's degree in ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University.[31] His master's thesis was entitled "Faces and Places: The Music and Travels of a Contemporary Jazz Musician".[32] During this time, he also studied South Indian flute with P. Vishwanathan.[33]

In the early 1970s, Brown also recorded a trilogy of albums influenced by poet Jean Toomer, reflecting on his southern upbringing, in which "images of the Georgia countryside, many of them drawn from Toomer's poetry, and improvisational techniques of African, AfroAmerican, and European provenance enrich and revivify one another:"[34] , ECM),[35] Geechee Recollections (1973, Impulse!),[36] which featured Leo Smith and Steve McCall among others; Sweet Earth Flying (1974, Impulse!, named after a line in a Toomer poem),[37][38] which featured Muhal Richard Abrams and Steve McCall among others and November Cotton Flower ( 1979 Baystate Japan ) with Hilton Ruiz.

Reviewer Robert Palmer wrote: "The trilogy as a whole is an exemplary demonstration of how... a thoughtful artist can explore a 'subject' through a variety of techniques, processes, and formal disciplines. The shifting of perspective and approach from work to work is reminiscent of Durrell's Alexandria Quartet and indeed Brown's examination of the emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic ramifications of his origins is the sort of thing one finds frequently in literature and rarely in improvisional music.[34]

During the 1970s, Brown also recorded with Archie Shepp (Attica Blues, 1972[39] and Attica Blues Big Band Live At The Palais Des Glaces, 1979[40]), Leo Smith (Duets, 1973[41]), Elliott Schwartz (Duets and Soundways, both 1973[41][42]), Stanley Cowell (Regeneration, 1975[43]), Harold Budd (The Pavilion of Dreams, 1976[44]), and Grachan Moncur III (Shadows, 1977[45]). He also released ten albums under his own name.

In 1972 and 1976, Brown received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, which he used to compose and publish several pieces for solo piano, one of which was based on poetry from Jean Toomer's book Cane. He also transcribed some piano and organ music by Erik Satie including his Messe des pauvres and Pages mysterieuses, and arranged the composer's Le Fils des étoiles for two guitars and violin.[22]

In the 1980s, Brown continued recording, and also began focusing on drawing and painting, exhibiting his artwork at a number of shows.[7] His charcoal portrait of blues guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson[46] was included in an art show called Jus' Jass at Kenkeleba Gallery in New York City, which also included works by artists such as Romare Bearden, Charles Searles and Joe Overstreet.[22][47][48] In 1984, he published an autobiography titled "Recollections".[22] In the 1990s, he occasionally performed and read his poetry at Studio 5C in New York.[1]

Final years[edit]

By the late 1990s, Brown had fallen ill; due to a series of surgeries and a partial leg amputation, Brown resided for a time in the Bethany Methodist Home, Brooklyn.[1] He spent his final years in an assisted living facility in Hollywood, Florida, where he died in 2010, aged 79.[49]

In September 2010, Deval Patrick, then governor of Massachusetts, issued a proclamation naming September 15 "Marion Brown Day."[50]


Pianist Amina Claudine Myers' debut album Poems for Piano: The Piano Music of Marion Brown (Sweet Earth, 1979) predominantly featured Brown's compositions.[51]

Aside from his influence in the jazz avant-garde, several other areas of music have taken interest in Brown's music. Indie rockers Superchunk included a song called "Song for Marion Brown" on their album Indoor Living,[52] and Savath and Savalas released a piece entitled "Two Blues for Marion Brown" as part of Hefty Records's Immediate Action series.[53]

His Name Is Alive performed a tribute concert in 2004, performing solely Brown's music. In 2007, High Two released portions of the concert with studio versions as Sweet Earth Flower: A Tribute to Marion Brown.[54]

Thoughts on Music[edit]

"It is wrong to say that free jazz does not swing. It swings to a high number of beats. It is polyrhythmic. But it is hard for people listening to it to realize that... Free jazz is closer to African beats than bop or swing were; African rhythm is very complex."[55]

"My reference is the blues, and that's where my music comes from. I do listen to music of other cultures, but I just find them interesting. I don't have to borrow from them. My music and my past are rich enough. B.B. King is my Ravi Shankar."[56]


As leader[edit]

As sideman[edit]

With Harold Budd

With John Coltrane

With Stanley Cowell

With Burton Greene

  • Burton Greene Quartet (ESP Disk, 1966)

With The Group (Ahmed Abdullah, Brown, Billy Bang, Sirone, Fred Hopkins, Andrew Cyrille)

  • Live (NoBusiness Records, 2012)

With the Gunter Hampel All Stars

  • Jubilation (Birth, 1983)

With Grachan Moncur III

  • Shadows (Denon, 1977)

With Archie Shepp


  • You See What I'm Trying To Say? (Henry English, 1967)
  • See The Music (Inside The Creative Improvisation Ensemble) (Theodor Kotulla, 1971)
  • Jazz Is Our Religion (John Jeremy, 1972)
  • Inside Out In The Open (Alan Roth, 2001)
  • Meditations on Revolution V: Foreign City (Robert Fenz, 2003)


