When I was a high school kid trying to learn all I could about jazz, I found a book in my school's library that fascinated me; I checked it out over and over again. It was the first (1955) edition of Orrin Keepnews and Bill Grauer's A Pictorial History of Jazz. Even though that book was pretty outdated (it was nearly 20 years old by the time I discovered it), it was the first book that helped me get a handle on the complex, sometimes baffling history of the music. I spent hours poring over the rather poorly-reproduced photographs and captions, trying to understand how all of these musicians fit together, and wondering what they sounded like, since I had only heard recordings by a few of them. In retrospect, the Pictorial History presents a pretty flawed and incomplete view of jazz history, but it was very helpful to me at the time, and I was glad to find a battered copy in a used book store as an adult.
One picture particularly intrigued me, for some reason, and I'm still not entirely sure why. It's a picture of group that only existed for one day, and only for the purpose of making a 78 RPM record for the Collector's Item label. The only one of the five musicians who could be considered to be a fairly big name in the jazz world was cornetist Wild Bill Davidson, although pianist Mel Henke did a good bit of recording later, both in the jazz and pop worlds. But the most interesting figure in the photograph was the small-boned, wispy man with the thinning hair who was playing the alto saxophone. Boyce Brown was described in the text as "obscure," but I somehow knew right away that he was someone I wanted to hear.
Boyce Matthew Brown (1910-1959) was not your typical rough-and-tumble Chicago jazzman; he was introspective, temperate, and lived with his mother. He wrote poetry, read philosophy, and listened to the music of impressionist composers like Debussy and Delius. He was musically literate, but his extremely poor eyesight made sight-reading difficult for him, so he did most of his playing in small Chicago jazz bands. Brown's playing is striking and unusual, even after the passage of many years. He improvised with great drive, but at the same time, his phrasing was often asymmetrical and off-center, and his note choices were unusual.
Boyce Brown recorded fewer than a dozen times in his career. His recording debut was with Paul Mares and His Friars Society Orchestra in 1935; this session is currently available on a Retrieval CD called New Orleans Rhythm Kings: The Complete Set. He is a racehorse out of the gate on the first tune, "Nagasaki;" it's clear that a special talent has been turned loose.
Perhaps his most well-known recordings are the four 1939 sides which Jimmy McPartland's band made for the Decca Chicago Jazz album. This album (a set of six 78 RPM records) attracted a good bit of attention at the time. George Avakian's orginal liner notes are worth quoting:
To most, this record ("China Boy") will serve as an introduction to Boyce Brown's alto sax. He shares a chorus with Bud Jacobson and gives us a typical solo: perfectly executed, fast, full of notes, but completely logical and amazingly conceived. Boyce's personality is expressed in his music - a statement which has worn thin, but here it is the cold truth. Boyce is unlike any musician you have ever met, and his is a completely individual and unorthodox style. Take warning that Boyce will need a lot of listening. His complexity makes a casual hearing worthless. Careful attention will be rewarded by an understanding of the subtleties of Boyce's ideas, which are distinctively his own.
Somewhat amazingly, the publicity the Decca album generated led to Brown winning the "Best Alto Sax" category in the 1940 Down Beat magazine readers' poll - above Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter! Unfortunately, this was "little more than a prelude to obscurity," as writer Richard Sudhalter has said. Boyce had one more record date on which he was prominently featured: the aforementioned Collector's Item session. It's not entirely clear who the leader of the session was; there is no band name on the labels, although they do have all the musicians' names. The sides are often listed in discographies under Wild Bill Davidson's name, and the band is sometimes called the Collector's Item Cats. The matrix numbers in the run-off groove area of the record start with the letters "BB," however, which leads me to believe that it was Boyce's date.
The two issued sides, "On a Blues Kick" and "I Surrender Dear," have never been reissued, as far as I can tell - although "On a Blues Kick" is scheduled for issue on a future volume of Allen Lowe's mammoth blues history set, Really the Blues? (dubbed from my copy of the original record, by the way). These two sides perhaps represent Brown's greatest recorded solos - thoughtful, interesting, and somehow logical and odd at the same time. And for me, they are the reason that I started collecting 78s - I wanted to hear these legendary recordings, and there was no way to do so except to find the original issue.
Because of the rarity of these recordings, I have posted them in mp3 form for listeners to hear or download. Click here to hear this rare record. It's unclear who the copyright holder is; if contacted by such a party, I will remove these recordings upon request.
Boyce Brown's story took an unusual turn, at least for a jazz musician. This quiet, thoughtful man converted to Catholicism in 1952, and became a monk in the Servite order the next year. He played the saxophone only occasionally after that, once for a 1956 ABC-Paramount album called Brother Matthew With Eddie Condon's Jazz Band. He agreed to make the album, in part, to raise money for the monastery. These days the record is almost universally panned, but it's not so bad, in my opinion. Brother Matthew is rusty, but his ideas are interesting, and Condon's guys sound like they're having a alcohol-fueled good time. Brown died in the Servite monastery three years later.
The best source for information about Boyce Brown is probably Richard Sudhalter's book Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz. It contains a quote from George Avakian, made over 50 years after his notes for the Chicago Jazz album:
People hearing him for the first time were just flabbergasted. I know I was. Where did this guy get this odd way of playing? Where did it come from? I guess there was a rather mysterious quality in all that.