Q&A: Vice provost for the arts John Brown on the arts at Duke

JOHN BROWN was named vice provost for the arts last summer. A native North Carolinian, Brown came to the university in 2001 as an adjunct faculty member in the music department and went on to head Duke’s jazz program, along with his own jazz groups. “It’s hard to believe it’s already been a year, and what a year it has been,” he says.

You were the faculty sponsor for John Legend over Graduation Weekend. What was it like engaging with him?

He’s a sincere, genuine, gracious person who, you can tell, really cares about what he’s doing. I was inspired being around him. I told him about a few recordings that I like to lay on people. A lot of people don’t know that, for a long time, jazz pianist Oscar Peterson played with Nat King Cole. He produced a record called With Respect to Nat, and Peterson is singing, taking on some of the phrasing, the interpretation, that makes him sound like Nat King Cole— it blows your mind. I also told Legend about James Brown recording a big-band album called Soul on Top. He didn’t believe it; he said, there’s no way! So just before the graduation ceremony, he got out his iPhone and pulled it up so he could hear it.

Talk about your path as a jazz performer.

My musical tastes were diverse from a very young age; I put myself in places to experience many different kinds of music, to feed that love. My perpetual journey is to find moments of peace, joy, and solace, and the arts is always the place I go. Of course, music is the place I go to most. My mother played piano in our church choir, and my grandmother sang in that choir. So, I was dragged all the time to choir rehearsal. I would sit in our living room when I was three, four years old, and just listen to records. I tried both piano and viola, but then when I was nine, I began studying the bass. When I was thirteen, I began playing with the Fayetteville [North Carolina] Symphony Orchestra. As a highschool student, I started doing jazz gigs, including Pope Air Force Base and Fort Bragg. When I was in college at UNC-Greensboro, I was in [drummer] Elvin Jones’ band and also the North Carolina Symphony. I fit in, I felt like I belonged, and I enjoyed playing the bass. There was my stint in law school, but then I decided I wanted to do something fun, and music has always called me back.

Who are some of your musical heroes, and what music do you keep turning to?

Ray Brown, a bass player who worked with Oscar Peterson and all of the greats, is one of my biggest heroes. I also admire those who wrote the big symphonies: Mahler, Tchaikovsky—any Brahms symphony will do wonders for me. I listen to Marvin Gaye, I listen to Barry White. In junior high school, I played in a band that performed Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest. I listen to ballads a lot, and also [saxophonists] Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane, [jazz pianist] Shirley Horn, the Count Basie Big Band. One of my favorite records of all time is Sinatra at the Sands, where he’s singing with the Basie band. I turn a lot to Mahler’s “Adagietto” from his Fifth Symphony. You don’t find anyone who sings with more soul than Ray Charles, and he’s a creative chameleon, too—all the jazz stuff, contemporary R&B, country-western.

How did the Jazz Ensemble fare during the pandemic?

Performing live wasn’t on the table. But we figured out how to gather under a tent, at a distance and with our masks. So, we maintained a healthy rehearsal routine. You could tell the students needed it. And since we weren’t taking the time to prepare for performance, we used this stretch as a kind of gift, a chance to talk about music—including having the students share what they had been listening to—in a way that we hadn’t been able to before.

What has the pandemic taught us or reminded us about the value of the arts?

The common denominator among all of us is human creation. There is no part of the human existence that is without creation; the arts make us who we are. The arts enhance not only our creative skills but also our thinking, our reasoning skills, how we approach our problem-solving. You spend your day on Zoom, and when your Zoom day has ended, what do you do? You read a book, you watch a film, you listen to music. You enjoy something that an artist has left for you to enjoy. Artists have gotten us through this period. But as we look to life post-pandemic, we also want to be in that creative space where we can connect with ourselves and with other human beings.

After a year on the job, how would you characterize your vision for the arts at Duke?

I want the arts to be situated so that no person can pass through Duke and not be touched by the arts in some way. And one of the things I’ve identified is how much stronger we can be when we join forces. This past spring, we had a student arts showcase that featured music, theater, dance, creative writing, film, photography. It was the first time ever that all those departments had come together and collaborated on a presentation. It was a huge moment; for years I had wished for that. I’m equally proud of the Resist Covid/ Take 6! Project, which marked the first-ever collaboration among the Nasher, Duke Health, and Duke Arts. I think we have made very clear statements about the importance of the arts at Duke as being part of who we are. But there are so many rich opportunities when, within the arts disciplines, we say, let’s just see what happens when we get together.

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