LaFollette Park, 1333 N. Laramie, was the place to be last Friday night. A performance by a new generation of Browns?”featuring Maggie Brown, Africa Brown and some of Oscar Brown’s grandchildren?”was the featured act.
It was just like watching a Broadway production. Maggie Brown is so much like her father, for a moment you forget that Oscar Brown, Jr. passed away on May 29, 2005. Maggie resembles her dad, and her sister, Africa, resembles her mother, Jean Pace, a gifted dancer and model who often performed with her husband.
What Maggie and Africa Brown have put together is the legacy of their father’s body of musical work. Watching Maggie assemble, direct and work behind the scenes made the actual production more meaningful. The amount of work and rehearsing these artist do is impressive. Chicago has been the home for many African-American talents. When I first moved to Chicago it was common conversation to hear my father talk about current or former South Side residents such as Mahalia Jackson, Ramsey Lewis, Lorraine Hansberry, Dr. Margaret Burroughs, Arlene Brigham, Sylvia Woods, Dinah Washington, Redd Foxx, Gus Savage, Nat King Cole, Marvin Yancey, The Staple Singers, Muhammad Ali, Gwendolyn Brooks and Oscar Brown, Jr.
Last Friday’s presentation was a joint effort of the Chicago Park District and the Jazz Institute of Chicago. The Jazz Institute has programmed the Chicago Jazz Festival since its inception in 1979. The Chicago jazz and Heritage Program is an innovative education series that traces the evolution of Swing, Bebop, Latin-Jazz and Free-jazz, highlighting Chicago’s rich historical jazz legacy with legendary resident musicians. Through oral history, workshops and concerts, the program reconnects Chicago’s communities to their jazz history and America’s own art form. (Source: Chicago Jazz and Heritage Program)
“A New Generation of Browns” is a production that is stylish, unique and creative, performed in four parts. Part I derives from Kicks & Co., a musical written by Oscar Brown Jr. around 1961. Although it did not last on Broadway, even with the help of friend Lorraine Hansberry, the current production, featuring Maggie and Africa, shows just what Broadway missed?”songs like “Mr. Kicks” and Africa’s reprisal of “Hazel’s Hips” has you swaying in your seat. When Maggie sang “Newborn Child,” it felt like someone giving your heart a warm massage.
Part II featured Oscar Brown Jr. classics “Afro Blue,” “Work Song,” “Dat Dere,” “But I was Cool,” “Signifyin’ Monkey,” “Brother Where Are You?” and “A New Generation.” During Part II, some of the grandchildren make their appearance. They were more than eager to perform when they got their cue from Maggie. One grandson, who is only 2 years old, is already showing his love of performing. A natural performer, the other children had to constantly wrestle the microphone from him.
Part III included excerpts from the show In De Beginning, all music by Oscar Brown Jr. and Calvin Brunson?”with songs like “One life,” “Adam’s Prayer,” “Holy Nightmare,” “The Serpent,” and “Now You Know.” The Brown ensemble consisted of Rayzine Collaso, who played The Snake; Vonzel Reynolds, who played The Devil; Mpatanishi Cobb; Zenzile Cobb; Isha Molinea Lewis; and Duane Jones.
Part IV contained excerpts from Great Nitty Gritty, music by Oscar Brown Jr. and Oscar Brown III. Sadly, Oscar Brown III (affectionately known as Bo Bo) was killed in an auto crash in 1996, at the age of 38. The selections included “GNG Theme/Chant,” “Children of Children,” “Looking Up From the Bottom,” and “People of Soul.”
Musical ensemble Hypnotic is all brass, and includes family members of well-known Chicago artist Phil Cohran. Hypnotic members are Gabriel Hubert, trumpet; Amal Hubert, trumpet; Jafar Graves, trumpet; Rarik Graves, trumpet; Saiph Graves, trombone; Seba Graves, trombone; Tycho Cohran, tuba; and Byron Anderson, drums.
The program booklet included excerpts from Brown’s book, What It Is – Poems and Opinions of Oscar Brown, Jr. The following quote was included: “The spotlight’s been good to me. I hope it’s even better for those who come after me. Since the early ’80s, I have written, produced and directed a musical called The Great Nitty Gritty, about Chicago youth growing up in the housing projects. I love it. It’s a real grassroots project, working with kids. We recruit kids from such places as the Ida B. Wells housing development and find scores of shining talent every year. It’s amazing the talent we have in this city.
“My daughters, Africa and Maggie, continue to be wonderful performers and seeing them and the rest of my children succeed has made me extremely proud. I hope one day that their lives in the spotlight can be as bright as mine has been.” (Oscar Brown, Jr. 2005)
Keith M. Kelley was host of ceremonies. And just right it was. Oscar Brown, Jr. need not worry. Maggie and Africa are creating a whole new appreciation and musical love affair with the “New Generation of Browns.”