Jazz Monthly: Well, when you talk about bass players, you must include my next guest. He is an incredible bass player, fantastic musician, he is a musician’s sideman, and when you say sideman, this cat epitomizes the true meaning of what that is. He has performed with the A-List to any other list you can imagine. He’s an astonishing producer as well. Please welcome the Grammy Award Winning, incredible and amazing Mr. Mel Brown.
Mel Brown (MB): (Laughs.) That’s a great introduction. I appreciate that, Smitty.
Jazz Monthly: Hey, my pleasure, my friend. Hey, it’s great to talk to you finally because as you know, I have been telling the world about you and what you have done over the past few years working with so many great artists and doing your thing out there on the road with some of the best in the business.
MB: Well, I definitely thank you for the good words. A lot of the projects I’ve been involved with have gotten favorable reviews and I appreciate it. I think I speak for everyone in Smooth Jazz when I say that you’ve been a big part of helping us keep this thing going, and I tip my hat to you for that, Smitty.
Jazz Monthly: Well, thank you so much. Man, that means a lot coming from a fantastic cat like yourself. With someone of your caliber that’s so talented in your craft and works so hard at being a fantastic musician, how did you decide on music as a career? Because it’s just not one of those things where you just get up one morning and say “I’m gonna be a musician.”
MB: Well Smitty, I don’t ever remember not being a musician. When I was a very small child, I remember one time sitting in the living room with my mother watching some show on television—it may have been American Bandstand or something like that—and we saw the Staples Singers. They were on the show doing one of their famous tunes and I distinctly remember seeing the person playing the guitar and thinking that it was cool, but really seeing the guy play the bass. I looked at him and I remember looking at my mother and saying “That’s the one that I do.” And she said “Oh, is that right?” And I said “Yeah, that’s the one that I do.” I don’t even think that I knew that it was called bass, but I definitely knew at that time that that’s what I did and from then on I gravitated towards it. Even though it wasn’t a real pursuit until I was in my teens, it seemed that in the back of my mind that I always had to get that going. (Laughs.) It was one of those things that I knew and loved but hadn’t been paying attention to as a child. It just seemed like it was always there for me.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, and it’s just one of those things destined to happen.
MB: I believe so. It’s definitely been a good ride so far, I know.
Jazz Monthly: Do you remember your first bass?
MB: I remember the first bass that I ever got to have for more than a day.
Jazz Monthly: (Laughs.)
MB: My elementary school music teacher—her name was Diane Beer. She had a bass and she let me take it home for about a week and she showed me how to play a really basic jazz/rock/blues line. I took the bass home and practiced and practiced and practiced, and then she needed it back, obviously, so I was devastated.
Jazz Monthly: (Laughs.)
MB: But it got the fire lit under me. That was when I was in the sixth grade. When I went to the seventh grade, I took a guitar class — that’s when schools still had music programs—and I would actually try to run to class and learn a bass line before I actually had to do what I was required to do. (Both laugh.) So pretty much up until high school, that was my training, and then my family moved to the East Coast. When I was 14 or 15, my mother finally broke down and let me have one. It represented a pretty significant financial commitment, and you know parents, they don’t know if you’re gonna stick with it or not, but I stuck with it.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, man, and aren’t we glad you did? (Both laugh.)
MB: I know I’m glad I did.
Jazz Monthly: Were you like most musicians where you’d go down to the music store and check out the bass guitars and play them and hope and dream and think along those lines?
MB: I sure did. If I could get into a music store and look, I did. If I could see guys playing music live, I did. I’ve just always been fascinated with music and the life of musicians, and I’ve always had a love for musicianship. I could always tell great musicianship. Yeah, so any time that I could get myself around some instruments or around some people playing, I definitely did.
Smitty: I can see your love for music and great musicianship because I’m gonna tell you, I want to share with you one compliment among many that I have heard over the years about you, because when your name comes up in a conversation, it’s always the “Wow Thing”.
MB: (Laughs.) I’m so glad for that.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, in fact, I just mentioned you to Steve Oliver today. We were talking.
Jazz Monthly: And I said “You know what I like about Mel is he seems always ready to throw down and he’s always prepared” and Steve told me this story. He said “Man, you’re right on.” He said “I remember when Mel was coming to play in a band that he was in” and he said “We had never met him.” You met them at the gig.
MB: Yeah, Steve Reid’s Bamboo Forest.
