“I don’t really remember a time when I didn’t play guitar.” — Vince Brown
Olympians may well recognize Vince Brown as a guitarist who has thoroughly knitted himself into the fabric of the Pacific Northwest’s jazz scene. As a founding member of western-swing outfit Red Brown and the Tune Stranglers, gypsy-swing band Hot Club Sandwich and jazz-vocal group The Greta Jane Quartet, Brown has performed in countless configurations of musicians over the years, including internationally renowned acts like Pearl Django and swing-violin maestro Paul Anastasio.
Ever dapper, Brown styled himself in the fashion of the jazz visionaries of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s — a friend and neighbor of Django Reinhardt, with pocket watch ever-present and a sly grin never more than a moment away. Brown’s open and charming spirit suits him well in Red and Ruby, his duo with award-winning vocalist LaVon Hardison. He has a loquacious, genial manner and a laid-back, professorial way of speaking about music. Brown recounts a life that’s been surrounded by music but didn’t necessarily include the ambition to become a bona fide musician.
“My dad played guitar when I was growing up,” says Brown. “He ran a gas station in Eugene, Oregon, and he traded a tank of gas for an old Gibson L-2, back in the ’50s. He played that, and I spent a lot of time with him at the gas station, and he taught me how play. … It became a big part of my life, from that point on. I was always the kid in school that has the guitar.”
For someone who grew up with music in his blood, Brown tended to regard the life of a professional musician as something of a nonstarter. Though he continued through childhood learning the finer points of playing music, he treated it as an exercise in continuing education, not a career path. “I played my first professional gig when I was 14-years-old,” he says. “I started playing for Swedish-folk bands in Eugene. I suppose that’s one measure of being a musician, but certainly not a very good measure — getting paid for it — because there’s certainly a lot of good musicians who’ve never been paid to play. … I never really identified as a musician in the sense that that’s where I thought my life would go. It was something that I loved, and that played a big role in my life, but I had other ideas about what I wanted to do.” Brown’s life remained full of music, but his career took him to law school. He practiced law for 12 years, an experience about which he laughs and which he refers to as a “big mistake.” Coming off his time in the straight life of law, though, he found himself doubling down on life as a musician.
“Around 20 years ago, I got a little more serious,” he says, “and put myself on a four-hour-a-day practice schedule, and I adhered to that for about a year. Previous to that, most of my joy came from playing for other people, for performing. I really learned, over the course of that year, that there’s something incredibly life-affirming and transformative about devoting yourself to practicing scales and doing that basic work. I expected to become a better musician through all that work, but in some ways, I think I became a better person. It’s a funny thing to say, but I think practice can do that.”
To see Brown perform now, you’d be forgiven for forgetting how much effort he’s put into perfecting his craft. Beyond the loose, playful feeling that accompanies some jazz shows, Brown seems to have a preternatural ease with performing. This is a man who doesn’t so much “play a guitar just like a-ringin’ a bell” as much as he plays it like shaking hands. Effortlessly drifting through western swing, gypsy swing, lounge and any number of throwback styles, Brown finds comfort in many modes.
“About five years ago, I realized that I was only listening to music as work,” says Brown. “Every time I listened to something, it was because I wanted to play it, I wanted to learn it. I was listening to parts, trying to figure out what they were doing and how to apply it to what I did. I realized that I lost some of the joy that I had as a kid when I was discovering new albums. I’d bring ’em home and play them over and over again. I made a personal commitment back then to spend an hour a day listening to new music that I hadn’t heard before, which has been a wonderful experience for me.”
In tandem with Brown’s desire to remain engaged in music, he has an easy way with collaborations, making music with some of the best talents in the Pacific Northwest. Jessica Blinn, an accomplished jazz musician and vocalist, first connected with Brown around a decade ago and has since gone on to perform with him as a duo. “He’s a very gracious person,” says Blinn. “He likes to make thing happen in the music community and bring people in. Along with The Greta Jane Quartet, he was one of the people that spearheaded bringing jazz to Rhythm & Rye. Now there’s jazz there every Monday night, and that’s been going on for years and years. He’s really good at being proactive and creating venues,” Blinn continues, “and it benefits everyone in the music scene. I believe he’s one of the busiest freelance musicians in Olympia, and he’s very community-minded. He’s been community-minded for years, even as a lawyer, and he continues to do so as a musician.”
Vince Brown is a humble man with nimble fingers, and it’s always a treat to appreciate someone possessing both traits. As a musician, he can make the most complicated pieces seem light as a feather and, as a member of the music community, he does fine work turning us all into one big ensemble.
What: Vince Brown
Where: Swing Wine Bar,
825 Columbia St. SW, Olympia
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 9
How much: free
Learn more: 360-357-9464 | Swing Wine Bar