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What Do You Do During the Day?

Sandy Brown, clarinettist and acoustic architect.

John Robert Brown

Sandy Brown

Alexander 'Sandy' Brown was born in February 1929, in Izatnagar, near Bareilla, India. His mother was Hindu, his father a Scottish railway engineer. Later, back in Edinburgh, Brown taught himself the clarinet from the age of twelve.

Sandy Brown's exact jazz contemporaries, musicians born in 1929, included André Previn, Bill Evans, Cecil Taylor and Chet Baker. Few critics during the fifties or sixties would have considered Sandy Brown to be as progressive, as important or as musically interesting as these performers, even though Brown's playing was admired for its inventiveness by some jazz commentators at the time. The late Miles Kington wrote: "Initially inspired by the New Orleans clarinettist Johnny Dodds, Sandy Brown emerged as a highly original player, actively hostile to the idea of Benny Goodman as primary role model."

In 1957, Brown's ground-breaking album McJazz was hailed by critic Steve Race as being one of his top dozen jazz recordings of all time. By contrast, Buddy De Franco is alleged to have described Brown's style as primitive. More generously, in his Jazz Encyclopedia, the late Richard Cook wrote that Brown: "Exuded a taciturn authority on the blues and a sweeter, more melodious, drive on the faster pieces." A constituent of Brown's style was his interest in African high-life music. But the clarinettist's over-sweet tone, on-the-beat phrasing, obtrusive vibrato and eschewing of dynamic variety could strike some listeners as paradoxical qualities, coming as they did from someone professionally aware of acoustics and quality of sound.

After leaving the Royal High School in Edinburgh, Brown undertook National Service with the Royal Ordnance Corps. He then returned to Scotland to study architecture at Edinburgh College of Art. In 1949 he started a band with an old school friend, the trumpeter Al Fairweather.

If Brown's clarinet playing hadn't been unanimously accepted as the last word in modernity, the Architectural and Acoustic Practice of Sandy Brown Associates did create several modern recording studios that have since been rated as among the best in the world, including Landsdowne, Chappells, Philips and Trident.

Brown had begun his career as an acoustics architect by working for the BBC. As Chief Acoustics Architect at the Corporation he designed several studios. He went on to found an architectural practice with his colleague David Binns who, in his book Homes of the Hits (2014) observed: "Traditionally, major labels such as EMI, Pye and Decca each had their own dedicated studio, but the pop explosion of the mid-sixties, combined with the rise of the record producer, and the development of the album as a format, created a demand for rooms more in tune with the musicians' needs." Sandy Brown was to satisfy that demand.

Later he moved to London to establish two professional practices: Sandy Brown Associates, architects and acoustic engineers, and Sandy Brown MSU, building services engineers. Sandy Brown Associates was the first major UK buildings acoustics consultancy practice.

In 1975 Brown made an exhausting trip to Africa on architectural business. Not long after, on a Saturday afternoon in March 1975, while watching England lose to Scotland at rugby on television (and with a glass of whisky in his hand) he died at home - in bed! The cause was a heart attack, brought about by malignant hypertension, a condition defined as very high blood pressure that strikes suddenly and quickly. Sandy Brown was 46.

Four years after he died a small collection of his writings, The McJazz Manuscripts, was published by Faber & Faber (ISBN 978-0-571-24572-7). In the book the subject, Sandy Brown, is spoken of in the third person by his alter-ego, whom Brown named 'Alistair Babb'. Brown said that Babb lived inside him; he went with him everywhere. Though often brave and witty, Brown's writing could also be sardonic, unkind, and abrasive, when he describes John Dankworth as Lord Trend of Wavendon, or tosh when he categorises André Previn as "a below average jazz pianist".

Appropriately, Brown discusses the conflict between jazz and architecture in his own life:

"The word they've coined to describe people like me is 'semi-pro'. This is intended to and does make one feel awful - a half professional. When I'm playing somewhere I keep stumm about my day job - by the way, that's another derisory term invented to describe wasted activities of semi-pros. This works quite well but never far from my mind is a story Wally Fawkes - Trog of the Daily Mail - told me about his own double life. It seems that other cartoonists think of him as 'the one that plays the clarinet', and the other musicians think of him as 'the one that does the cartoons'. You can't win."

But Sandy Brown DID win. After all, we're still thinking of him, and discussing him, in 2015, forty years after he died.

John Robert Brown

First published in Jazz Journal, September 2015. Used by kind permission of the editor. Reproduction forbidden.
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