Jazz Monthly: Exactly, he said “You know, he walked in and he had a notebook with Steve Reid Bamboo Forest neatly written on the notebook, everything highly organized, he knew all the songs, he was ready to go.” And he said he was so impressed by that because that was not something that he had ever seen back then, and he said he couldn’t wait to work with you in the future after that gig because that was just so impressive that you were that prepared and well organized and backed it up with a great performance that night, so that’s just one of many that I’ve heard about Mel Brown.
MB: Oh, well, if you talk to Steve, tell him I definitely appreciate that and I’m happy that that kind of thing still stays on peoples’ minds. I take a lot of pride in the service that I provide as a sideman and in being prepared. A lot of times when a regular player can’t make the gig and you have to call someone that hasn’t done the gig before, the expectation is for a disaster.
Jazz Monthly: (Laughs.)
MB: Even if it’s someone that can really, really play, the expectation is for a disaster. But I firmly believe that songs are the common ground where all of us can meet in the middle. We can all look good, and if I know the songs well enough, I can come in, and even if it’s my first day, everyone can have a great time and the people in the audience will not feel shortchanged by me being the new guy. I’ve promised myself that no one would ever leave a show that I was on feeling like they didn’t get their money’s worth. Not on my watch.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, well, I could attest to that because the first time I saw you was on Maui.
MB: Oh, that was a long time ago, Smitty.
Jazz Monthly: A long time ago, man. (Both laugh.) And I remember sitting in the audience, which is something I rarely do because I can’t sit still, but I remember sitting next to a promoter from England and I remember him saying—now, keep in mind this was an A-List day of musicians and bands.
Jazz Monthly: I mean, you name the A-List of Smooth Jazz artists, they were there for that festival, and I remember him whispering to me “That guy right there and Scott Ambush are the two best bass players here.”
MB: Oh, wow! I love Scott’s playing – he’s fantastic! What a great compliment. (Laughs.)
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, I have many more.
MB: I’m excited about that. Well, there’s no way scientifically to determine who’s better or worse. Music is an art, so it’s very subjective as to what people prefer or like, but if someone said that, then it must mean that whatever it was that I or Scott was doing touched them in some positive way, so I’m grateful for that.
Jazz Monthly: Exactly. So it’s a thing where when you really serve your musicianship well and you really study your craft and you have the goal of getting better all the time and creative all the time, never think that it’s not recognized by your audience because they lock into that. People know a great musician when they hear one and when they see one, always.
MB: Yes they do, and I appreciate that. My goal is that the person in the front is served by me being there. I don’t ever want anybody to regret spending their money on Mel Brown. A lot of times if you’re performing with a big name artist and you’re terrible on stage, you’re not the person that they remember. They remember that the person up front put on a bad show or a less than quality show, and I just never want anybody who’s in front of me to take the hit. Right now I perform in Arizona four times a week with a lady named Khani Cole.
Jazz Monthly: I know her well.
MB: Excellent. You gave her her first interview is the word that I got.
Jazz Monthly: In fact, it was my first interview too. (Both laugh.)
MB: Well, the world is small. It’s really a small world.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, man, in fact, that’s why I am doing this today. It was a very chance thing and it turned out well according to the audience and the masses out there, so I just, in simple terms, kept doing it. (Laughs.)
MB: I hear you. Well, on that particular show, with Khani, I’ve learned—well, I shouldn’t say that I’ve learned it, I’ve had it confirmed—that the love of the public is not a given. You can’t take it for granted.
Jazz Monthly: Right.
MB: Just because you get in front of people and perform or do what you do doesn’t mean that people are gonna like it. When I work with Khani, it confirms that people, when they like what you do, are loyal and will come and support you every week. People here come to see Khani perform and every week she’s just giving it to ‘em. Giving everything that she’s got to these people. If I’m on the gig with her, then I’ve got to be bringing heat in the same way. I’ve got to give them my best every time, without fail. I’ve seen bigger names do far worse.
Jazz Monthly: Absolutely, man. I love that approach. Now, here once again, you have appeared as a sideman, as a session guy, with an A-List of artists. Just to name a few, Wayman Tisdale, Dave Koz,
Eric Darius, Bob Baldwin, Steve Oliver, I believe Al Jarreau.
MB: George Benson and Al Jarreau’s record that won the Grammy.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, and right now we’re not talking about just the past because there are many for the past four or five years and beyond.
MB: Oh yeah. I’m having a good little run.
Jazz Monthly: But I’m talking about right now, today, as we speak, there are ten singles out there that are just blowing up the charts.
MB: Yeah, how ‘bout that? Is that a fluke or what? (Laughs.)
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, with Mel Brown doing his thing. Wayman Tisdale’s Rebound debuted at No. 1 on Billboard.
MB: It sure did.