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Anthony Brown, the driving force behind the Asian American Orchestra, makes a rare hometown appearance on Thursday at Freight & Salvage

History rumbles and surges through the music of Berkeley drummer Anthony Brown, a musician whose art is inextricably linked to the ongoing quest for social justice.

A pivotal figure in jazz over the past 35 years as a player, scholar, and bandleader, Brown is best known as the driving force behind the Grammy Award-nominated Asian American Orchestra, a visionary ensemble that brings a Pacific rim perspective to seminal works by Monk, Ellington, Gershwin and Coltrane. He makes a rare hometown appearance on Thursday at Freight & Salvage, where a distilled version of the AAO performs “Our Eyes on the Prize: King’s Dream Fifty Years On” with a new vocal ensemble.

A reprise of the program that the AAO presented in September at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, “Eyes on the Prize” puts a feminist spin on a series of interconnected anniversaries, from the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and Rosa Park’s centenary to the 1963 March on Washington and the 25th anniversary of the legislation that provided reparations for Japanese-Americans interned during World War II.

“Given all those landmarks we decided to put together a program that addressed all of those issues,” says Brown, who notes that AAO is also celebrating its 15th birthday. “Doing research it became obvious women were consciously excluded as speakers at the March on Washington, so we wanted to take time to honor women freedom fighters like Ida B. Wells, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman.”

In celebrating the role of women in the struggle for human rights, Brown decided to add vocals to a stripped down version of the AAO featuring reed expert Melecio Magdaluyo, trumpeter Henry Hung, saxophonist Masaru Koga, bassist Erich Hunt, and pianist Frank Martin, an excellent jazz musician and studio ace who has collaborated with everyone from Stevie Wonder, Sting and Ray Charles to Flora Purim and Airto Moriera, John McLaughlin, and Dizzy Gillespie.

The original plan was to join forces with the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, but when a grant didn’t come through Brown scaled back and ended up creating the seven-member Voices of a Dream Vocal Ensemble, which includes two featured OIGC performers, the powerhouse soul singers Terrie Odabi and Amikaeyla. At the first rehearsal the singers launched into an impromptu rendition of Sweet Honey In the Rock’s “I’m Gon’ Stand!!!,” a performance so moving that Frank Martin leaned over to whisper “Are we good enough for these guys?” Brown recalls. “That was funny, because Frank’s played with everyone. They bring in those gospel, spirituals and blues dimensions, which we need because it’s quite a far-reaching program.”

The performance offers the AAO a welcome opportunity to reference its origins, Big Bands Behind Barbed Wire, a project funded by a federal program that was part of the 1988 legislation authorizing reparations for interned Japanese-Americans. Recorded in 1998 on the AsianImprov label, Barbed Wire featured saxophonist George Yoshida, who will be joining the AAO at the Freight. A retired Berkeley High teacher who’s still vigorous at 91 (he teaches Tai Chi at Berkeley Senior Centers twice a week), Yoshida had played swing music as a jazz-besotted young man in the internment camps.

Originally known as the Asian American Jazz Orchestra, the band featured many of the seminal figures in the Asian-American jazz movement, such as tenor saxophonist Frances Wong, bassist Mark Izu and pianist Jon Jang. Brown took over leadership of the band for its next project, a fascinating reinterpretation of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s Far East Suite.

He followed that Grammy-nominated 1999 recording the next year with the Orrin Keepnews-produced Monk’s Moods, a brilliant investigation of classic compositions by Thelonious Monk featuring soprano sax legend Steve Lacy. And in 2005, Brown unveiled Rhapsodies, a consistently stirring album exploring pieces by Mingus, Ellington, and the centerpiece, a Pacific Rim reinvention of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue.”

“Ellington represents the full encapsulation of the American sensibilities, aesthetics and aspirations in the 20th century,” Brown says. “Monk, I heard a lot of affinities in his music with Asian music, the use of space, the flatted fifths. Monk himself was very enamored with Asian culture. When he went to Japan he immediately turned around and recorded a traditional Japanese folk song. So I went for artists who already had a very inclusive and expansive sense of their artistic vision.”

Recorded live at Yoshi’s, the band’s most recent album India & Africa foregrounds the international influences in the music of John Coltrane, the saxophone titan who shaped the jazz scene on which Brown came of age. As a Los Angeles high school student in the mid 1960s he dedicated himself to the drums, playing funk, avant-garde jazz, R&B and progressive rock. After earning BA in music and psychology from the University of Oregon, he served as an Army officer in Greece and Germany from 1976-80, forging ties with singular improvisers such as John Carter, David Murray, Billy Bang, William Parker, Jemeel Moondoc, and James Newton.

Returning to San Francisco in 1980, he launched his professional career with the band United Front, and started building a reputation as an adventurous composer comfortable blending jazz and classical European forms. By 1985, Brown had relocated to New York City, where he found kindred spirits on the emerging Downtown scene. After earning a Masters of Music degree at Rutgers University in jazz performance, Brown was awarded a Ford Foundation Fellowship to pursue his doctorate. UC Berkeley music professor Oly Wilson convinced him to come to Cal for his PhD. “Oly said if you stay in New York you’re not going to finish, but New York will still be there when you’re done,” Brown says. “He was right. I came back and was able to finish, and I’ve got no intention to leave Berkeley.”

Brown’s put down deep roots in here. His youngest daughter, Georgia, was born in the family’s south Berkeley house, and graduated from Cal last year with a degree in American Studies. The UC Press will soon publish Give the Drummer Some, his book detailing innovative drummers since the rise of bebop pioneers Kenny Clarke and Max Roach.

In the 1990s Brown did spend a good deal of time out of town while working as Curator of American Musical Culture at the Smithsonian Institution, collecting oral histories from many of jazz’s most important figures. The job gave him the opportunity to tour with pianist Sir Roland Hanna and bassist Keter Betts as the Smithsonian Jazz Trio, but when the group was stranded in the Midwest by the previous government shutdown in 1995 he decided to fly home to Berkeley. Within several months he’d resigned the position (though he’s still does occasional work for the Smithsonian) to devote himself to music full time again. “I didn’t want to write about history,” Brown says. “I wanted to have my shot at making history.”

The AAO has proven to be an ideal vehicle for Brown’s ambitious aesthetic and cultural agenda. Under his direction the band has become a singular, evocative instrument with impressive staying power. After 15 years, the orchestra continues to expand jazz’s borders, just as Brown continues to work in challenging new settings.

This fall he’s touring in Europe with the great trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith, performing his sprawling Pulitzer Prize-nominated masterwork Ten Freedom Summers. Closer to home, Brown performs on Nov. 1-2 at Zaccho Studio in San Francisco as part of choreographer Joanna Haigood new performance installation, Between me and the other world, an exploration of W.E.B. DuBois’ concept of “double consciousness.”

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.

This fall’s hottest ticket? Berkeleyside’s Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas is two days of provocative thinking, inspiring speakers, workshops, and a big party — all in downtown Berkeley in October. Be a part of it. Register on the Uncharted website

Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....