The Mix (High art and popular
culture: Linda Kosuts Oscar Brown Jr. Project)
My first week back in a rainy Paris. The large old style windows
in the bathroom are frosted a milky white. Below they look out onto the
courtyard and above similar windows with their boxes of Geraniums drooping
their heads in this heavy rain.
There is something hypnotic about how the lone light over the
entrance to the courtyard door, used to lead one out of the courtyard, is
diffused through the panes.
I can not just hang out in here, it is odd, so I take baths.
Forever in my minds eye, I want to capture the dreamlike light, a
shimmering grey dusk.
I rest the radio on a pile of towels, not too near the tub. I read
Gautier while Poulenc plays. She pokes her head in the door to see if I had
seen one of the dominos which had escaped from the box last night. Under water,
I shrug my shoulders.
She listens to the music for a moment.
Careful, you will mix your metaphors.
A lot of the great American songbook and indeed a large part of
early cabaret seemed to effortlessly mix high art with a crowd pleasing
populist bent. Humable tunes mixed with lyrics which encompassed social
commentary yet, could pass for poetry.
Initially cabarets were like a café, but with more of a
leaning towards alcohol. The twin birthplaces were Germany and Paris.
Café culture seemed to start in both places simultaneously although with
decidedly different flavors emanating from each place.
Right before and immediately preceding both wars,
émigrés from all over Europe converged on Paris. Bringing their
music, their poetry and different ethno-national takes on the current world
Le Chat Noir in Montmartre (Paris) was a saloon descended from the
type of small venue in which some of the romantic era artists would have given
readings of their poems, tried out some of their smaller musical pieces or
maybe even displayed a painting or two.
Le Chat Noir, unlike its predecessors though, gave off a more
relaxed vibe. There was an exchange of ideas, an artistic cross pollination.
With the inexpensive price of drinks, the live entertainment and the peasant
stews usually bubbling on the stove it attracted not just artists, but a ready
made audience of workers as well.
The small, intimate seating combined with an atmosphere more
casual than what was to be found at the theater was one of the initial appeals
of what would become known as cabaret.
At first, composers such as Debussy would play songs and works
which, while written for smaller venues, still had the more formal sheen of
respectability and a night at the theater. After World War I, the Weimar
Republic (Germany) was a hot house of artistic freedom. A freedom which lasted
up until change in the political climate and an oppressive regime, with
policies which followed suit.
Cabaret was still loose, sexy and fun but a more satirical aspect
crept in too. There were still image rich lyrics, but also some social
In Germany Kurt Weil began a successful collaboration with
author/playwright Bertolt Brecht. They poked fun at the battle of the sexes, the seven deadly sins
and all the other foibles of modern day man.
While in Paris a group of young, like-minded composers dubbed Le
Six (Germaine Tailleferre, Darius Milhaud, Arthur
Honneger, Louis Durey, Francis Poulenc, Georges Auric) began their careers which had gestated from within the walls
of a cabaret.
Technically speaking, Weil/Brecht wrote mainly operas while Le Six
wrote ballets, chamber music and symphonies. All these artists though, started
in cabarets and even when not writing in the strictest definition of the word,
cabaret songs, would often keep the stripped down instrumentation so often a
prerequisite for the small stages of a cabaret.
There was in common too, the mix in lyrics between the literate
and the things to be found in every day existence. Poetic words used to
describe the heartache we all must experience, sung by but a few voices and
accompanied by accordion and maybe a clarinet.
Cabarets would start to pop up in America as well during the early
decades of the 1900s. They quickly morphed however, sacrificing some of
their intimacy for large dance floors on which one must be seen. There was
music still, but it contained none of the socio-political elements to be found
in the European artistic forbearers.
The Volstead act (prohibition) made selling alcohol illegal and
was the death knell, at least temporarily, for Americas large clubs. This
birthed the speakeasies which were smaller and closer in spirit to
Europes cabarets. The silhouette of a tiarrad woman lamenting the
blues was a great distraction from the low quality of the bathtub gin patrons
would overpay for the privilege to secretly drink.
