Guitarist Charlie Byrd once said that "all drummers are nuts." Actually, that probably describes all of us who try to make our living playing music. When the great Washington, D.C.-born jazz drummer George "Dude" Brown was buried last Friday, I doubt that "nut case" was the first term that sprang to mind of those who knew him, although few would deny that he was often perverse and unpredictable. I suspect a lot of that can be traced to that mysterious quality called artistic temperament.
Dude's life was music. Although he was clearly devoted to his family, his former wife Sarah and their four children, Dude's real mistress was, to paraphrase Duke Ellington, always music. This allegiance caused him to have very high artistic standards, and woe betide the person who came on the bandstand with less than a full commitment to the business at hand.
Back in the early 1960s when George was working with my band at the Mayfair, at 13th and F streets NW, we were saddled with an atrocious singer. She was a political appointee hired by the boss as a favor to a friend. George endured the situation for a while, but one night after a particularly excruciating vocal, he blew. From the drum set came a terrifying barrage of tom-tom depth charges, cymbal crashes and rim shots. As I followed George off the bandstand and into the kitchen, he said, "Dude, that girl is pathetic. She should be home with her kids watching television instead of down here messing up everybody's gig."
I said, "But George, she looks good."
To which came his now-famous reply: "Yes, but don't you forget, Dude, looks can be conceiving."
If George hadn't been such a superb musician, he could have made a living creating malapropisms. He had a whole book of them, many of them even more inspired than that one.
In describing his drum playing, however, one need resort only to the most complimentary of words, among them powerful, uplifting, driving, sensitive and impeccable. I still remember the first night I played with him. He was a little late setting up, and the boss was watching, so we started to play and he fell in behind us using only brushes. As the number progressed, he provided the most solid rhythmic foundation I had ever heard. But he never got louder, only more exciting and intense. Hearing drums played that way was a revelation. It was the kind of thing one encounters only once or twice in a lifetime. George's stage presence was exemplary. He was never ruffled, always smiling and yet totally dignified. There was none of the arm-flailing or head-tossing you see with rock-and-roll drummers. On the contrary, every movement was utterly economical and served a musical purpose. And the bottom line was the emotion he produced.
His solos were works of art, though they rarely lasted more than two or three choruses. He hated long-windedness unless a player really had something to say. During the months we were fortunate enough to have another famous D.C. native, Buck Hill, playing his tenor sax with the band, there were many examples of the kind of extended and inspired sax solos George loved. In the company of Buck, George and bassist Billy Taylor Jr., my piano sometimes seemed superfluous. So on those occasions I would quietly retire to the back of the bandstand where I could watch Dude's foot come down on the sock cymbal pedal. It was a lesson in grace and precision.
George's years in the big time were roughly 1946 to 1960. He was almost continuously on the road with the likes of Lionel Hampton, Illinois Jacquet, Sonny Stitt, Earl Bostic, Gene Ammons and Louis Armstrong. Unfortunately George committed an almost unforgivable professional misstep with Armstrong. One night in the middle of a concert he inexplicably and abruptly quit the band. He simply packed up his drums without warning and walked off the stage. Such behavior might seem to bear out Charlie Byrd's caveat about drummers. But somehow, it was pure Dude Brown. He was simply being true to himself when he told Armstrong, "I don't play my drums that way, dude."
When he came home to Washington to stay in the early '60s, he rapidly became a fixture on the D.C. jazz scene. He was heard often with Shirley Horn, Reuben Brown, Calvin Jones, Tommy Cecil and many others. He worked with me as part of the house trio at Blues Alley for three years and at the Barns of Wolf Trap, the Smithsonian, Ford's Theatre and Warner Theatre. In 1992 I was especially proud that he agreed to join me for two shows produced for public television. His work was a constant surprise, full of discovery and the joy of making music. He leaves a great void in our midst. I'm awfully glad that I saved a message he left on my answering machine that had all the beautiful terseness of one of his four-bar drum breaks:
"Call me, John. Dude Brown. Out!!"
John Eaton is a Washington-based jazz pianist.