Other than a copycat act, the Six Brown Brothers were the only saxophone ensemble
to make commercial records between 1911 and 1917, and they ushered in the "saxophone
craze" that had the country entranced in the mid-1910s. From the group's start
in 1908 playing in the Ringling Brothers' circus until their final breakup
in 1933, the shifting personnel of the outfit always included leader Tom Brown
and at least one of his five brothers. On records for U.S. Everlasting, Columbia,
Victor, and Emerson, the Brown Brothers set feet a-tapping to their joyous
sound and comical routine. The tracks on this CD represent roughly half of
the Browns' issued output, along with three extremely rare, previously unreleased
selections. The beautiful 24-page full-color booklet is packed with rare graphics
and detailed notes by expert Bruce Vermazen about the career and records of
the Six Brown Brothers.
A Family Affair
The Six Brown Brothers consisted of a changing assortment of six real-life
brothers, sons of Canadian cornetist and bandmaster Allan W. Brown (1858-1947)
and his wife Maria (1859?-1943). It's unlikely all six brothers were in the
group at the same time, but each did a stint at some point, and very possibly
at least five of them are on almost all the sides issued by Victor and Emerson.
The boys were William (1879-1945), Tom (1881-1950), Alec (1882-1978), Percy
(1883-1918), Vern (1887-1964), and Fred (1890-1949). Another musician who
is possibly on all the 1911-1920 discs is Harry Fink (1889-1951), who was
born Harry Finklestein in Poland but used the name Harry Brown.
The Saxophone Craze
Tom Brown bought his first saxophone in 1904, when one was likely to hear the
instrument only in military or large circus bands. A decade later, show-business
newspapers were talking about a "saxophone craze." The Brown Brothers were
at the helm of the craze, centering their vaudeville act around the beautiful,
distinctive voices of their saxophones—and the funny noises (squeaks, laughter,
clucking, and sobs) they could make, such as on "The
Bullfrog and the Coon." Before long, entire sax-orchestras were formed,
and sales of saxes skyrocketed. When jazz established itself by the 1920s,
the saxophone would be a staple of jazz bands. This CD documents the meteoric
rise of the sax in American music, its versatility and tone, and the extraordinary
skill wielded by the leaders of the sax craze: the Six Brown Brothers.
Rags and Laughs
The Brown Brothers put their consummate abilities to use on the popular music
and trends of the day, especially ragtime, and their performances, filled
with clever twists and turns, always bring a laugh. At least one record, "That
Moaning Saxophone Rag," was a huge seller, written by Tom Brown himself. "Peter
Gink" is by George L. Cobb, who made a career out of "ragging" the classics
(as he did with "Russian Rag", based on a piece by Rachmaninoff)—in this
case the object of his adaptation is Grieg's opera Peer Gynt. "Smiles
and Chuckles" is one of the Six Brown Brothers' best-known records, and
although it was billed as a "Jazz Rag," its sheet music calls it a "rag one-step." Either
way, the Brothers show their mastery of F. Henri Klickmann's syncopations.
Klickmann was a prolific arranger and composer who improved the Brothers'
sound considerably during his long tenure as chief orchestrator for the act.
The Browns could tear it up on a catchy dance tune such as "My
Fox Trot Girl," or they could ride the jazz and blues wave on songs like "Missouri
Blues" with the best of them. But they made innovative contributions to
the sax art that have lasting and historical significance. For instance, the
dominant bass sax on "If a
Wish Could Make It So" evidences the extent to which the Brothers boldly
put that peculiar voice in their act. Perhaps the most stunning example of
Tom Brown's art on the CD has to be heard to be believed: it is on the 1927
offering, The Original Six Brown Brothers, Saxaphonic Jazz Masters and Orchestra,
in the middle of which Tom plays the role of an abandoned bride having a musical "conversation" with
the band in snatches of tunes that would have been well-known to his audience.
You can hear Tom "talking" through his instrument in this incredible testiment
to the talent of the Six Brown Brothers' leader.