After prohibition was the great depression, but the big cities in
America wanted to celebrate, in denial. The Big clubs were back, cabarets
rich relatives, referred to as a supper club. The female singers
were the same, although they must have felt out of place among so many
glamorous penguins with their bejeweled wives or mistresses on their
During this time, over in Europe were variations on all these
types of nocturnal entertainment, from the cabarets which harkened back to its
original conception to a more American concept, big clubs with overly iced
Cabaret continued to morph, drawing from its past while also
embracing the vernacular of a changing world both musically and lyrically. Kurt
Weil, fleeing Nazi Germany would end up in the United States writing successful
Broadway shows and some more of what could be considered cabaret songs.
Genres began to blur, torch song, saloon song, jazz singer. What
was the difference and did it matter? The best art forms do not exist in a
vacuum but draw from all which preceded it and what is current. In this way,
cabaret at its best had much in common with jazz. Somewhere along the way
though, cabaret lost something. There are still some good singers, but the
overall genre itself brings forth to the layman, images of former music theater
majors over-singing Gershwin a la American Idol to old ladies taking a break
from the nickel slots. Cabaret has become in most peoples minds
interchangeable with the more loathsome dinner theater genre just
as the public often confuses the genre names of Cool Jazz (West Coast) with the
Kenny G type of Smooth Jazz.
Yet, if one looks hard enough there are singers worth discovering
and song writers who are, artistically directly descended from the initial
intent of cabaret.
I have been lucky to discover recently both, combined together in
Like the word genius, Renaissance Man is often over
used. However, Oscar Brown Jr fits the description perfectly.
Oscar Brown Jr, (1926-2005) ever his own man, would have more in
common with the European cabaret tradition than initial appearance would lead
one to believe.
Oscars emotional and intellectual make up were very much
formed from his experiences as an African American, but to some extent his
music transcends issues of race alone. His song Bid Em In
about a slave auction can effect a person of any color or class much as Kurt
Weils chamber maid Jennys longing for an account of her bosses in
Red Sails. Both too, share socially relevant message peppered with
a wry humor. Oscar always managed to inform while also entertaining and never
letting his art become merely rhetoric. In his art, his disenfranchised could
be of any color.
His political activism alternated with songs about his children,
about men and woman together, apart and yearning for what they do not have. A
similar approach to cabaret and troubadours in the best sense of the tradition.
Also like Kurt Weil and members of Le Six, Oscar drew upon many musical genres,
incorporating them into his art to forge something familiar yet new.
Into his sonic crucible could be found elements of jazz, early
blues-folk and aspects of protest songs.
The delivery too had much in common with the cabaret. Here were
worlds and people vividly brought to into existence, their joys and pains
experienced all within the life of a song. He had an actors ability to switch
emotional gears with the cadence of his voice and a jazz musicians sense of
Oscars mother was a teacher. His father was a successful
lawyer and property broker who wanted his son to follow in his
From an early age Oscar showed an interest in the written word. In
grade school he was double promoted, starting the University of Wisconsin at
the age of sixteen. It was also during this time Oscar performed on the radio
show Secret City.
School could not hold his interest and he was soon back home.
He found himself returning to the world of radio broadcasting,
hosting the Negro News front, often being citied as the nations first African
American news caster.
Ironically, he was sometimes considered too controversial by a
show whose very nature and existence was hotly debated in some parts of the
Oscar left radio for a foray into politics, running for Illinois
legislator (1948). While it was a failed bid, it began a lifelong participation
in politics which also included a run for a state senate position under the
In the future his politics would sometimes become less formalized,
but at the root were always a concern for the rights and dignity of the working
class and minorities.
His interest in the condition of the working class and desire to
make everything equal and better for all was also shown by joining the
communist party. An affiliation which lasted some ten years, ending with his
I was too black to be red.
All during his political activities and radio days Oscar had
continued to write. He wrote songs, plays and prose.
He was neighbors with A Raisin in the Sun playwright
Lorraine Hansberry. Through her he met Robert Nemiroff, her husband, who was a
music publisher and early supporter of Oscars songs.
