SEPTEMBER 15, 1965 – Bassist/tubist/sousaphonist STEVE BROWN (b. January 13, 1890 in New Orleans, Louisiana as Theodore Brown) died at age 75 in Detroit, Michigan. Like many New Orleans bassists, he played both string bass and tuba professionally, but best known for his work on string bass.Brown was the younger brother of trombonist Tom Brown. In his youth he played with his brother’s band in New Orleans. Because of his devil-may-care personality he was nicknamed “Steve” after Steve Brodie, a man who became famous for jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge on a dare.
Few musicians knew Brown’s real name.Despite having little musical training, Steve and Tom, supplemented their income as tinsmiths playing local gigs and apprenticing in brass bands organized by New Orleans legend “Papa Jack” Laine.Tom Brown went north to Chicago in 1915, followed by Steve five years later in the first wave of jazz musicians to go to the city, where “Brown’s Band from Dixieland” inspired an exodus of New Orleans musicians to the Windy City.Brown’s big sound and firm, flexible beat earned him a solid reputation, further cemented after joining fellow Crescent City expatriates in the house band at the Friars’ Inn.
The Friars Society Orchestra (later known as the New Orleans Rhythm Kings) was greatly admired by musicians and younger players, such as cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, clarinetist Benny Goodman and saxophonist Bud Freeman. Brown’s bass on the Friars’ acoustic records is felt but not heard, and recordings led by pianist Elmer Schoebel include Brown’s functional efforts on tuba, which he doubled out of practicality rather than preference.In 1924 he joined Jean Goldkette’s Orchestra, with whom he remained until 1927, creating the first recordings of the style, and providing the most vivid examples of Brown on his favored instrument. The Goldkette band is largely forgotten today, but witnesses describe it as one of the hottest, most technically assured bands of the twenties. Goldkette hired topnotch jazz talent including Beiderbecke, saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer, violinist Joe Venuti, guitarist Eddie Lang and reedman Jimmy Dorsey. In a 1926 battle of the bands at New York’s Roseland Ballroom, Goldkette’s boys trounced none other than the famous Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, a veritable jazz conservatory of the twenties and early thirties. Henderson cornetist Rex Stewart confessed, “We simply could not compete with [Goldkette’s band].
Their arrangements were too imaginative and their rhythm too strong, what with Steve Brown slapping the hell out of that bass.”Brown told interviewer J. Lee Anderson that his time with Goldkette was the best musical experience of his life. Those sentiments can be heard in the lift Brown brings to pop ditties such as “I’m Looking Over A Four-Leaf Clover,” or his double-time gallop on “Slow River.” On the flowing “Clementine,” he adds a steady four behind soloists that prefigures the smoother rhythms of the swing era. Brown’s opening bass lines are buoyant yet dutiful during the more reserved “Hoosier Sweetheart,” but his skipping punctuations behind a sexless vocal create a subtle act of rhythmic subterfuge. When the Beiderbecke-led brass section struts in, Brown unveils his slap technique, the sound that made him an icon of the string bass during jazz’s early days.By plucking a string and immediately slapping it back against the fingerboard with the palm (sometimes twice or even three times in rapid succession), bassists can produce a percussive “slap” similar to a drummer’s backbeat. Brown in turn had a highly individual approach to this technique. He explained to historian William Russell that he used heavier gut strings than his peers “on account of the body, to produce all that heavy instrumentation we had.” Bandleader, historian and contemporary Brown- inspired bassist Vince Giordano further illuminates this unique method: “it’s pretty hard to do; even the way he grabbed the strings is not really used anymore…he would grab [the string] with a couple of fingers, maybe pointer and middle, and pull it in a very hard way. The way he would then pull and slap, pull and slap, this is something that outside of Milt Hinton and maybe a little bit of Major Holley, not too many people really did anything with after Steve Brown.” Giordano also points to the rhythmic complexity of Brown’s syncopations and across-the-bar accents, and bass legend Milt Hinton described Brown “doing things, cross-rhythms and stuff, that [he’d] never yet heard anyone else do.”Brown himself claimed to have invented slapping when a drummer failed to appear at a gig, while Bill Johnson claims he introduced the idea after his bow broke in the middle of a performance. Regardless of who originated the technique, Brownian slap bass was a formidable force for booting large ensembles.
