"He looks so tired and sleepy, he should be in bed, getting some rest...I was unaware of his life style." These comments are lifted from one of the many historical anecdotes in the history of the jazz; this just happens to be one that features drummer Hillard Brown. It is one of the Charlie Parker jam session stories, set in the early days of that revolutionary bebop artist's career. It is not the story where Parker's playing is so weird the drummer karoms a cymbal at him. This time, the rumpled "Bird" is invited to take flight with a formation featuring Brown on drums, Raymond Orr on trumpet, and Marl Young on piano, among others, but didn't even have an instrument with him and appeared too weak to spread his wings. After borrowing an alto saxophone, Bird said the band could go ahead and play "anything," which turned out to be "Cherokee." Orr recalled that, "When the tune was finished, the band was wringing wet. Bird was fabulous!"
Another night, another jam, another "Cherokee." The drummer surely must have had no hint that this particular time would go down in history. At the point in the early '40s when it happened, Brown was already closing in on his second decade as a drummer. He began playing in 1926, and had several excellent teachers including Oliver Coleman. As a professional, he began leaving a mark in the summer of 1934 in a group led by pianist Ruth Oldham which held forth at Chicago's Monogram Theatre.
Brown was strongly associated with the Windy City's music scene throughout his career. This meant rubbing shoulders with many players from elsewhere who at one time or another decided to try their licks in Chicago; Parker was just one example. It also meant being part of a fascinating amalgam of musical projects blending jazz and blues according to various recipes. The action went in the basement recording studios of independent labels as well as on the stages of nightclubs, some of which were run by notorious gangsters. Jazz historians can bicker over which represented the most dangerous situation for the performer.
Recording documentation of Brown's career is surprisingly scant considering the length and breadth of his paradiddles. Between 1944 and the mid-'70s, one jazz discographical reference averages out much less than one recording per year for this drummer. If all these sides were collected and piled up on a coffee table, the proportion of Duke Ellington titles would make it seem like drumming in this outfit was a major part of Brown's life. Actually, that stint represented only one part of the month of October 1944. The following year, Brown performed at the Onyx Club in New York City in a band led by tenor saxophonist Ben Webster that also featured Parker in the lineup. Like Parker, Brown also had affiliations in this period with leaders such as the dynamic vocalist and pianist Jay McShann and smooth balladeer Billy Eckstine. By 1946, Brown had put these and many other sideman affiliations aside in order to lead his own band.
In the late '40s, this group could be found in residency at Joe's Deluxe Club in Chicago. Brown kept the band going until 1954 but there do not seem to be many recordings of it. Until the mid-'60s, Brown became more involved behind the scenes as a business agent for the musician's union. Pianist Art Hodes seems to have dabbed Brown back into the color palate of gigging in the '70s, resulting in a late period in the drummer's activities that for once is documented quite well. The Jazzology label released some delightfully informal sessions beginning in 1971, featuring Brown and Hodes with players such as clarinetist Barney Bigard and guitarist Eddie Condon. The label did several sessions with the Hodes combo in 1974 and 1975, and at the end of that decade, an outfit called the Foundation for Jazz Music videotaped a pair of jam sessions entitled After Hours With Art Hodes. Brown kept his eye on his bank balance during this busy segment with Hodes, however, combining the gigging with a sideline in real estate.