Initially, Oscar shopped his songs around, hoping for someone else
to sing them. Columbia Records offered a contract, wanting to sign Oscar not as
a songwriter, but a singer.
Although he sat on the offer for a year, he did eventually sign.
During this time he would appear on Max Roachs civil rights album
Freedom Now Suite.
His initial Columbia album Sin and Soul contained one
of his most powerful songs Bid Em In along with modern jazz
instrumental standards to which he added lyrics and vocals to great effect
(Bobby Timmons Dat Dere and Mongo Santamarias
The songs were sung, but also because of his background in radio
and his own innate abilities, acted. His songs were now being covered by other
singers (Lena Horn, Mahalia Jackson et al).
He began to play some of jazzs hallowed halls (Village
Vangard, The Jazz Workshop). Using the exposure he was garnering and feeding
off the excitement, he wrote a musical Kicks and Company (1961).
Like some of the best modern theater/musicals, songs from Kicks..
all go together to form a larger picture, but can also be enjoyed
The need for finances was a catalyst for this play becoming a
broadcasting first and last when at the invitation of Today Show host Dave
Garroway, Oscar was allowed to take over the full two hours to raise funds for
The show received mixed reviews only being more appreciated now,
when looked back on through the lens of time.
Oscar was not forever reinventing himself, but as a man and as an
artist, constantly evolving adding to his palette even as he added to his
output. His body of work is widely varied. Not made up of good and
bad, but encompassing change and growth while still retaining the
familiar voice of the artist. He would write more plays, incorporate Brazilian
music, seventies funk inflections, work with inner city youth gangs, write, act
and of course sing.
Towards the end of his life he seemed to have been discovered by a
new generation of fans through things like appearances on Russell Simmons
Def Poetry and appearances with his daughter Maggie, also an accomplished
Linda Kosut was born in New York where she studied piano and dance
at an early age. Like many modern day artists she had to turn to the business
world for her daily bread, yet never stopping her musical studies. The mid
90s found her publicly performing again, getting back into the stream of
things at open mic nights and piano bars. A 2003 album Life is But a
Dream was voted one of the top female vocalist recordings that year by
Cabaret Hotline Online in New York.
Three years later she founded The Kitchenettes, an ensemble who
sing about delights both gastronomical and of the heart. They toured San
Francisco and Italy. On her own Linda traveled, performing her show about
following ones bliss, My Own Kind Of Hat.
Long as Youre Living is the new CD by Linda
Kosut. It encompasses a cross section of the work of Oscar Brown. One of the
many compelling aspects of this CD is that it does not merely present all the
familiar songs, there are some penned later in Oscars career which even
an established fan may not know. Although this is not the first major work in
her oeuvre, Linda initially encountered his work as a young girl in the
60s and the thrill of that discovery has stayed with her through the
years. The project came about when originally she was searching for the lead
sheet for one song, Humdrum Blues. An unexpected yes
from the publisher led to the formation of a full fledged show. In her
research, Linda started a correspondence with Maggie Brown, Oscars
daughter. Maggie gave the show her blessing and the two have since performed
together also appearing on the morning television show View From The
Bay. (Nov. 16, 2007)
This album is almost like a collaboration, Lindas voice is
definitely one of the stars of the show, yet Oscars personality is ever
present. His lyrical intent is never lost or buried even as Linda manages to
artistically sit by his side. Is she a cabaret singer? The semantics of such a
thing are a moot point. She is a singer of great ability who could sing cabaret
(proper traditional) too. A simple thing which I found impressive is the
organic strength of her voice which is deftly wielded so that she can handle
complicated passages without any dead spaces being created from having to rein
There are many highlights on this CD. The first track A Tree
and Me has the narrator mixing his ashes with a sapling tree in lieu of a
headstone. The song has a melancholy beauty and should be heard by anyone who
would write off Oscar as merely an afro-centric artist. Lyrically too, this
song is perhaps a good metaphor for Oscars art and jazz in general, the
ashes of one generation providing for growth of the next. The song is the
perfect introduction to the sonic delights to be found on this album.
