After an international career playing, composing and teaching music for more than five decades, Dr. Anthony Brown now feels he’s at the threshold of retirement. Raised by a drill sergeant father and himself serving overseas, Brown lives a healthy life, running every day and eating a healthy diet inspired by his Japanese mother’s home cooking. Nevertheless, at the age of 70, Brown said he has applied for social security benefits and is slowing down.
“I had to basically close my nonprofit organization Fifth Stream Music because we had no income, there was nothing to sustain it,” he said. “And without Fifth Stream Music, I had to also disband the Asian American Orchestra after 20 years, which was somewhat of a heartbreak.”
Ending on a High Note
Still, Brown, a mixed-race Japanese American jazz drummer, is far from retired. Brown, who holds a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from the University of California, Berkeley, still teaches jazz history at the California Jazz Conservatory and he participated in a commemorative concert for Ken Schubert last October. Since the start of the pandemic, Brown has also been working on a new piece: “Requiem in the Time of COVID,” inspired by the murder of crows he often saw while looking at the sunset from the back of his Berkeley, Calif. home. He hopes to premiere the piece some time this year.
The only difference now is, he no longer leads his band and he feels like he must pick and choose his projects more carefully.
While he lamented the dissolution of his band, he felt it accomplished much over its two decades of performing, and felt he was able to disband the group with a feather in his cap. The band released seven albums over its tenure, starting with “Big Bands Behind Barbed Wire” in 1998 and “Far East Suite” in 1999.
Brown recalled performing “Far East Suite” at the Chicago Jazz Festival, opening for Duke Ellington’s legacy orchestra. While he said the concert garnered a standing ovation from thousands in attendance, he was most proud of Ellington’s former bandmates affirming his work.
“We had every member of Duke Ellington’s legacy band greet us to tell us that we were keeping his legacy alive,” Brown said. “To me, that was it, I didn’t need any other verification that we were doing the right thing, … that to me was the crowning achievement.”
While Brown decided to formally shut down Fifth Stream Music amid the pandemic in 2022, he said the group’s final concert took place May 26, 2018, performing “Go For Broke” with the late poet Janice Mirikitani and premiering “Down by the Riversides” with Angela Davis.
“If I had to end a career, to end on that high note, that super high note was the way to go,” Brown said.
Brown said his career slowed down after that. In 2019, his doctor advised him to treat the prostate cancer he had been diagnosed with eight years earlier and he spent two years in recovery. Brown said doctors used lasers to kill the cancer cells in a newly developed type of procedure and has been cancer free since then, although the ensuing hormone treatments were “devastating” for him as he suppressed his testosterone and suffered hot flashes for two years following the procedure itself.
“But I’m totally grateful because … I’ve lost friends to prostate cancer. I mean, it’s a very vicious disease,” Brown said. “The big issue is that it doesn’t have any symptoms. You don’t know you have it. You have to have good treatment. And that’s the problem, most musicians I know don’t have a medical plan. I’m lucky I have one.”
Learning from the Greats
Brown, a drummer born in the San Francisco Presidio, said he began playing music in Japan at the age of 10 when his older brother taught him how to play guitar. After he returned to the United States in 1966 three years later, he switched to drums in early 1967 and was playing professionally by early 1969.
He looks to a number of influences in his music, including his own background of Japanese, African American and Native American heritage. He pointed to musicians such as Jimi Hendrix and Max Roach, but noted his biggest influence is Ellington, whom he considers one of the most prolific and successful musicians.
“He kept his band together for almost 50 years. I was exhausted after 20. I don’t know how he did it,” Brown said. “Plus, he’s America’s foremost composer. He wrote over a thousand works — at least a thousand works.”
While Brown might have been looking up to greats, he has also reached a noteworthy level of accomplishment in his own right, including serving as a U.S. State Department cultural ambassador, a position Ellington, as well as Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong, held. Brown, however, is recognized today as a pioneer in Asian American jazz.
Asian American Jazz’s Roots
Brown said he decided to return to his hometown of San Francisco in 1980 after retiring from the army as a captain to join Idris Ackamoor’s band, Cultural Odyssey.
From there, George Sams, a trumpet player for United Front, poached Brown from Ackamoor.
“I heard him say to Idris, ‘I’m gonna take your drummer,’ and so sure enough, I was invited to United Front’s next rehearsal, and I enjoyed their music,” Brown said.
Brown said he was drawn to United Front for their approach to composing and playing music. The band mixed poetry and social issues with their music and incorporated Asian influences through Mark Izu, a bassist with a background in gagaku (Japanese traditional court music).
“Mark pulled out his sho, and when I heard that, it brought back this whole flood of memories, because I spent four years of my life in Japan from age of nine to 13, … I just said, ‘Wow, I feel really at home,’” Brown said.
Izu told the Nichi Bei News United Front was a collective of musicians who all contributed to the group’s compositions. It combined the progressive school of jazz music from Midwest musicians, including Sams from St. Louis and Lewis Jordan from Chicago. That environment encouraged Izu to incorporate his own cultural influences into what was an African American artform to help create a new genre of jazz.
