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Jazz Legend, UCR Friend Dies


Jazz Legend and Friend of UCR Dies

Oscar Brown Jr., a 1960s jazz legend, was a Regents’ Professor at UCR and became a Radio Personality at KUCR.

(June 1, 2005)

Oscar Brown Jr.

Oscar Brown Jr.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — www.ucr.edu — The death of Oscar Brown Jr., over the weekend had a deeper effect on the University of California, Riverside campus than the mere passing of a legendary performer. Mr. Brown was a UC Regents’ Professor at UCR and became a local radio personality through his involvement with KUCR-FM.

Mr. Brown died on Sunday, May 30, from complications of a blood infection at a hospital in his native Chicago. He was 78.

He served as a UC Regents’ Professor at UC Riverside in 1999, teaching, performing, hosting a radio show on KUCR-FM, and even performing a concert to raise money for UCR programs benefiting local youngsters. The UC Regents’ Professor program was established by the Board of Regents to bring experts in various fields to campus to share their ideas and experiences.

“Oscar was a light at UCR and on KUCR,” said station General Manager Louis Vandenberg. “He contributed in his writing, his performances but also by simply being an example to others to aspire to be who they are.”

Born into a black family of means, Mr. Brown shied away from his well-heeled roots to embrace music, singing, songwriting, poetry and acting, said Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus Sterling Stuckey, who met Mr. Brown as a teenager and sponsored his term as a UC Regents’ Professor.

“Oscar eschewed such advantages and dedicated himself, and his art, for more than 50 years, to social change,” Stuckey said. “His creative work, his poems, song lyrics and plays, especially serve that purpose.”

Mr. Brown acted in radio dramas as a teenager and hosted a Chicago radio program called “Negro Newsfront” while in his 20s. He did not become actively involved in music until after he had worked briefly for his father’s real estate business and served a stint in the U.S. Army.

After a few years as a struggling songwriter, his first album with Columbia Records, “Sin and Soul,” was a hit in 1960. The recording was followed with a successful engagement at the Village Vanguard in New York City that launched Mr. Brown’s musical career, making him an overnight sensation. His play, “Buck White,” reached Broadway in 1969 with Muhammed Ali in the starring role. And his musical, “The Great Nitty Gritty,” tackled the gang problems in Chicago, while using the talents of local youths in the starring roles. That and his ambitious musical “Kicks and Company” culminated in an unprecedented two-hour appearance on NBC at the invitation of “Today Show” host Dave Garroway.

In the 1960s, Mr. Brown also shared the bill with such jazz greats as Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, and Cannonball Adderly. His career never reached the potential that critics and fans hoped it would, but that didn’t matter to those who knew him.

“Oscar Brown, Jr., was a principled, brilliant talent who demonstrated that there need be no division between the life of the mind and commitment, intellectual and artistic, to social transformation. He was never confused about that,” Stuckey said. “Indeed, he was always clear about the need for individuals of talent to seek to ease the pain and suffering of others.”

“He was a totally original person, a person who lived seemingly without compromise, who made art on his terms,” added Vandenberg, who produced Mr. Brown’s radio shows on KUCR.

“At some point, KUCR will craft a tribute to Oscar Brown Jr., from the dozens of hours of recordings we have of his radio programs,” he said.

The University of California, Riverside (www.ucr.edu) is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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