A lot of contemporary vocal albums have either the voice way too
far up front or to compensate, everything is blaring, coming at you all at
once. Here, there is a delicate layering of instruments and vocals. The soft
tinkling of Max Perkoff on piano with a rich bass bowing, a chamber music like
tinge, from Tom Shader. Aside from painting lyrical pictures, the voice here is
treated as another instrument. There is also none of the frigid digital
perfection that can make it sound like everyone came in at different times to
record their parts. Towards the end of the piece Paul Van Wageningen provides
the rain like patter of the cymbals, wrapping themselves around the voice
without any danger of distraction. There are some drummers who can play soft
and delicate, others who swing madly. Paul effortlessly can change gears adding
to the emotional landscape of each piece regardless of tempo and
The album is not a concept album embodying the linear view of only
one story, but a theme one. There is a perfect balance in the programming of
the songs orders. The slower tempo and melancholy bent of the first song
gives way to the quicker paced Mr. Kicks. The varied feel of each
song keeps the album from ever becoming dull, yet taken all together they form
a coherent picture of two artists distinct voices. Mr. Kicks
is a deceptively happy song and following in a long tradition, presents
temptation and the devil as sexy and fun even as you are being
My favorite track on the album is Hazels Hips. A
bluesy tempo valentine to a waitress whose appeal makes the narrator eat
six meals a day in a crummy café just to see her shapely
charms. Lindas voice shows its strength here in such a subtle way that
upon first listen it is deceptively simple in how she uses it to convey romance
combined with a more earthy heat. The trombone is the come hither of Hazel but
also the panting of a lunchtime crowd completely under her spell. Throughout
the album the bass changes its cadence, here it thickly bubbles. A big man
humming the blues as the story unfolds.
The Snake starts with a muted horn playing in a hot
jazz mode with the cymbals acting as the dancers. Lyrically it is a
variation on the folk tale of the scorpion and the frog at the river (it
doesnt end well for any concerned). Here Linda demonstrates, much as
Oscar used to, the ability to act the story from within the confines of a song.
There have been many treatments of the music of Thelonious Monk
and modern jazz standards in general. Unlike some cases, here the added vocals
to the Monk standard Round Midnight do not seem superfluous. The
lyrics, initially a weary requiem for the end of day. Half way through the
piece, the piano pulses and the Oscar Brown poem The Beach is
recited, seamlessly integrated into the body of the song. A lament for friends
and a generation gone, storming a beach which is the youth of us all. Each
generation, despite our victories, is destined to fall to age, time, the winner
always in a fatal game.
The CD is forty seven minutes long. A mark of a good album is how
abstract ones sense of time becomes while listening, the album seems
neither too short nor too long. The sound quality, while completely possessing
the (for me) important organic quality, is pristine. The liner notes are brief
and by Linda. The band is small, a trio with Max doubling up on piano and
trombone, and containing no weak links. Toms bass manages to have a
distinctive voice, yet like the cadence heard over the course of a good
conversation, it changes from piece to piece. Both Max and Paul I have seen in
different ensembles. Without submerging any of their identity, both here have
further expanded their palettes bringing something different to the
Old Lovers Song sounded familiar to me. Trying
to recall where I had heard the melody was like an itch I could not scratch. It
is a Jacques Brel song. Lyrically, it is a couple with a history, grown
comfortable with their battle, the battle of the sexes and the suspicion that
the fight might very well be part of their life long courting.. Here it is sung
in English with a brief refrain in French. Jacques Brel, like Oscar wore many
hats. The inclusion of this song reiterates what we should all learn; good
music need know no color; and troubadour, cabaret et al, the only music labels
which matter are good and bad.
Youre Living: The Songs & Poetry of Oscar Brown JR
Max Perkoff- piano, trombone
Paul Van Wageningen-percussion
at Linda Kosut's site.
Buy the CD
at CD Baby.
- Maxwell will return with more adventures in sound