Breathing Jazz

William Glasspiegel

Trumpeter Maurice Brown on surviving Hurricane Katrina.

Three years ago, when I arrived late to Chicago's Velvet Lounge jam session, Maurice Brown was stepping off the stage with his trumpet. Swaying on the stairs, he played a long wrinkled note that cast its line into my memory. Years later I met him in New Orleans. By that time, he was standing strong in the Crescent -- a young lion in the birthplace of jazz. Brown was playing his trumpet with everybody from Ellis Marsalis to Kanye West.

After Katrina hit his home in New Orleans, Brown lost everything in the flood -- his Miles Davis trumpet, his Cadillac, his first home. At midnight, two days after the hurricane hit, Brown walked in the door of Von Freeman's New Apartment Lounge in Chicago. It was as if the storm was still beside him. "It's all gone," he told me. Brown made it to Chicago with his horn, his girlfriend, and his dog, Thelonius. After getting re-settled, he went back on tour. As an itinerant jazz-star, he was luckier than his New Orleans neighbors.

I was uncomfortable doing an interview with Brown after the catastrophe. I didn't want to be the parasitic journalist, exploiting the losses sustained in New Orleans. But he was gracious and respectful of the questions, even as they led into unsettled territory. We began talking about music in New Orleans. Brown reiterated something he once told me: "They breathe jazz in New Orleans," he said.

"They 'breed' jazz?" I asked.

"They breathe jazz, they breed jazz," he retorted. "They wake you up with it. Kids grow up striving to make it in the Second Line (a jazz-funeral march music and dance tradition). The older musicians look after the younger ones."

PopMatters: As a younger musician, what did you pick up from people like Alvin Batiste and Ellis Marsalis?

Maurice Brown: I learned a lot about placement, about how they took their time. Also, I came to hear a sense of communication, of the oneness between their axe and their head. What Ellis played just made sense.

PM: How did that change your sound over the last five years since you've lived in New Orleans?

MB: It made me more folkish. In Second Line, I played outside for hours. I learned how to project. I learned endurance. New Orleans cut away my unnecessary sounds. I learned to say something and mean what I was saying.

PM: Can you share a quintessential New Orleans moment?

MB: French Quarter Fest with my 11-piece hip-hop group, Soul'd U Out. There were thousands of people -- folks with families, all races, all dancing -- "one nation under a groove."

PM: I know you hear a lot of feedback from your audiences. What's the most poignant comment you received in New Orleans?

MB: I was playing a blues with Wynton, just holding one note. Right in the middle, an old guy stood up from the crowd and yelled to me, "Play like you live!"

PM: What does it mean for you to miss New Orleans?

MB: I miss it because that's where my development occurred. That's where I got to Congo Square, played the funeral marches, in the Second Line. All those places that were in the songs. I went there. I played there. That's what I miss.

But Maurice isn't too busy missing New Orleans. We didn't talk about the past on the way to his gig with Kurt Elling at Chicago's Green Mill. I picked him up with Wu Tang on the stereo and from the moment he got in the car, he spat rhymes about Chicago, Al Capone, and Donald Byrd.

Later, when he stepped on the Green Mill bandstand, Brown was saying the same things with his horn -- talking about New Orleans, about Chicago, and alluding to his newest hometown, New York City.

Brown has recently moved to the Big Apple where he is slyly making a scene for himself. After a recent gig with DJ Logic at the Blue Note, I asked him what he thought about the city. "People say New York is all about competition," Brown told me. "But I don't feel the competition. I'm just trying to do my thing."

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