Playing the trumpet is hard. Before you can even think about playing different notes on the coiled brass instrument’s three valves, you need to be able to form an embouchure – the shape a player makes with their lips against the mouthpiece. Making a sound relies on the buzzing of your lips, breath control, tongue manipulation, and the tightening of cheek and jaw muscles. It takes years of practice to master and some never find it at all.
For New York-based, Chicago-born trumpet player Maurice Brown, his innate skill became apparent when he first picked up a trumpet in grade five. Before long Brown was playing live with his blues guitarist uncle, Bobby “Slim” James.
“Even before I could, you know, read [sheet] music all the way, I was playing by ear and just jamming with him in the blues club. It was just natural to me to express yourself through your instrument,” Brown tells Broadsheet from his home in Brooklyn.
Brown’s talent has led him to work with some of the world’s biggest artists, from jazz greats including Wynton Marsalis, to singers John Legend and the late-great Aretha Franklin, pop bands such as Florence and the Machine, and huge hip-hop acts the Roots, Pharrell Williams, and Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs. Soon Brown will headline the jazz-focussed NGV Friday Nights line-up.
Brown’s own compositions are a mix of his traditional jazz chops and modern hip-hop influences. The track Moroccan Dancehall from his 2017 album The Mood bears more than a passing resemblance to Missy Elliott’s Get Ur Freak On, and Stand Up features a guest verse from celebrated New York City MC Talib Kweli.
The collision of influences in Brown’s music began in his family home, where his parents’ vinyl record collection included artists such as Miles Davis, Kool & the Gang, B.B. King and ’60s hard bop jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan.
“I love how honest Lee Morgan was. He always played like he didn't give a fuck,” says Brown. “He put it all on the line, every time he played like it was his last time. I kinda modelled a lot of myself from that.”
Brown’s defiant attitude was also forged growing up in Harvey, Illinois, a suburb in the south of Chicago that to this day struggles with violent crime and the repercussions of poorly managed municipal funds.
“Chicago's a very beautiful place. But at the same time it can be, you know, a dangerous place too. Most of the people I grew up with are dead or in jail,” says Brown. “Those that are still around are pretty successful because they persevered through all that, you know.”
Perseverance led Brown to cold call the Chicago hotels where his jazz heroes were staying and convince the musicians to let him play with them.
“They’d pick up and I’d say, 'Hey, this is Maurice Brown, I'm a trumpet player and I wanted to know if I could take you to lunch?' And they would always say yes,” laughs Brown. “They’d say, 'You’re really cool man I bet you can really play, why don't you bring your horn down tonight and sit in?’”
Brown says Chicago gave him his avant-garde sensibilities, but he also honed his chops in some of America’s other great jazz towns including New Orleans (the genre’s birthplace) and New York City. He says live trumpet battles in New Orleans taught him to hold nothing back, and New York refined his influences.
New York’s also where Brown got his first big break working with pop artists, a break he almost passed up. Following a 20-plus hour flight from Indonesia, and wanting nothing more than to relax with his girlfriend at the time, Brown received an important call.
“I literally just landed in New York and my phone was blowing up. It was Wyclef Jean telling me how he needed me to come to the studio right away,” says Brown.
At his girlfriend’s insistence, Brown jumped in the shower, changed clothes and – with horn in hand – hopped in a cab bound for the studio.
“I went in and laid these massive horns. Craig Kallman listened to it and he was like, 'Fucking great, genius, this is brilliant. Who did these horns?’” Brown says. “Everybody pointed at me on the couch. He came over, grabbed my hand and gave me his card saying, 'These horns are amazing, I want you do all my horns for now on.' I didn't realise he was the CEO of Atlantic Records.”
While that fateful encounter may have led Brown to work with some of the biggest names in music – including soon to be released recordings with Chance the Rapper – he still feels his real home is improvising live on stage, in that exhilarating moment when an artist’s soul and creativity is laid bare and left to chance.
“That's when you have a blank canvas, there's just you and your naked body and the people and they're all staring at ya like 'what's going on? What’s the next move?’,” says Brown. “I'm very much focusing on that, on painting pictures and shapes and connecting with my audience … I know there's a lot of tension in the world right now today and I feel like part of my duty and my goal is to go out and spread love.”
Maurice Brown headlines NGV Friday Nights in October. Tickets here.
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