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Mel Brown – Drum Teacher Knows Best

An open letter to Mel Brown, great drummer, teacher and mentor from Portland, Oregon:

Dear Mel,
It was great to hear you at Jimmy Mak’s last week after so many (too many!) years.  My wife and I decided to spend a long weekend at a downtown Portland hotel so it was a short walk to Jimmy Mak’s in the Pearl District.  I’m glad we made the trip!

 The band sounded great:

  • Louis Pain on the B-3 and kickin’ bass – awesome!
  • Renato Caranto on tenor sax – what a player!
  • Curtis Craft on percussion – great groove, great fun.
  • Mike Denny sittin’ in on guitar – sounded like a regular.

And your playing…what can I say?

  • The time (“Love Won’t Let me Wait”)
  • The groove (“Killer Joe”)
  • The taste (your brush work)
  • The technique (trading fours and your solos)

There’s no one better!

Why am I Writing this Letter?
I had the wonderful opportunity of taking lessons from you years ago at your shop (Mel Brown’s Drum Shop) on Grand Ave. in Portland, Oregon.  You taught me so much about how to play the drum set, how to be a professional musician and how to believe in myself.  These are lessons that I could never have learned from a book and they are still helping me today.

I’m writing this letter to thank you and to help others realize the importance of following the advice of teachers and mentors.  You see, I didn’t always have the confidence in my drum set playing that I do today.  Now, I feel like I can successfully play the drums in just about any musical environment.  But that was not always the case and taking lessons from you was a big step in gaining the confidence I needed to have a successful career in music.

Before we met, I performed in the school jazz band, played country music in local Portland bars and had been on the road with a rock and roll band.  I knew that I wanted to learn more about how to play the drums and to continue pursuing a career in music.  I was between gigs so I decided to give you a call.

Taking Lessons
It started with the first lesson:  the learning, the teaching, the partnering, the fun!  You taught me the technique of Philly Joe Jones, the groove of Bernard Purdie and the touch of Mel Brown.  The lessons were equal parts technical exercises, learning to feel the groove and stories about your life on the road as a Motown drummer.  Each week I came away with so much to think about and practice.

One of the most memorable lessons was when you showed me how to use Ted Reed’s Syncopation book for practicing the drum set.  This was based on the teachings of Alan Dawson (the legendary teacher and jazz drummer from Boston), and it opened my eyes to a whole new way of practicing, playing and using drum books to improve my playing.  It showed me that with a little creativity, the exercises in snare drum books like Syncopation and George Lawrence Stone’s Stick Control could be applied to the drum set in ways I never imagined.

Back on the Road
I learned so much in those few months of weekly lessons.  However, it was tough to find steady gigs around Portland, so I went back on the road with a dance/show band from Los Angeles.  When you heard that I was leaving you were so encouraging.  I’ll never forget the time you spent with me after my final lesson writing down the names and phone numbers of drummers you knew in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago.  In fact, I still have the sheet:

Look at the names on that list!  Morris Jennings, Earl Palmer, Billy Cobham, Alphonse Mouzon.  These were my drumming heroes and I couldn’t believe that you were giving me their phone numbers.  I was deeply grateful, but I was also deeply intimidated.  And here’s the odd part:  I didn’t call one name on that list.

Teacher Knows Best
I was intimidated and was not totally confident in my playing.  I also didn’t understand the importance of what we call “networking” today; reaching out to others, asking for help and looking for ways that we can help them (yes, we can always help others, no matter who they are).  What I didn’t realize at the time was that you knew I was a good enough player to get to the next professional level and these folks could help.  Otherwise you would not have given me these names and numbers.

I have no regrets with my musical career and I feel blessed that I can continue to play the drums.  I do, however, wonder how things might have been different if I had shared your level of confidence in my ability.  I want others to learn from my hesitation and know that, even though they may not think they’re ready to take the next career step, their teacher knows best (as you knew what was best for me).  So my hope is that they will take their teacher’s advice, even if it may be outside their comfort zone.

Thank you for helping me along my musical path.  Memories of those lessons at the drum shop continue to inspire me.  Thanks, also, for contributing to the Portland music scene and to the lives of so many drummers over the years.  The drumming world is a much better place because of your contributions.

I’m looking forward to seeing you the next time we’re in Portland.  Hopefully it will be soon!