Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
The Windy City has lost most of its legendary tenor saxophone players: Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin, Fred Anderson, Von Freeman. Luckily, several titanic Chicago saxophonists are still among us, including avant-jazz legend Roscoe Mitchell, genre-crossing out cat David Boykin, and the versatile but underappreciated Ari Brown, whose thoughtful playing bridges the nimble intricacies of bebop and the wooly eruptions of free jazz.
Brown was born February 1, 1944, and grew up on the south side of Chicago, where he learned to groove from his father’s jazz records. He began as a pianist, playing for soul, blues, and R&B artists around the midwest (Gene Chandler, the Chi-Lites, B.B. King, Lou Rawls, Chuck Berry, the Four Tops), and in 1965 he switched to tenor saxophone. At that point he was attending Woodrow Wilson Junior College (soon to be renamed Kennedy-King), where he met a crowd of future legends, including Jack DeJohnette and several founders or early members of the brand-new Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians: Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Joseph Jarman.
Brown would join the AACM himself in 1971, but he felt out of his depth at first. “The meetings were kind of intimidating to me, because all these musicians, they were already made musicians,” he told the Tribune‘s Howard Reich in 2018. “I was just a new face in the crowd. When I joined the group, Muhal wanted everyone to have a group and feature their own compositions and so forth. And I was really scared, because I hadn’t written a composition. I had never led a band before. So I’m not sure what I did. But I guess it worked.”
Revolutionary soul-jazz group the Awakening, which included several AACM affiliates (and appeared in a previous Secret History), enlisted Brown for its two groundbreaking albums, released via the Black Jazz label in 1972 and ’73. Sadly, in 1974 Brown suffered a major setback: a terrible car crash in which he lost several teeth. He was unable to play saxophone as he recuperated, so at first he fell back on his piano skills. After seven months, he tried to return to his horn and discovered that someone had added insult to injury–the instrument was gone, stolen from his home. Undeterred, Brown borrowed his father’s sax and got his chops back into shape.
In the late 1970s, Brown began playing mostly jazz, gigging with the likes of McCoy Tyner, Don Patterson, and Sonny Stitt. In 1979 the great drummer Elvin Jones asked him to be his touring saxophonist, a gig that would continue on and off for more than 20 years. All this time, Brown also held down a day job: he’d earned a bachelor’s degree in music education from the VanderCook College of Music in Bronzeville in 1968, and in 1974 he began work as a teacher for Chicago Public Schools. The multitasking Brown even appeared on the 1976 LP Flowers by Windy City soul and R&B group the Emotions, which went gold.
In the 1980s and onward, Brown would perform all over the world. He started his own regular group, the Ari Brown Quintet, and continued to gig widely with other projects and bandleaders. His resume is vast, but highlights include the AACM Experimental Orchestra, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Lester Bowie, Anthony Braxton (for his 1990s Charlie Parker Project), Donald Byrd, Malachi Favors, Von Freeman, Roscoe Mitchell, David Murray, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, and Orbert Davis‘s Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. In 1989 he joined drummer Kahil El’Zabar in his Ritual Trio, which is still active (albeit with a different lineup).
Though Brown appears on more than 75 records, he didn’t make an album as a bandleader until 1995. That year he recorded Ultimate Frontier for Delmark, working with several frequent collaborators: his brother Kirk Brown on piano, Yosef Ben Israel on bass, and Avreeayl Ra on drums. The music honored bop’s past while looking forward to the freedom music it had spawned, and it led to several more Delmark albums: 1998’s Venus, 2007’s Live at the Green Mill, and most recently 2013’s Groove Awakening.
Brown continues to teach, and has nurtured generations of musicians at Columbia College, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and other institutions. He’s played venues and events as diverse as the Smithsonian Institution, Steppenwolf Theatre, the Village Vanguard, the Newport Jazz Festival, and the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands. Despite working more as a sideman or in support roles than at center stage, Brown has received plenty of recognition throughout his career, including four awards from the National Endowment of the Arts. In 2018 the Tribune declared him one of its Chicagoans of the Year in the Arts.
Brown was part of the ensemble on the 2020 album Cloud Script by bassist Joshua Abrams, and he’s continued to perform as the pandemic allows. In March 2021, he and Kirk recorded a duo set at Constellation that was streamed as part of the virtual series Chicago Takes 10, and in April ’21 he played a string of limited-capacity shows at the Jazz Showcase. In June he participated in Elastic’s streaming Z Festival, playing in a band led by bassist Marlene Rosenberg, and on September 4 he’ll perform as part of a Millennium Park jazz concert during the Chicago in Tune festival. If you get a chance to catch this forward-thinking living legend onstage, don’t pass it up. v
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.