Boyce Brown, aka Brother Matthew

August 25, 2011 at 7:55 pm (Catholicism, Christianity, Disability, good people, humanism, jazz, Jim D)

I’ve been liaising with jazz writer Michael Steinman on the subject of alto saxist  Boyce Brown (aka “Brother Matthew”), possibly the most complex and fascinating character in the entire history of jazz.  Here’s Michael’s excellent posting on his site ‘Jazz Lives’:



Posted on August 24, 2011 by jazzlives|

Boyce Brown (1910-1959) is a tantalizing, elusive figure.  Although he played hot jazz with the great Chicagoans, he was not one of them — hard-living and hard-drinking.  The picture above shows him in 1956, surrounded by Wild Bill Davison, Pee Wee Russell, Ernie Caceres, Eddie Condon, and George Wettling, at his final recording session.

Scott Yanow calls Boyce “eccentric,” “outlandish,” “an erratic individual,” although those characterizations sound ungenerous.  I think of the famous lines from T. S. Eliot’s THE FAMILY REUNION, “In a world of fugitives, it is those that turn away that appear to run away.”

In the case of Boyce Brown, it is difficult to know if he chose to turn away from the world of musicians and gigs for the world of the spirit, or if the earthly world scorned him.  All we know are the facts of his short life.  He became a professional musician at 17 and recorded with some of the greatest Hot players — but his path was an unusual one outside the clubs and recording studios.

Boyce loved marijuana and what it could do, but it didn’t contribute to his death.  He didn’t die of tuberculosis or freeze on a Harlem doorstep, but prejudice and sorrow seem to have shortened his life.  He is certainly underrated and not well-known or well-remembered.  I agree with Jim Denham (of SHIRAZ SOCIALIST) who thinks that Boyce should be both remembered and celebrated.  And although I’ve never met Jeff Crompton (of HELLO THERE, UNIVERSE) I and other jazz fans are indebted to him for his generosities.  (You can find the blogs written by Jim and Jeff on my blogroll.)

What facts I have collected seem at first an assortment of weird personality traits, but viewed lovingly, they are the markings of a rare bird.

Boyce was someone who “saw” musical notes as colors.  He nearly died at birth; the midwife saved him by reshaping his unformed skull.  His parents encouraged him to take up the saxophone in hopes that it would strengthen his weak chest.  When he played, he had a habit of stretching his neck out like a bird — causing him to be rejected at an audition for the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra.

Eddie Condon said Boyce was “a slow reader,” Condon-speak for partial blindness.  Boyce lived with his mother, wrote poetry, listened to Delius.  Condon’s SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ contains Boyce’s whimsical poem about ROYAL-T (slang for the best marijuana), hilarious and tenderly decorated by Boyce himself — a Hot illuminated manuscript.

He named his alto saxophone Agnes, and thought deeply about her personality and moods; if a recording disappointed him, he blamed himself for not being in harmony with his instrument.  All of this might seem freakish on first perusal, but other musicians have spoken of their synesthesia (Marian McPartland, whom no one considers an eccentric, told Whitney Balliett that the key of D was daffodil yellow), and Ben Webster, hardly an introvert, called his saxophone Betsy or Ol’ Betsy.

But before we get caught up in the debris of habit and personal history, let us — as Al Smith used to say — look at the record.  Or listen.  Two, in fact, from 1939: THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE and JAZZ ME BLUES:

Boyce sounds like himself.  Those rolling, tumbling figures are the playing of a man on a mission, someone with a message for us in the eight or sixteen bars allotted him…

…Read the rest here


  1. Jim Denham said,

    Michael Steinman comments:
    Dear Chris,
    I said that society cherishes the appearance of individualism, by which I mean many people go to the movie theatre to thrill to assertive behavior that they wouldn’t be capable of. Think of our pop culture heroic figures — I think, oddly, of James Dean and Brando — although in what passes for real life, I think most people would be terribly annoyed to have the young Brando or Dean as a neighbor, and that swashbuckling charm would wear thin very quickly in a relationship. And the thing that fascinates me is that jazz musicians, who seem to embrace varieties of radical behavior, often are more bourgeois than their music would indicate. Dizzy found his life transformed by Bird’s music, but he hired Lucky Thompson, who could be counted upon to show up for gigs. And the bandmate who has a clean shirt, is sober, punctual, and can cut the charts may be preferred to the brilliant supernova improviser who behaves eccentrically. Poor Boyce, though. It sounds (and I admit I am extrapolating without evidence) as if that unidentified club owner could have dealt with a musician showing up drunk and untidy but not with one who wanted to cross himself and say a prayer before launching into INDIANA. There are kinds of conservatism (and I don’t mean political) that go so far away from the expected that they seem radical — and moral conservatism (piety, kindness, subtlety) sometimes has a really hard time in this century and the last. Cheers, Michael

  2. Mort Weiss said,

    Very Hip Obs Jim Denham-Ypu got It Man! Mort Weiss SMS Jazz “The Mort Report” @ All About Jazz

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