I’m saddened to report that the Greater Hartford jazz community lost one of its most beloved figures on Friday night with the passing of Paul Brown at age 82. Brown’s career as a bassist brought impeccable credibility to his local prominence as a teacher, mentor, presenter, and community leader. He’d toured with a who’s who of singers including Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Nina Simone, and Betty Carter, and he enjoyed long associations with jazz masters Nat Adderley, Walter Bishop. Jr., Junior Cook, and Bill Hardman.
In the mid-sixties, “PB” conceived the idea of bringing jazz artists to Hartford in an effort to quell urban unrest and unite communities through the grace and power of music. From the start, he got fast and ready cooperation from those he called upon, and beginning in 1967, opening season included the Adderley Brothers, Muddy Waters, and Clark Terry’s Big Band playing in the Garden Area Center of Hartford’s North End. Since then, through Brown’s efforts as a fundraiser and presenter, thousands have enjoyed free summer concerts in the streets of Hartford and on Monday nights at Bushnell Park. Brown was also a founder of the annual Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz, a free weekend fest in mid-July. (For the past decade, the Hartford Jazz Society has preserved PB’s vision by producing Monday Night Jazz; now in its 49th year, it’s the nation’s longest running free jazz concert series.)
Paul Brown at center in white shirt on April 25, 2016; photo by Joseph Chandler
As an educator, Brown helped found the Artists Collective with Dolly and Jackie McLean around 1970, and he was long associated with the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts. Not surprisingly, social media was brimming with testimonials about PB’s legacy over the weekend. Matt Chasen of West Hartford wrote, “Without his tireless efforts there would be no ‘jazz community’ in Hartford as we know it today.” Paul was feted on April 25 at the Monday Jazz Jam at Black-Eyed Sally’s in Hartford. Early that evening, I heard the bassist Matt Dwonszyk play a set with Matt and Atla DeChamplain at the Gaylord Memorial Library in South Hadley, Mass., then announce that he had to leave promptly to get to the tribute for his mentor.
Paul Brown and Matt Dwonszyk, Bushnell Park bandstand, Hartford; photo by Joseph Chandler
PB’s commitment to bringing jazz giants– Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Sun Ra, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Betty Carter, Sonny Stitt, Sonny Rollins, and Count Basie among them– and keepers of the flame to Hartford helped foster the impressive number of locally born jazz players who’ve moved on to national recognition. Monday Night Jazz has long showcased emerging players as opening acts for the headliners, and it’s not unusual these days to read listings of jazz events in New York and see numerous Hartford-area players among them.
I met PB many times over the years, and among the laughs we shared was one that had to do with the occasional confusion of yours truly with NYC drummer Tom Rainey. Paul told me that he was hired for a job in Boston one night with a group that included Rainey, and on the ride up he wondered why I’d never told him I was a drummer. While en route, he heard my late afternoon promo for Jazz à la Mode on WFCR and wondered, “How’s Tom gonna be in two places at once?” Upon arrival, of course, he discovered a different Tom altogether.
To jazz fans throughout the region, PB was a guiding light for over fifty years. As befitting his stature, the Hartford Courant’s tribute to PB ran on page one of Sunday’s edition. Click here to read Kristen Stoller’s feature, which includes tributes paid to the bassist at a previously scheduled event in his honor on Saturday afternoon at the Avon Public Library. I’ve no doubt that Paul Brown’s greatest civic wish will be for the Hartford jazz community to continue to thrive, but to be sure, there’ll never be another PB.
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