Brown establishes a solid harmonic ground while kicking cross accents behind Venuti on “I’m Gonna’ Meet My Sweetie Now,” and his triple-slapping with clarinet on “Dinah” is more like a polyphonic duet than horn solo with bass accompaniment.Brown’s magnum opus is captured on “My Pretty Girl,” easily the hottest number recorded by the Goldkette band (and perhaps one of the hottest sides of the era). A defiant call and response and stomping melody start things off with a roar, but Brown’s scorching counterpoint alongside the brass steals the show. He even gets the spotlight in the final chorus, his booming tone out front as the ensemble sticks to riffing underneath the bass. From start to finish, Brown asserts himself beyond mere accompaniment while never overpowering the whole. The invention, agility and power of Brown’s bass are beautifully recorded, but it remains a teasing shred of what contemporaries enjoyed night after night.While the Goldkette outfit may have been fun, its leader encountered difficulty keeping up with paychecks for his increasingly acclaimed musicians. In 1927, Brown and other members joined Paul Whiteman’s hugely popular (and hugely arranged) commercial orchestra.
The often-maligned Whiteman in turn integrated their freewheeling improvisations into his “symphonic jazz” concept. On “Dardanella” and “Lonely Melody,” Whiteman gives Beiderbecke and a Trumbauer-led sax section plenty of room to stretch out, with Brown digging in behind them. “From Monday On” finds Brown harking back to his Goldkette days, propelling the brass during a final shout chorus. He locks in with some splashing cymbals on “Mississippi Mud,” and his bass lines on “When” and “Changes” supply gripping tension underneath a blandly “sweet” vocal quintet.Brown’s work behind a young Bing Crosby from this period reveals both artists’ gifts. On “Changes,” Crosby emerges from the collective with a relaxed, honeyed lead over Brown’ dancing foundation. His bass is graceful yet muscular behind Crosby’s lyricism on an otherwise jerky “Make Believe.” Whether slapping prominently or maintaining a supportive role, Brown adapted to a variety of musical situations while keeping his own voice.Both Goldkette and Whiteman featured Brown in front of their bands, with jazz historian Richard M. Sudhalter suggesting that Brown was “perhaps the first bassist to be granted such an honor.” Milt Hinton heaped accolades on Brown in several interviews, describing him as “the one everybody listened to…the best, and we all knew it” and “one of my idols….” Hinton also noted, “[Brown] was on ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and all those things with Whiteman, and you had to be a proficient bassist for that music.” Former Duke Ellington bassist (and fellow New Orleanian) Wellman Braud also expressed similar praise for Brown.Despite the approval of Whiteman and his fellow musicians, and the exposure of playing with such a popular band, Brown was unhappy in the tightly orchestrated environment of the Whiteman band. After some “legitimately trained” band mates complained about his liberties with written parts, Brown left Whiteman, eventually settling in Detroit.
He played with local groups, and recorded with pianist Frank Gillis’ Dixie Five in 1950 on the Jazzology label. Gillis recalled having to “twist [Brown’s] arthritic arms to get him to record” after his inactivity in music for several years. Brown has a mostly supportive role with The Dixie Five, though he jolts the ensemble on “Ory’s Creole Trombone” and “Milenberg Joys,” while revisiting “My Pretty Girl” with more laidback slaps. Brown never recorded again. Around 1930 he settled in Detroit, Michigan, which would be his home for the rest of his life. He led his own band and continued playing with traditional jazz and Dixieland bands into the 1950s. Few realize that he recorded with Frank Gillis’ Dixie Five (for Jazzology) in 1950. It is a pity that he was never rediscovered and persuaded to record his own sessions or to play with major jazzmen again.Brown has remained a toe-tapping footnote in the annals of jazz, despite a lauded reputation among contemporaries and a distinct style. Playing bass when neither musical styles nor recording techniques highlighted the instrument hasn’t helped his cause (though Sudhalter devotes several pages to Brown in his book “Lost Chords” [Oxford University Press, 1999]). Giordano believes “He just kind of slipped through the cracks. He continued to play, but never played with big names after Goldkette and Whiteman. When thirties music came in and the role of the bass was really very simple, just keeping straight time, maybe he was just turned to the old-fashioned department.” Wellman Braud, bass player with the Duke Ellington orchestra, once called Brown “the greatest of all bass players.”READ MORE: