Along came "From Jumpstreet" and extricated Oscar Brown Jr. from his unemployment sinkhole.
"Jumpstreet," the PBS series on the evolution of black American music that debuts tonight on Channel 26, found Brown, a preeminent troubadour of the disparate worlds of Broadway and the South Side of Chicago, in a jobless rut. Then he spent almost two years working on the program.
Before that, the singer-songwriter-lyricist says he'd been stranded in Washington, working about as often as the seasons change. A sad state of affairs for a man who had written Boradway musicals such as "Kicks and Company" and "Joy '66."
"I'm stranded on the planet. I get stuck in a place and can't move." Brown said he was once stranded in his hometown of Chicago for two years!
He originally came to Washington to perform at Harambee House, and liked the city so well he rented an apartment across the street from Ford's Theatre in hopes of putting on a musical there. The theater management was not as enthusiastic.
After being evicted, he and his wife and daughter moved to Baltimore but continued working in Washington. Then he moved back here, in 1978. About that time the "Jumpstreet" opportunity came along.
In the show, Bown is the host, interviewer, performer and raconteur. He is engaging in all capacities, ever putting his personal stamp on the shows. Tonight's show, featuring vocalists Carmen McRae and Al Jarreau, is as much Brown's as theirs. He delivers a hilarious version of "One Foot in the Gutter."
Despite the sterling performances by all, the 30-minute program tries to cover too much ground in attempting to delineate the history of jazz vocal (replete with African background) and work in several performances.
It's also an odd choice to begin a series on black American music because it offers no general overview of the subject. In no way is the viewer prepared for the remaining 12 programs, which will focus on gospel and spirituals, blues, early jazz, theater and film music, rhythm and blues and jazz dance. Other performers will include Dizzy Gillespie, the Rev. James Cleveland, Stevie Wonder, Willie Dixon, George Benson and Pearl Bailey.
Most shows take place in a nightclub setting with a "live" audience. They were actually taped at Channel 26.
Brown, 53, just finished a two-week engagement at the Grand Finale, a Manhattan supper club. The reviews were mixed. One critic said Brown was "too good."
Nevertheless, the engagement convinced the singer to try his luck in New York. "I think I can sell my songs there," he says. "There's a lot of energy in New York. People are interested in doing things."
Why isn't Brown's talent in demand today as it was in the '50s and '60s? "I'm a political maverick," he answers. "I question the constitutionality of our existence. I like to express my social views through art."
One of Brown's songs is "Bid 'em In," a biting piece in which he emulates a slave auctioneer selling a nubile female. But these days he's like Mort Sahl, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Gelber -- all esthetic dissidents a generation ago who've since faded from the scene.
In his time, Brown has made 10 record albums, most of which are no longer available. And there are no prospects for being recorded again soon. "I'm thinking of taping my songs and just passing out the tapes," he says. "If I can find a cheap way of turning out the tapes.
"I like what I do. I'm proud of it. I think I'm getting better at it."