All Jazzed Up

One Man's Search for the Legendary Brown Brothers

by Julia Sommer

Philosophy Chair Bruce Vermazen may specialize in matters of the mind, but his heart is in ragtime, dixieland and hot dance music of the '20s and '30s.

"One of the things that got me into philosophy and aesthetics was my interest in jazz," says Vermazen. "In college, I was always arguing that jazz should be valued as serious music. No one agreed with me. It motivated me to study aesthetics, so I could have something convincing to say about the value of jazz."

A cornet player since age 11, Vermazen is musical director of the San Francisco Starlight Orchestra, which plays "hot" dance music (for the Charleston, fox trot, tango, waltz and rumba) every month at Mill Valley's Strawberry Recreation Center. What makes the San Francisco Starlight Orchestra's music hot, explains Vermazen, is its combination of "sweet" dance tunes with jazz improvisation.

The group has released two CDs: "Doin' the Racoon" and "Cheerful Little Earful," both on Stomp Off Records. Working title of a third CD is "Rose-Colored Glasses." The orchestra has played at many jazz festivals, including those in Sun Valley, Idaho, and Kalispell, Mont.

Combine Vermazen the scholar and Vermazen the serious, popular musician, and you get a 15-year study and a book in the works on the Six Brown Brothers: popularizers of the saxophone during the vaudeville era.

Vermazen, 57, discovered the Brown Brothers in high school when he came across one of their 78 rpm recordings at a rummage sale. He never forgot them.

While researching ragtime musicians in the early '80s, he came across the Brown Brothers again at the University of Iowa library, which houses the most complete archives on vaudeville (donated by JFK's father, Joe, who owned a vaudeville circuit).

It turns out the brothers were among the first musicians, other than a few in military-style bands, to play the saxophone professionally. They formed a saxophone sextet that in 1920 made $1,000 a week-more money than any other musical act in the country.

Touring the United States, Canada and Britain in vaudeville and musical revues, they recorded about 40 mostly ragtime 78's between 1911 and 1920.

Although the number of biological brothers varied over the years, the Six Brown Brothers continued to perform until 1933, through the decline of vaudeville and the rise of jazz.

They are a legend among formally trained sax players of today.

Besides his cornet, one of Vermazen's prize possessions is a soprano sax dating from the 1850s that belonged to Tom Brown, founder and leader of the Six Brown Brothers. Vermazen recently bought it from 85-year-old Tom Brown Jr. "I still can hardly believe I have it," exclaims Vermazen in his Moses Hall office.

"The mark made by Tom's teeth is right there on the mouthpiece. I'm told it has a beautiful tone-I'll have to learn to play it to find out."

Brown Jr. also has passed on to Vermazen plenty of Brown Brothers memorabilia, and the two are now in frequent contact.



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