  1. ^ a b c d e Porter, Lewis (2001). "Brown, Marion (Jr.)". In Kuhn, Laura (ed.). Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. Vol. 1. New York: G. Schirmer, Inc. p. 470.
  2. ^ Keepnews, Peter (October 26, 2010). "Marion Brown, notable free jazz saxophonist". The Boston Globe. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  3. ^ Erlewine, Michael; Bogdanov, Vladimir; Woodstra, Chris; Yanow, Scott, eds. (1996). All Music Guide to Jazz (2nd ed.). Miller Freeman. p. 104.
  4. ^ a b c d e "A Fireside Chat with Marion Brown". April 11, 2003. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  5. ^ a b c d "Marion Brown". February 10, 2008. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  6. ^ Weiss, Jason (2012). Always in Trouble: An Oral History of ESP-Disk, the Most Outrageous Record Label in America. Wesleyan University Press. p. 147. My grandfather was a conjurer. He knew about roots and all kinds of medicines, and he never went to school for it. He found everything all on his own. He was a genius.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Mergner, Lee (April 26, 2019). "Jazz Saxophonist Marion Brown Dies". Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  8. ^ a b c Anderson, Iain (2007). This Is Our Music:Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 99.
  9. ^ a b Weiss, Jason (2012). Always in Trouble: An Oral History of ESP-Disk, the Most Outrageous Record Label in America. Wesleyan University Press. p. 145.
  10. ^ Nielsen, Aldon Lynn (2013). "'Now Is the Time': Voicing against the Grain of Orality". In Hebl, Ajay; Wallace, Rob (eds.). People Get Ready: The Future of Jazz Is Now!. Duke University Press. p. 37.
  11. ^ "Archie Shepp – Fire Music". 1965. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  12. ^ "John Coltrane – Ascension". February 1966. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  13. ^ Baber, Chris (Oct 15, 2022). "John Coltrane – Ascension: An Appreciation". Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  14. ^ The Major Works of John Coltrane (liner notes). GRP Records. 1992.
  15. ^ "Marion Brown Quartet – Marion Brown Quartet". 1966. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  16. ^ "Marion Brown Quartet – Why Not". 1968. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  17. ^ "Marion Brown Septet – Juba-Lee". 1967. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  18. ^ "Marion Brown – Three For Shepp". 1967. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  19. ^ Giddins, Gary (1998). Visions of Jazz: The First Century. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 486.
  20. ^ Jones, Leroi (1968). Black Music. New York: Da Capo Press. p. 121.
  21. ^ "Burton Greene Quartet – Burton Greene Quartet". 1966. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  22. ^ a b c d e f Brown, Marion (1984). Marion Brown: Recollections. J. A. Schmidt.
  23. ^ Marion Brown video live French TV 1967 (avant-garde jazz)
  24. ^ "Marion Brown – Porto Novo". 1975. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  25. ^ Brown, Marion (1984). "Le Temps Fou: Film de Camus (Marcel)". Schmitt. ISBN 9783923396030. OCLC 658888147. Retrieved September 12, 2023.
  26. ^ "Marion Brown – Le Temps Fou". 1969. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  27. ^ "Marion Brown / Gunter Hampel – Gesprächsfetzen". 1968. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  28. ^ "Marion Brown – Marion Brown In Sommerhausen". 1969. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  29. ^ Allen, Clifford (Summer 2007). "REISSUE THIS! Marion Brown". Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  30. ^ "Marion Brown / Leo Smith – Creative Improvisation Ensemble". 25 July 1994. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  31. ^ "Marion Brown Memorial Broadcast". Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  32. ^ "Marion Brown: Faces and Places: The Music and Travels of a Contemporary Jazz Musician". OCLC 19012484. Retrieved September 12, 2023.
  33. ^ Feather, Leonard; Gitler, Ira (1999). "Brown, Marion Jr.". The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 85.
  34. ^ a b Palmer, Robert (August 11, 1974). "A Jazz Saxophonist Re-examines His Southern Roots". The New York Times. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  35. ^ "Marion Brown – Afternoon Of A Georgia Faun". 1970. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  36. ^ "Marion Brown – Geechee Recollections". 1973. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  37. ^ Toomer, Jean. "Storm Ending". Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  38. ^ "Marion Brown – Sweet Earth Flying". 1974. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  39. ^ "Archie Shepp – Attica Blues". 1972. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  40. ^ "Archie Shepp – Attica Blues Big Band Live At The Palais Des Glaces". 1993. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  41. ^ a b "Marion Brown – Duets". 1975. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  42. ^ "Marion Brown, Elliott Schwartz – Soundways". 1973. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  43. ^ "Stanley Cowell – Regeneration". 1976. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  44. ^ "Harold Budd – The Pavilion Of Dreams". 1978. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  45. ^ "Grachan Moncur III – Shadows". 1977. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  46. ^ "Georgia Recollections: The Marion Brown Discography: Paintings and Drawings". Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  47. ^ "Georgia Recollections: The Marion Brown Discography: Exhibitions with Marion Brown's Art". Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  48. ^ McNally, Owen (December 5, 2010). "Jazz Saxophonist Marion Brown Let His Music Speak For Him". Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  49. ^ Keepnews, Peter (October 23, 2010). "Marion Brown, Free-Jazz Saxophonist, Dies at 79". The New York Times. Retrieved 2016-01-23.
  50. ^ Reney, Tom (September 14, 2012). "Governor Patrick's Proclamation: Marion Brown Day". Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  51. ^ Olewnick, Brian. "Amina Claudine Myers: Poems for Piano: The Piano Music of Marion Brown". Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  52. ^ "Superchunk – Indoor Living". 1997. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  53. ^ "Savath & Savalas – Immediate Action #1". 25 July 2001. Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  54. ^ Jurek, Thom. "His Name Is Alive: Sweet Earth Flower: A Tribute to Marion Brown". Retrieved July 17, 2020.
  55. ^ Carles, Philippe; Comolli, Jean-Louis (2015). Free Jazz / Black Power. University Press of Mississippi. p. 158.
  56. ^ Porto Novo - Marion Brown (liner notes). Arista. 1975. AL 1001.

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