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MUSIC : Blend of Blues and Be-Bop : Tenor saxophonist Wilbur Brown created his colorful, emotional style from years of playing with jazz legends.

October 07, 1994|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times

BURBANK — His body erect yet relaxed, his tenor saxophone in front of him, Wilbur Brown stands in the patio of the Cat and Fiddle Pub and Restaurant in Hollywood, playing jazz that has an effervescent, appealing bounce.

Brief, bluesy phrases, the kind that send a shiver right down to your heels, are followed by rocketing lines that carom around the verdant patio. This musical mixture almost always draws vigorous applause.

"I'm a blues guy, and I'm a be-bop guy," Brown said after a recent Sunday performance.

He performs with pianist Frank Strazzeri's quartet Saturday at Chadney's.

Brown is a superb yet unheralded musician who began his professional career at 15 with blues and R&B hit-makers Joe Liggens and Roy Milton. A humble, soft-spoken sort who would never say he's in the same league as the giants of jazz--some would argue he is--Brown says the blues permeated the music of those legends.

"Listen to Milt Jackson," he says, referring to the acclaimed vibist with the Modern Jazz Quartet, "and you hear the blues. That's what makes him attractive. Miles (Davis), when he played 'My Funny Valentine,' played the blues."

The saxophonist, who has worked with Ray Charles, Lionel Hampton, Hank Crawford, Lloyd Price and Kenny Dorham, says everybody can understand the blues.

"Blues is a nice feeling," he says. "It's a folk music that people take to. They can feel it. Even people who don't like be-bop or the blues are affected by it."

A native of Los Angeles, Brown said he developed his colorful, emotional style from necessity as much as inspiration. "When I was a kid, you really didn't need to know anything but blues changes, because there were no gigs but blues gigs," he says. At a Westside home and wearing jeans, sneakers, and a pale blue polo shirt, he adds, "And I took any gig I could get."

Brown began to play saxophone when he was 8 or 9, and when he was in the 10th grade, be-bop caught his ear. He set out to master it. "I was an admirer of Charlie Parker," he says, referring to one of the fathers--along with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie--of the complex, compelling art form of be-bop. "And as an admirer, I learned to play fast because he did."

Brown is mostly self-taught--not only as a saxophonist, but as an arranger and orchestrator. But he did take lessons from Lloyd Reese, a trombonist who also taught such L.A. legends as Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus and Buddy Collette. Brown as much as admits that Reese's direction and firm hand led him to his bountiful career in music.

"He taught me how to learn, how to teach myself. He gave me exercises, and if I didn't practice them, he'd say, 'Well, maybe you don't want to be a musician after all. Take a couple of weeks off and think it over,' " Brown recalls with a shudder. "That was like telling me he was going to take my left leg off at the ankle, something tantamount to that."

In 1962, after establishing himself as a jazzman in his hometown, Brown moved to New York, and stayed for 10 happy years. "If you want to find out about yourself, that's the place to do it," he says. He played with many of the best, and one cherished memory is of a weeklong engagement with pianist Red Garland, who was a central figure in Miles Davis' quintet of the mid '50s. "I couldn't play a wrong note," Brown says with an infectious smile. "No matter what I did, he made sense of it."


Back in Los Angeles, Brown played around town with many artists, including Strazzeri. "If he were a dancer, you'd say he had style and grace," Brown says of the pianist. "We just have fun together."

For the past eight years, Brown has co-led a quintet at the Cat and Fiddle with altoist Pat Britt.

"Wilbur is the ideal saxophonist for any blues or jazz job," Britt says. "He can do anything."

Brown says a life in music has given him "happiness, I guess, and great peace of mind."

"I've been very lucky to have played with great musicians whom I admired. And they haven't been mean to me, you know," he says, smiling.

Where and When

Who: Wilbur Brown appears with Frank Strazzeri's quartet.

Location: Chadney's, 3000 W. Olive St., Burbank.

Hours: 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday.

Price: No cover, no minimum.

Call: (818) 843-5333.

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