Playing and Paying Forward the Art and Traditions of Jazz

Keith Brown, a top-rank pianist, mentors his UO students with lessons learned from his musical family.

This article was first published in Oregon Quarterly on April 3, 2024.

Alone in a practice room at the School of Music and Dance in February, Delos Erickson sits at the piano workshopping a song that is playing tricks on him. 

Aiming to replicate what he hears in the recording of “Bolivia” by Cedar Walton, the graduate student in jazz studies listens over and over, but something isn’t quite right. 

“It’s like I can’t hear the notes [in the recording],” Erickson, BM ’22 (jazz studies), confesses to his mentor, Keith Brown. “I’ve been listening to it too much.”

Brown, an assistant professor of jazz and contemporary piano, listens to Erickson play, then the recording, and calmly diagnoses the issue. 

“[The notes] are there, but with his left hand, they aren’t really pronounced,” Brown says. He joins Erickson at the piano and plays the difficult flurry of notes. 

Erickson’s focus sharpens, and it finally clicks— “Ah!” he says. The pair then discuss the intricacies of the piece and how to work through the rough patch. 

“He's a great teacher,” Erickson says later. “I record all our lessons, and I look back at those and that’s how I want to be as a teacher: friendly, supportive, inviting, and confident. He holds you accountable, but at the same time, is totally with you.”

Brown teaches to give back to the craft and honor his mentors whose nurturing patience eventually paved the way for his career as a world-class musician.

“I had support and help coming up,” Brown says. “Now I want to pay it forward by teaching.”

Brown, who grew up in the 1990s, finds it hard to pinpoint a time when music wasn’t flowing through his Knoxville, Tennessee home. 

His mother, Dorothy, who played piano and woodwind instruments, shared the love of R&B icons Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross. His father, Donald, infused jazz into their household. A world-renowned jazz pianist, composer, and educator, he played with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and many other jazz greats. 

Originally attracted to hip-hop and R&B, Brown always had an appreciation for jazz and his father’s music. But his interest in the genre catapulted to new heights when he was 18. After high school graduation, he took a semester off and dove into the world of jazz with his father. 

“Lessons with my dad would be late at night,” Brown says. “We’re talking 11:00 p.m., 12:00 a.m., 1:00 a.m. We’d get together for a few hours and then I’d be up for the next few hours after he went to bed, practicing and trying to figure it out.” 

Brown took all he learned in those late-night sessions to the University of Tennessee, where he graduated with his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in jazz studies in 2011. A successful performance career followed, as Brown performed alongside a who’s who of jazz luminaries including vocalist Jazzmeia Horn and bassist Endea Owens. He currently tours with veteran jazzman Kenny Garrett, with whom he played a gig on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series

Brown still performs today but he is also invested in molding the next generation of jazz musicians, teaching them in a way that retains the integrity of the jazz tradition. 

His students must immerse themselves in the world of jazz — to go beyond what is written on the page, to be an avid listener of the genre, and to have a deep understanding of its musical language and rich history. Above all, he expects an excellent work ethic. 

When his students have conquered the technical elements of the genre and start to develop their own authentic sound, they are ready to take it to the stage alongside him. 

“When you hit the stage, there’s something sacred about it,” Brown says. “When I get up there and play with students, I hope they can feel the energy that I'm giving off. When I was learning and playing with someone who was on a different level, there’s a moment of, ‘Oh! That’s what that’s supposed to sound like.’ So, that’s what I hope—they feel that connection.”

Trumpeter and pianist Julian Borkowski, a graduate student in jazz studies, has earned the occasional spot playing on stage next to Brown. Graduating in June, Borkowski will absorb as much as he can in his final lessons and take that knowledge into the teaching job he has lined up in his hometown of Vancouver, BC, Canada. "I aspire to have an individual voice formulated as strongly constructed as he does, and I know he can help me get there,” Borkowski says.

Erickson has also played with Brown, describing it as an awe-inspiring experience. “Keith is a very charming, confident performer,” Erickson says. “When I see that, I want to strive to be like him on the bandstand—totally in control of everything that’s going on.”

Erickson plans to stay in Eugene after graduation in June to continue performing and composing. He envisions teaching in his future—a way to give back and continue the cycle of mentorship. He aspires to guide his students through moments of uncertainty, facilitating those “a-ha” moments when they overcome challenges to give back not only to Brown, but the artistry and craft that is jazz. 

Kristen Hudgins is a public relations specialist for the School of Music and Dance.

Dusty Whitaker is a media producer for University Communications.

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