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B.J. Brown, of the Richmond Jazz Society, discusses the city's music history

B.J. Brown, a Black woman with short white hair and glasses, smiles at the camera from home. She is wearing a red scarf, a black shirt, black glasses, and gold earrings.
B.J. Brown. (Photo: Courtesy B. J. Brown)

B.J. Brown is one of the founders and the current executive director of the Richmond Jazz Society. She chatted with VPM Music recently about the organization's founding, Richmond jazz history and the ways jazz wrestles with American history and identity.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

VPM Music: In addition to being executive director, I know you're also one of the founders of RJS, which is a historic institution unto itself. Can you tell me a little bit about the organization's founding and what it was like to put it together?

B.J. Brown: Almost 43 years ago, in August of 1979, saxophonist J. Plunky Branch was an arts administrator, in addition to being a composer and arranger and performer. And he placed an ad in the newspaper wanting to know if there were some people in the area who wanted to start a forum for jazz, a real support group for jazz.

What was happening was that there were some other jazz promoters or presenters bringing nationally renowned artists to town, but the audience attendance was low. There was a group of us that said, "We want to start a forum for jazz, create a structure and a nonprofit organization, and do what we can to help develop the jazz audience in Richmond. So, that large gathering at the mosque dwindled down to a gathering of about eight or nine of us in Plunky’s dining room. And we were the ones — we did the work, you know: the articles of incorporation and the nonprofit status. And we didn't even know what we didn't know.

Plunky was just absolutely the best in showing us how to create a nonprofit organization that would support jazz. And actually what happened, we came up with the mission statement that we use to this day, and that is: “We are dedicated to the education, preservation and advancement of jazz as an American art form.” That was it in a nutshell.

In addition to Plunky, our mentor at the time was jazz violinist Joe Kennedy Jr., who taught all of us in Richmond public schools. And the thing about Joe Kennedy, when he taught music classes, he taught Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald on the same level that he taught us Stravinsky or Mozart. He saw those artists on the same level, creating and composing high art, just as European classical musicians were.

Some of our other early advisors were Mrs. Dorthaan Kirk in the New York/New Jersey area — she was the wife, the widow of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. So, you know, she knew all of the musicians in New York and could make contacts and help us really get into not just what we were doing here in Richmond, but into the national jazz scene.

In addition to the two of them, Buttercup Powell had moved back to Richmond. Buttercup was Bud Powell’s wife, and oh my gosh, she was incredible. That's another conversation we can have. All the stories that Buttercup would tell us, you know, firsthand stories about traveling with the great Bud Powell and their time in France. And she was tremendous. We would take her to schools and lectures; I hate to call them lectures, but you know, discussions, and we would call the discussions MAAM: Musicians Ain’t Always Men. So, we made sure that we included women musicians, and that was so very important especially for our young people to see that, too .... It ended up being — Jazz Society to this day, our organization — it's an organization of every race, color, creed, religion, socioeconomic background, demographic that you can imagine. And that's really the point of jazz. It shows us that we are more alike than not alike.

I think that's maybe a good segue into this question of jazz as a uniquely American art form. I think this idea of Americanness is so complicated for so many people, and I'd love to discuss some of the ways that jazz music wrestles with and reflects that idea of Americanness.

I can answer that in so many ways. That's why I pause. The one thing that makes jazz, jazz: Improvisation. That's the one thing that people love about it. And that's the one thing that people fear about it. And because of that, there are those who saw jazz as a lesser art. And we had to really wrestle with that, with getting people to appreciate jazz as an American art form. Every time a jazz musician performs and does a solo and improvises, that musician is composing while they're playing. That's a miracle. And you're making a statement, because it's a conversation; the musicians are actually having a conversation with each other. It’s the perfect discourse. You may come from a different point of view, but you're all going to the same point.

Then you recognize also that jazz reflects the different eras of American history: The roots of jazz are in Africa. And so when Africans were brought to these shores, they brought their culture with them — they brought African rhythms and harmonies and polyrhythms. And they melded those rhythms with the music that was here — European classical music or the Spanish quadrilles. It was just a melding of music. Blues, the field hollers of the enslaved, the call and response … jazz reflects America. It reflects love and not so much love, integration and racism and segregation.

And now young people are taking that traditional music and adding rap and hip-hop and Afrofuturism, you know. So, the point is that jazz makes us connected, that's what's more important than anything. I think that's the most important [part].

You curated a really impressive preservation initiative on the topic of Virginia jazz history, and it was until recently on display as an exhibit at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. What were some of the most surprising discoveries of that project for you?

I mean, the sheer number of Virginia artists that we located. We literally only scratched the surface with that exhibition. It was a labor of love, though. A lot of people did not know Ella Fitzgerald was from Virginia or that Pearl Bailey was from Virginia. But then the other artists that we found – I’ll just name a few. So, for instance, like this one gentleman, Claude Hopkins, was a pianist. And he had such a unique way of playing, they called him "Crazy Fingers." And he was so young, he was in his early 20s. And Josephine Baker, the great dancer, activist Josephine Baker, met him and took him to France, and he became her music director. So, it's just scratching the surface. There's so much more.

Kind of on that note, it's been really great to see RJS projects like the Jazz Café come back. I know some of your other programs have been altered or paused due to the COVID-19 situation. What are some of the other things that RJS has planned for the future?

The dream that we have is to maybe one day find a permanent home for the exhibition, and/or a traveling exhibition. That was important to us, to showcase musicians in the in the Hampton Roads area, in the Northern Virginia area or Lynchburg and Roanoke — so it is the Virginia jazz exhibition. Either a permanent home or traveling exhibition, that's kind of still on the back burner.

But what we're working on at the moment, we're trying to get back to some of our outreach programs, specifically focusing on our senior citizens, because they are the forgotten population everywhere. We have already started doing a few [events at] the senior facilities. It’s tough because the [COVID] positivity rate goes up, and then they say, “Oh, you can't come today.” But we won't give up on that.

Thank goodness for the Jazz Café series, because people were really looking for a respite, someplace where we can come and hear music. We're doing it in the atrium, not in the café. So, it's a large space where everyone can safely spread out. That's the key.

The Richmond Jazz Society’s Jazz Café Series, in partnership with the Virginia Museum of Fina Art, is held 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays in the Cochrane Atrium.