“Jazz is an African American art form. I always say that because it definitely came out of an African American community. And it was a real cultural statement as well,” Izu said. “And so when George Sams and Lewis Jordan wanted me to join, they’re looking to understand Asian American culture more in how it fit in with the arts. So I already played Chinese music and gagaku music, Japanese court music, so they were really interested in my contribution to improvisational jazz and what this would bring into that collective improvisation.”
To Brown, United Front’s work served as a distinctive break from Asians playing jazz to Asian American jazz.
“It’s not only because it’s Asian Americans involved in it, but it’s Asian Americans who have experience and training in traditional instruments and/or compositional techniques. And so that’s going to change the sound of the music. Plus, having some proficiency in an instrument that’s of Asian origin, and bringing that into the mix of the Jazz Orchestra,” Brown said. “And then, specifically, … Asian American jazz musicians were collaborating with African American musicians and they saw that African American musicians were expressing social ideas, social forces in their music.”
In that vein, Brown’s own “Big Bands Behind Barbed Wire” in 1998 and his Asian American Orchestra premiered during the 1998 Bay Area Day of Remembrance commemoration in San Francisco.
United Front’s music, Brown and Izu said, inspired other artists, such as Jon Jang, to become professional musicians as well after the first ever Asian American Jazz Festival organized by George Leong and Paul Yamazaki at Fort Mason in San Francisco.
“When we finished our set, I remember Jon Jang and Francis Wong coming up to us and saying, ‘We’ve never heard Asians, Asian Americans, playing this kind of jazz before,’” Brown said. “Within months, Jang hired United Front to record his music on our label.”
Finding an Audience
Brown’s career did not stay in the San Francisco Bay Area, however. Aside from touring all over the United States and Europe as part of United Front, Brown left for New York in 1985 to attend Rutgers and then returned to the University of California, Berkeley in 1987 to study under C.K. Ladzekpo. Following that, he served two doctoral research fellowships at the Smithsonian in 1988 and 1989 when he had an opportunity to handle Ellington’s original manuscripts, which would later go on to influence his 1999 composition “Far East Suite.” He would also return in 1992 to serve as a curator at the museum and became its founding director for the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program from 1992 to 1996, where he continued to interview jazz musicians through 2016.
Since completing his doctorate in ethnomusicology in 1997, he has taught at Berkeley, as well as the California Jazz Conservatory since 2009.
Having spent time on both coasts, as well as in Europe, Brown said he advises his students to move to New York if they want to play jazz.
“Not just because of New York and there’s such a unique musical environment and network in New York, but it puts you in proximity to Europe,” Brown said. “When I lived in New York, which was from ‘85 … one summer I went to Europe five times, because there was so much work. If you live in New York, you end up spending a lot of your time in Europe.”
He noted that Ladzekpo advised Brown to attend Berkeley to finish his doctorate on the West Coast because he would otherwise be too busy performing to work on it.
He supposes Bay Area saxophonist, flautist and shakuhachi musician Mas Koga left for the Big Apple for similar reasons.
The veteran musician noted that jazz is far more popular outside of its birth country, partially due to its context and history, noting that despite the foundational work United Front played, they had to form their own label to record albums and produce their own concerts. He said jazz never garnered mass appeal since splitting from its swing band roots in the 1930s and 1940s when jazz pioneers such as Gillespie and Charlie Parker who came out of big bands started playing for themselves.
“When you played in the big dance band, you didn’t get to solo. You might have gotten eight bars, but you didn’t get the solo. You played the same repertoire night after night, sometimes three or four times, and you play the same songs, so it became more of a commercial enterprise rather than an artistic one, and I think when jazz musicians of the ‘40s, to modern jazz or so-called beboppers, they started creating music that became an art form,” Brown said.
Brown’s work in that medium intersected with his Asian heritage as he found a place in the Asian American community and expressed Asian American issues in his music, but he did not always consider himself a part of the community.
“I don’t know how to explain it other than: America just has — so much of its history is wretched. I say that because, being a person of color, growing up in this country, being raised by a strong Black father, being raised by a very strong Japanese mother, … I didn’t identify as Asian American when I came back to this country in 1980. It was a term that probably was in common parlance here in the Bay Area, but it wasn’t something that was universal. So I didn’t actually adopt that as my identity until the Asian American arts community here in the Bay Area embraced me,” Brown said.
“When they found out that my mom was Japanese, they said, ‘Well, you’re one of us.’ And I thought, ‘Well, that’s great.’ I mean, being mixed, you don’t always get accepted by people that you don’t look like. but you know you’re related to, so to me that was really a gratifying experience, to have the Asian American arts community embrace me.”
Tomo Hirai is a Shin-Nisei Japanese American lesbian trans woman born in San Francisco and raised in Walnut Creek, Calif., where she continues to reside. She attended the San Francisco Japanese Hoshuko (supplementary school) through high school and graduated from the University of California, Davis with degrees in Communications and Japanese, along with a minor in writing. She serves as a diversity consultant for table top games and comic books in her spare time.