Oscar Brown, Jr., Playwright and Composer, Dies at 78

Obituaries   Oscar Brown, Jr., Playwright and Composer, Dies at 78
Oscar Brown, Jr., an actor, composer, singer and participant in Chicago and New York theatre, died on May 29 in Chicago, the New York Times reported. He was 78.

Chicago was where Mr. Brown most commonly exercised his theatrical muscles through such shows as Joy 66 and Summer in the City. His Opportunity, Please Knock was created in 1967 with members of the Blackstone Rangers, a street gang, wrote the Times—a typical example of Mr. Brown's penchant for engaging society and politics through his art. In the early '80s came Great Nitty Gritty, a show about gang violence using residents of the notorious Cabrini Green housing project. The show was revived in 2002.

While trying to sell real estate to make a living in the late '50s, he wrote the book, music and lyrics for Kicks & Co., which was supposed to come to Broadway, but shuttered after a few days into its Chicago tryout, despite receiving much publicity through a two-hour segment on the "Today" show with David Garroway. According to Mr. Brown, writing on his website, "The script had to be adapted to fit the 'Today's show format and the political content of it prevented it from being mass-produced."

He did make the big time theatre-wise once. In 1969, his show Buck White, adapted from the book "Big Time Buck White" by Joseph Dolan Tuotti, played Broadway for a handful of performances. The musical featured music and lyrics by Mr. Brown, who also directed (along with his wife Jean Pace). It also featured the only Broadway appearance by boxer Muhammad Ali. According to the Times, Mr. Brown—a handsome man with a thoughtful face, thick eyebrows and, later, a moustache and beard—stepped into the Ali part in a San Francisco production.

More recently, Off-Broadway in fall 2003, performer-pianist Genovis Albright and the Oscar Brown Trio serenaded Off-Broadway audiences with the blues and jazz songs of Mr. Brown in Serenade the World at the John Houseman Studio.

The multi-talented Oscar Brown, Jr., wrote numerous songs over his career, many in the jazz and gospel veins. He made his recording debut as a singer on Columbia Records in 1961 with the album "Sin and Soul...And Then Some." Critical acclaim followed. Soon after, he debuted at the Village Vanguard jazz club in New York, and went on to share the bill with such jazz greats as Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane. As a songwriter, he famously put lyrics to jazz instrumentals like Miles Davis' "All Blues," Bobby Timmons and Nat Adderley's "Dat Dere" and Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue." He also wrote the lyrics for the socially conscious Max Roach album "We Insist! Freedom Now Suite." Nina Simone covered Mr. Brown's "Rags and Old Iron," "Work Song," and "Forbidden Fruit" on her album "Forbidden Fruit," and covered "Brown Baby" on "Nina at the Village Gate."

As an actor, he was a regular on "Brewster Place" and had a recurring role as a jazz pianist on the Fox sitcom "Roc." He was married twice, and is survived by his wife Jean Pace; a son, Napoleon; four daughters, Maggie Brown, Donna Brown Kane, Iantha Casen and Africa Pace Brown. Maggie is a vocalist in the Chicago area. Another son, Oscar III, died in an car accident on the Outer Drive expressway in Chicago in August 1996.

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