Interviews

The Music and the Moment

A conversation with Larry Brown Jr.

William Camargo

Larry Brown Jr., Hyde Park jazz musician and songwriter, lives comfortably in his cozy neighborhood apartment. As we sit down to listen to some of his recently released modern jazz album, The Music and the Moment, Larry mentions that he ran into one of the musicians featured on the record in the grocery store not ten minutes before. He pulls out hummus, some pita chips, and plays the first track as we lay back on his couch.

This one is called the “Language of the Unheard,” it’s kind of my protest song. When I began, I knew I wanted something angry. I didn’t have any idea yet, but I knew I wanted something with a definite edge.

All the crazy stuff in the world that’s happening right now—you know, for someone who grew up not that far from Ferguson, to see a city burn down like that, and you know, the last couple years of tragedy: accidents and killings of young people, especially of young African-Americans. I think the older I get the more responsible I am about trying to deliver some type of commentary or conversation about it as an artist. That’s kind of what Music and the Moment is all about—music that speaks to today rather than forty years ago. I appreciate the civil rights movement, but I can’t make music about it. I have no real—well, I can’t say I don’t have a tie to it, but it doesn’t speak to me like this moment does. It’s just trying to make a statement about what’s happening now.

It’s about everything, this moment in time as an artist. We live in a time where politically, we’re everywhere. In a time where millennials have taken over the world, we aspire to so much stuff. And love…well, love’s going to be a part of everyone’s life. So this album’s about all those things—hopes, dreams, aspirations, disappointments, things that anger you, the people you love.

What’s a song about a hope?

“Dream Chasers?” You want to play that one?

Sure.

“Dream Chasers” features my dad and this MC, Legend, and they’re delivering commentary on how when you’re dreaming, you got to hold on to it. A lot of people got these dreams and aspirations, but when things get hard, they quit.

This actually was taken from a tape of a sermon my dad preached back in the nineties. And I never forgot this sermon for some reason, out of all the sermons he preached. I scrounged through like one hundred tapes looking for this one, and luckily I was able to find it and pull out some key sentences.

My perspective is a little different, as a kid and as a man. Most of my life my parents embedded a lot of lessons in me, but one of the main lessons they taught us was, “don’t quit.” I definitely understand it a little better. We took music lessons from five to eighteen, and there was no quitting from that. At rehearsal it wasn’t like I could go one week and not go the next week. I had to go every week. And that taught me commitment and faithfulness, and if you can teach that, that’s a huge lesson.

On the record, Larry Brown, Sr. says:
Regardless of what your goal might be, it calls for a struggle. It don’t take nothing to be nothing. But if you want to be successful, if you want to succeed in life, it calls for a struggle.”

The album doesn’t feel like a whole lot—I don’t feel like anything here is oversaturated with stuff. To me it feels like everything on there needs to be there. I went in with twelve to fifteen ideas that I wanted to do. You know, it was just over time, shredding tunes, realizing things just weren’t gonna work. I’d hate to make this a thirteen-song album, with four songs that don’t kinda feel like they go. I’d rather have nine concise tunes that feel like they make sense with what the concept should be about. I’m a quality over quantity kind of guy.

Do you have a favorite song on the record?

Can’t say favorite… nah. I can’t pull one that I like more than anything else. I know that people don’t buy records anymore, but I hope that the people who do indulge themselves and buy this record will enjoy it in its totality. I want to create something where people can play it through. I’m not worried… people will have their preferences. For my favorite albums, of all genres, I have like a tune that I’ll start and just play down the rest. Or just tracks 2–7.

What are some of your favorite albums?

I gotta break that down. Give me like a genre.

Favorite hip-hop albums?

Get Rich or Die Tryin’, It’s Dark and Hell as Hot, anything late nineties DMX, early Kanye, Common—Common’s Be record.

I used to listen DMX—he was hot when I was like a sophomore in high school. I’d listen to that walking back home, walking to school, it was just cool stuff.

I didn’t listen to jazz that much back then. I didn’t really get into it from a listening standpoint till college, when I kind of just immersed myself, being a jazz major. Not knowing anything about the language, the only way you can play jazz music is you gotta listen to it. You’re not gonna find it in the chart, or on the books. There are things that are transmitted from that record to your ears that can’t be translated in a written manuscript. It’s foreign to those who don’t listen to it, but it’s definitely a language you just learn through listening: the best players are the best listeners, and the worst players are the worst listeners, or the ones who don’t listen. There’s no substitute to the records.

