Singer/songwriter Jay Brown: From folk to jazz, from North Carolina to West Africa: Part I of II
Singer/songwriter Jay Brown is not only a one-man band he is one man who is also in several bands. In addition to the Americana focus of his solo act, Brown plays ragtime and blues with the Lazybirds; world music with Shantavaani; and early jazz with Swing Guitars. Such wild versatility is indeed impressive; however, on a single album you’d expect an artist to retain focus. Thankfully, Brown reels in his eclectic tastes on his newest album, The Jester.
The North Carolina-based Brown suffers no identity crisis on this rootsy affair, balancing folk and country flavors with the breezy warmth of his voice and always compelling songwriting. The locomotive shuffle and sizzling harmonica of the opening track “Be Here Now” recall vintage Bob Dylan while “Dr. Sethi” is a hypnotic flashback to the Middle Eastern psychedelic daydreams of the Beatles. On a more contemporary note, “Scarred and Mangled” is reminiscent of the wind-swept backwoods epics of Fleet Foxes.
As revealed in the following interview, Brown is not only a musician who can play anything but one who has been everywhere.
Q: You’ve been playing guitar since the age of seven. Where did the interest originate from?
A: My dad was my first and only guitar teacher. He has always played classical, jazz and folk guitar, and I grew up hearing him play. Now when I’m back home and hear him playing some of the tunes he’s played all these years, it’s like hearing an old friend. Dad taught me classical guitar for about six months when I was 7. We worked out a duet with my part being very simple, and playing it together seemed like magic to me.
Q: Were your parents supportive of your musical ambitions?
A: They couldn’t have been more supportive. Music was integral to our family, and my first “band” was with my parents and their friends. We played Beatles, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and Creedence Clearwater Revival songs, as well as some torch songs that mom would sing beautifully. We had a great jazz bassist named Roy Yarborough who was recently inducted into of the Birmingham Jazz Hall of Fame.
Q: Growing up, what artists had the greatest impact on you in terms of influencing your work?
A: Elvis Presley was my first love. Probably my peak experience of musical joy was dancing – jumping – to “Jailhouse Rock” and “Hound Dog” as a little kid. A few years later I got into the Rolling Stones. I’d found a stack of records from the ‘60s and ‘70s down in granny’s basement, which had belonged to one of my six fun-loving aunts. The collection was mostly Stones, but also some early Frank Zappa and Cheech and Chong. I wore those records out even more than they already were. After that it was Jimi Hendrix that I couldn’t get enough of. I never thought I would play like Hendrix, but he’s the one who inspired me to get back into the guitar around age 13. In high school I got into Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Paul Simon, John Prine – these were the artists I was listening to when I first started writing songs. Around this time I also discovered old blues, in a great old record store called Charlemagne Records in Birmingham. Lightnin’ Hopkins and Muddy Waters were my first favorites, followed by Lonnie Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy. The old blues led me to old jazz, with Lester Young, Billie Holiday, and Charlie Christian being most influential.
Q: Did you receive a formal education in music? If so, where?
A: I went back to college after being out for about twelve years. A gang of friends and I moved up to Boone, NC after we got out of high school. The idea was to go to Appalachian State. I got about a year into it, but by then I was really getting into music. I had made a demo with some friends, and I remember listening to it on my way to statistics class. By the time I got to the class I had lost all interest in statistics, or going to college for that matter. I dropped out, became a gigging musician and part-time bagel delivery boy. Twelve years later I decided to go back to App State to study music therapy and classical piano. Now I do music therapy part time in hospice.
Q: Tell me about your trips to West Africa. How did that come about?
A: I took 2 trips to Ghana, one in 2000 and one in 2003. In 2000 my friend Kally Price (also a great jazz singer in San Francisco) spent a year in Ghana as part of a study abroad program. I had always wanted to see Africa, so I saved my money and flew out there for a month. I fell deeply in love with Ghana. It seemed like rhythm and harmony permeated every aspect of the country – in the way the people communicated, in the way they danced as easily and frequently as they walked. People seemed to me to be more pure, more connected to nature naturally. While there I became friends with some of the locals, and they sent me back with some cassette tapes of the local music, known as Bor Bor Bor. I got really into this style, which consisted of tight interlocking percussion with call and response singing and the surprise of a jubilant bugle every so often. I learned to play and sing these songs phonetically, and in 2003 I went back to Ghana with the hope of finding and studying with some Bor Bor Bor musicians. They turned out to be hard to find, but I ended up being taken to several funerals which, if they hadn’t told me were funerals, I would have thought to be the most amazing music parties. They would go strong for days and nights without ceasing.
Q: What were the most interesting experiences you had in West Africa?
A: One evening I found myself in a remote village on the side of a mountain. We had heard about the existence of this hidden village at the end of an eight-mile trail. My friend and I followed a young girl who was returning to her village with a basket of dried fish which she was carrying on her head. We arrived at her village at dusk, and as we were led through the paths of the village, inquisitive, friendly faces peeped out of doorways and said “you are welcome.” However, when we were brought to the chief, he appeared vexed by our presence. Unable to effectively communicate, we just stood there staring at each other with a mass of dark faces all around us. Finally an interpreter of sorts was brought in, and the chief began to ask us questions. “Why were we here?” We really had no answer, we just sort of wound up there. “Now that we were there, what did we want to do?” That one stumped us as well. The chief began to get ornery, and a heated discussion ensued among the elders. I had my old guitar and harmonica with me, and I was thinking to myself “Wouldn’t this be a good time for a nice song?” I started playing “By the Rivers of Babylon,” and I heard a breath of recognition and surprise from the crowd. In a few seconds a hell of a dance party was underway. That night I heard wild sounds of drumming and singing which were still going on in the morning, another funeral. After breakfast (which took place after a drink of local gin called akpeteshie), we were guided to their sacred waterfall, from which topless women carried buckets of water on their heads. I left that village feeling like I had glimpsed Zion. Other experiences that stand out are the times that I would play and sing the Bor Bor Bor songs to the amazement and amusement of the locals. They all knew every one of them. Eventually a friend translated the songs for me, and it was great to know the poetry behind the sounds I’d come to love. And then there was the time I was walking along and someone across the road looked at me and yelled “Hey, Chuck Norris!”
Photo: Laura Johnston