"True literature can only exist where it is created, not by painstaking and reliable clerks, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels, and skeptics."
--Evgeny Zamyatin, author of We
Watching the Chicago-area news tonight, I learned of the passing at age 78 of Oscar Brown Jr., a musician and playwright whose work spanned several genres, including jazz, soul and rhythm & blues. Among Brown's best known songs are "The Snake," "Work Song," "Signifyin' Monkey," and "Watermelon Man"; he also wrote the lyrics for Miles Davis's composition "All Blues," and in the early 1960s sang alongside musical greats Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane. Some of his most notable standards are "It Ain't Necessarily So," "One for My Baby/ One for the Road" and "Where and When." Additionally, he hosted a talent show in Gary, Indiana, that initiated the career of a local group that became the "Jackson Five."
I remember hearing "Signifyin' Monkey" at home when I was little, and for a long time thought it was a children's song. It wasn't until I was older that I figured out the many dimensions of the song, which led me back to Brown's other works. Brown's early style links him, I think, to figures like Eddie Jefferson, Betty Carter, and Nina Simone, though his voice, which combined a rich tone, precisely enunciated diction and earthy execution, is inimitable; once you've heard him you can always pick his works out, even after he moved more into the soul arena. I always felt Brown was one of those artists whose talents exceeded the boundaries of any one area or artistic form; he also wrote plays, poems and essays, and was actively involved, artistically and politically, with numerous communities in Chicago. Over the years, he performed his music across the globe.
His songs and other works remain, but his death is a tremendous loss, not only for the Chicago area, but for music lovers everywhere.