Jazz guitarist, composer
Modern jazz guitarist Norman Brown revealed in his art the soul of a dedicated musician. In concert and on records, Brown’s music generated adult appeal as he presented a delicate style that he successfully optimized through production and performance of his own compositions. Brown’s career evolved from a boyhood affinity for guitar music—ignited by the sounds of Jimi Hendrix, and rekindled through the music of George Benson. Brown’s family recognized his ability early and encouraged and assisted him in carving a niche among his contemporaries. He honed his talent at the Musician’s Institute of Hollywood and remained with that organization in a teaching capacity for a decade, composing works and nurturing other musicians along the way. Through his recorded performances, released throughout the 1990s, Brown came to the attention of a diverse audience, including rhythm & blues, pop, and jazz fans. His understated personal style and cultivated jazz rhythms brought him worldwide recognition as a polished adult artist.
Norman Brown was born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri. As a child, he enjoyed the music of Jimi Hendrix and took inspiration from that artist. Brown’s interest in playing the guitar flourished when he heard his older brother playing some tunes on a borrowed guitar, and he began to play in secret whenever the guitar was idle, in his brother’s absence. Brown’s brother, five years older, overheard Norman Brown’s secret practice sessions one day, and was so impressed with the younger boy’s delicate touch on the strings that he essentially stopped playing, opting instead to help his younger sibling learn to play better. Neither did Norman Brown’s natural talent go unrecognized by his father, Roy Brown Sr., who also helped to nurture the talent, encouraging the budding musician to listen to Wes Montgomery and George Benson.
It was Benson’s music in particular that that inspired young Brown, and he was sometimes compared to the popular guitarist as his own style matured. Brown’s father purchased a new guitar and amplifier for the boy, who then stepped up from the acoustic guitar into a new realm. In high school Brown played rhythm & blues and other popular music styles. While his early repertoire was comprised largely of Earth, Wind, and Fire songs, performed mostly with local bands, Brown progressed rapidly into contemporary jazz, and played with quartets. The Brown brothers nurtured a close sibling relationship, and Brown’s older brother used money from his first job to purchase a professional-quality electric guitar and an amplifier for the younger boy, not long before his own death in 1980.
In 1984, Brown joined the Musician’s Institute of Hollywood as a staff instructor, having completed the school’s one-year vocational curriculum. For ten years thereafter he taught guitar technology, for two days every week, as many as ten sessions per week. Brown became a devoted educator, teaching guitar lessons privately, organizing and hosting guitar seminars, and performing outreach in general.
In 1990, Brown signed a contract with Motown Records on a jazz label that was newly launched at that time, called MoJazz. He wrote and co-produced his debut album, Just Between Us, which appeared in 1992. The recording, with nine tracks of his own upbeat compositions, saw its way to number 51 on the rhythm & blues charts. The album’s successful showing led to critical approval as well as a promotional tour in Europe. The success of that initial release helped to define Brown’s image as a serious jazz artist, with adult appeal.
Again he included nine new compositions of his own in 1994 on a follow-up album, After the Storm. The springtime release explored a variety of moods, including a sense of solitary moodiness that was absent from his debut release. Without getting lost in the somber atmosphere, however, Brown included a variety of rhythms, including Latin dance tunes for color. Within three weeks of its release, the album found its way to number two on the Top Contemporary Jazz albums chart, while simultaneously showing respectably at the number 22 position on the rhythm & blues charts. Among the Billboard listings, Brown’s album nested securely within the Top 200, at number 141. All Music Guide listed After the Storm as a four-and-a-half-star album.
For The Record…
Born in Kansas City, MO; son of Roy Brown Sr. Education: Musician’s Institute of Hollywood.
Worked as an instructor, Musician’s Institute of Hollywood, late 1984-1994; signed with Motown Records (MoJazz label), 1990; signed with Warner Brothers late-1990s.
Addresses: Record company —Warner Brothers Records, 3300 Warner Boulevard, Burbank, CA 91505-4694.
Among the album’s featured songs, the popular single, “That’s the Way Love Goes,” was eventually released on video and was seen on VH-1. The song introduced listeners of a new audience niche to Brown’s pleasurable guitar as the album earned a following among adult alternative music fans. Overall, After the Storm was the vehicle that brought Brown to prominence as a serious artist. The record brought continued success for Brown throughout 1994. He opened that year at the House of Blues in New Orleans, Louisiana, and his touring engagements brought him to Tuscaloosa, Alabama where he kicked off what would ultimately be an international promotion for After the Storm.
That summer he rounded out his tour on the festival circuit and made appearances at the Capital Jazz Festival as well as Philadelphia’s Melon Jazz Festival. Brown’s refreshing and sophisticated contemporary music came to the attention of the National Association of Recording Merchandisers, who invited him to perform at their conference in San Francisco. Likewise he took a detour through Los Angeles on his tour, in order to perform for the Black Radio Executives at their conference in Los Angeles that spring.
Brown was gratified, but uninspired by the administrative aspects of record producing. As an escape from the tedium and to enhance his sound, he added his own scatlike vocals to his music. He released a final MoJazz album, appropriately named, Better Days Ahead, in 1996, then switched labels and signed a contract with Warner Brothers.
Brown’s first release on the new label, an album called Celebration, was released on August 10, 1999. Critics approved; All Music Guide rated it a four star effort.
Brown discredits perennial comparison between himself and Benson and remains eager to distinguish his style from his predecessor. Although both musicians play on Ibanez guitars (Brown’s model is GB 10), Brown’s own music by his own definition is more traditional from a rhythmic standpoint, oftentimes slower and with less verve, when compared to Benson’s flowing jazz movements. Brown, whose repertoire encompasses both contemporary and traditional jazz styles, was described as “R&B fusion with a jazz base,” according to J. R. Reynolds, who quoted Mo Jazz director, Bruce Walker, in Billboard.
“That’s the Way Love Goes,” MoJazz, 1994.
Just Between Us, MoJazz, 1992.
After the Storm, MoJazz, 1994.
Better Days Ahead, MoJazz, 1996.
Celebration, Warner Bros., 1999.
Billboard, June 11, 1994, p. 1; August 7, 1999, p. 36.
Ebony Man, August 1994, p. 6.
“Norman Brown,” All Music Guide, http://allmusic.com (May 4, 2000).
“The Robertson Treatment: Norman Brown,” Brooklyn Boy Books & Entertainment, http://www.brooklynboy.com/news/rob3.htm (May 4, 2000).
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