All that jazz - The Mel Brown Quartet kicks off The Oxford Hotel's new jazz series

January 14, 2011  |  Bend Bulletin

Ben Salmon
The Bulletin


Marshall Glickman, CEO of G2 Strategic and the former Portland Trail Blazers president, has moved his international sports marketing and consulting business to Bend and become involved in community activities, such as serving on the board of Arts Central. Glickman is seen here at The Oxford Hotel, where he recently helped start the Jazz at The Oxford music series.




If you go

What: Mel Brown Quartet
When: 8 p.m. tonight and Saturday, 10 a.m. Sunday
Where: The Oxford Hotel, 10 N.W. Minnesota Ave., Bend
Cost: $25 advance, $30 at the door tonight; $30 advance, $35 at the door Saturday; $50 advance, $55 at the door Sunday (includes brunch). Advance tickets available with $1.50 fee at www.bendticket.com.
Contact: www.oxfordhotelbend.com or 541-382-8436

The Oxford Hotel's new jazz series will feature four of Portland's finest jazz acts on four holiday weekends between now and Memorial Day. Besides this weekend's Mel Brown Quartet shows, here is the lineup:
Feb. 18-20 — Patrick Lamb
March 25-27 — The Tom Grant Band featuring Dan Balmer
May 27-29 — The Ron Steen Band

Four-plus decades in any business is bound to produce a few good stories. Mel Brown hasn't spent four-plus decades in just any business, though. The 66-year-old Portland native has played drums professionally his entire adult life, and they've taken him from his hometown to cross-country tours with the Motown family to New York City and back to Oregon, where he's among the most vital cogs in the city's jazz scene.
They'll also bring him and his Mel Brown Quartet to Bend this weekend to kick off The Oxford Hotel's new jazz series (see “If you go”).

Along the way, Brown has picked up a few better-than-good stories, like when he was 15 and he sat down at a kit to play a show, only to see a woman emerge from backstage and begin removing her clothes, unexpectedly — to him, at least.

“I just thought I was playing jazz. They looked at me like, ‘C'mon drummer, don't you know what to do?'” Brown said in a telephone interview last week. “And I'm saying, ‘This lady's pulling off her clothes! Somebody call the cops!' And they said, ‘No, dummy, this is a floor show.'”

Brown has seen a lot of things since then. He grew up playing drums in school bands and eventually earned a music scholarship to Portland State University. (He was also a star athlete and turned down athletic scholarships to other schools. “I took a look at some of those (football players) in college and it was like, man, some of those guys from Southern Oregon were pretty big,” he said. “Even though I was very fast, you can't turn the corner all the time.”)

In his early 20s, Brown began playing drums for Martha and the Vandellas, which led to a gig as staff drummer for the Motown Record Corporation, where he recorded and toured with The Temptations, The Supremes and Smokey Robinson. Alas, he has no great stories from life on the road with Motown. He spent much of his time on tour studying for correspondence marketing and economics courses at the University of California at Berkeley, where he was a grad student.

Later, he worked with big names like Diana Ross and Pat Boone before returning to Portland to help build a jazz scene there. In 2002, he received Oregon's Governor's Arts Award for his contributions to the state's cultural life.

That's a pretty strong resumé for a guy who can be seen anchoring bands three nights per week at the popular Jimmy Mak's jazz club in Portland's Pearl District. His septet plays Tuesday nights, his organ group plays Thursdays, and the Mel Brown Quartet — featuring Dan Balmer on guitar, Tony Pacini on piano and Ed Bennett on bass — holds down Wednesday nights. The MBQ came together years ago to play tight, hard-swinging bop in a style somewhat similar to that of one of Brown's heros, Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers. The group has been described as a quartet of bandleaders, though Pacini is the official music director, leading the MBQ through its vast repertoire of originals and standards “with a different twist,” Brown said.

“(The band) is kind of like my background — the way I was raised, the music I grew up on,” Brown said. “We play straight ahead, and it feels really good. Everybody plays and we listen to each other a lot.
“Plus everybody likes each other,” he continued. “In most bands you get something good going and all of a sudden there's an internal fight, and that's because you're around each other too much. I see some of these guys once a week, so we don't have time to get mad. Hell, we're just happy to be playing.” Happy to be playing. It's an attitude that has come to define Brown's life in Portland. He was given the nickname “The Godfather” because he started so many bands, jams and regular nights back in the day “to get more jazz musicians working,” he said.

“When I came back from New York in the '70s, all we had was country and western,” Brown said. “I started to go back to New York and my mom said, ‘Don't run from a problem. You solve the problem.' And so by having a lot of different bands, it keeps everyone on their toes.” And at 66, Mel Brown seems more agile than players half his age. After four decades keeping time, he still has the ability and opportunity to do what he loves, and he recognizes what a blessing that is. “I've got lots of energy. I'm doing exactly what I want to do, so life is good,” he said. “When I'm on vacation and I don't have a drum set, after about three or four days I'm chomping at the bit, like just give me some sticks, man. Let me sit down and play some music. I've got to.”

This is your weekend, jazz fans!

— Ben Salmon