I've got a whole city to hold down

June 01, 2005

Tribute to greatness: Oscar Brown Jr.

In music and life, hipsters are a dime a dozen. What set Oscar Brown Jr. apart, and made him a great Chicago original, was his refusal to settle for style. As a jazz artist, he could scat with the best of them and pen lyrics that shivered with jivey cool. But his work always had a serious, questing dimension to it, calling for people to reject racial prejudice and celebrate their commonality, to accept responsibility for their actions and do unto others as they wanted others to do unto them. He was no stranger to anger and could be cantankerous, but the playful spark of classics like "Signifyin' Monkey" and deep humanism of ballads like "Brother Where Are You?" dominated, touching generations of jazz, soul and topical-minded folk singers, rappers and hip-hoppers. Brown, who died Sunday at 78, refused to be locked into categories. During the coffeehouse '60s, he helped break down the wall between jazz and cabaret and later ventured into theater. His musicals, which drew as much from Africa and South America as Broadway, weren't as successful as he would have liked, but that didn't stop him from pursuing the form to further his social activism and broaden the scope of black entertainment. The South Side legend remained productive to the end, committed as ever to the best kind of hipness. - Chicago Sun-Times editorial, 6/1/05

For more, see the "OBJ" Web site, read obituaries from the Tribune and Sun-Times, visit the Hideout's remembrance page, or listen to this segment from the Chicago Public Radio program Hello Beautiful.