But I listen to everything. From a business standpoint, you gotta know your industry. You gotta know what people like.

Music was never designed—let me put it to you like this. The record player. Those things were in every home in America in the thirties, forties. But without music, who would’ve been buying record players? So the music sold the record players. Steve Jobs, with the iPod, did that technology sell itself? Nah. What sold it was what you could put on it.

Music, from an artist standpoint, and this is what a lot of artists realize, is, from a business standpoint, used to sell other stuff. So you gotta find your niche of what you want to sell. Do you want to sell technology? Food and alcohol? Education? If you really want to be profitable, your music has to sell something, as well as be your own creative kind of thing.

It enhances a product. Like, let’s talk about MTV in the eighties, which was really just some weird thing that came on at night ‘till they were like “How can we make this thing popular?” Well, who’s the biggest star right now? Michael Jackson. So what did Michael do? He made movie music videos. He made the best music videos that anybody was making. And what did MTV do? Play them all day, every day.

Everything was an event. The whole family would sit down and say “alright after dinner, we’re gonna go watch this video.” That’s how big his videos used to be. Even Beyoncé’s not that—families aren’t making her part of their routine.

My album well, it has the potential to sell a lifestyle. I understand that it may not be for everybody, it’s not a pop record, but I feel like I could hear it at fashion shows, I can hear it in great listening rooms. I could hear it in several places. My music is for people who love a good time and I love to, hopefully, sell inspiration—well, I guess you can’t sell inspiration, but give inspiration. So it can do a whole lot. I think I can, and my performance and things like that can. With all good music, there’s somebody looking for that record, so it’s just a matter of getting that record to them.

I heard Prince say once that the Around the World in a Day record was for him. This record isn’t for me. I love it, but at this stage in my journey as an artist it’s really just about making music for other people, something that I think they’ll like, something that I feel like they’ll always kind of like. So, yeah, it’s for people. I don’t really want to get caught up into making music for selfish reasons or… for the “good” of a group of folks who probably don’t even play music. To make people feel good, make them feel happy.

It’ll be on CDBaby, on iTunes, my website, lbj.com, it’ll be everywhere. Streaming, I don’t like it that much, but it’s what people are into. In this music business, you gotta roll with the punches. So since you know there’s gonna be streaming, you got to just find a way to make it to your best advantage. As an indie artist, you gotta just accept the fact that you’re not gonna be making a lot of money from streaming, so what you need to do is take the emotion you’re feeling towards that, and put it towards crafting a great live show, ‘cause there you can potentially get it back. People’s interaction and experience with you, your face, is what’s gonna generate revenue for you. It’s totally different from an indie standpoint than it is from a Taylor Swift standpoint. She got the power to not do that, ‘cause she got seven million plus people following her on Twitter.

Checks phone. Am I following her on Twitter? I’m not. She’s got 62 million people following her on Twitter.

Her deciding not to do that is totally different from someone with one album or two albums saying “yeah, I’m not gonna let my music stream”—well, you’re not trying to get heard, then!

You’ve got to be a great presenter of music. I hate the word “entertainer,” ‘cause I don’t really think of myself like that, but I kind of am. You have to present, and represent, this music. The more and more I play the more I think about crafting a live show, ‘cause that’s where it’s at now, that’s where people decide if they’re gonna love you. They’re not gonna decide over streaming like that.

Which should be great for bands, jazz artists. I think we could all do a little better, cause we get so focused on “the art,” playing like “Oh, I don’t want to engage.” You’ve got an audience clapping and you’re just shaking your head and walking off, not even looking at them—you could at least smile at them.

I heard Carmen Lundy say once that “You know one of the worst things that happened to jazz music? Jazz musicians.” Laughs. ‘Cause she’s talking about just how pitiful we can be onstage. So I try to always put my best foot forward. Eventually, you’ve got to engage people. People don’t want to come and just watch you—well it depends. There’s an audience for that—you go to a classical concerto, they’re not expecting anybody to moonwalk onstage.

Correction: The introduction to this interview has been changed from its original print version.

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