Arts: Berkeley Artist Seeks Reconciliation In Story of Jazz Pianist Grandmother By RICHARD BRENNEMAN
Sometimes the greatest mysteries are closest to home. Just ask Kent Brown, a Berkeley man who’s embarking on a quest to learn about his grandmother.
And what a grandmother.
Beryl Booker was anything but the stereotypical grandma. After all, how many grandmothers played with the 4 Toppers, Marian McPartland, Slam Stewart, Miles Davis, Dinah Washington and the incomparable Billie Holiday?
How many African American women had their own integrated jazz trios in the 1940s?
Though she’s little known today outside jazz circles, the woman who started out as a child prodigy in Philadelphia is still played today on jazz and public radio stations across the country. And her piano work on Billie Holiday’s posthumous ladylove album will be a lasting testament to her work.
“She’s still popular among other musicians,” Brown said, “and she may have created the first popular jazz trio.”
Born on June 23, 1923, she grew up near the corner of 13th and Wallace streets in Philadelphia. A prodigy, she developed her keyboard chops without any formal training, and she was playing with the 4 Toppers by the time she was 19.
Considering her unique career and illustrious company, it’s not surprising someone’s thinking about making a film about her life—and that’s where Brown, who knows his way around the film world, comes in.
An audio and film sound editor, Brown has worked for Lucasfilm, Fantasy Records and Pixar. Among his better-known projects are the films Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, for which he did pre-production work, and Tomb Raiders. He’s also worked on shaping the sound for CDs, including albums for Blues singer Dorothy Moore and The Mad Lads, an R&B group.
Brown became interested in a film about his grandmother in part because he wanted to resolve a breach in his family. His mother, Gillian, was born on June 7, 1943, less than three weeks after Beryl turned 18, and the mother-daughter relationship was rocky.
“Not that there was hostility,” he said. “By the time I was born [my grandmother] was an alcoholic.”
Brown’s mother moved to Berkeley when he was 5, he said, “but I can still remember Grandma sitting at that big old piano.”
Gillian, a talented pianist in her own right, opted for a career in academia. With the help of a scholarship, she went on to earn a master’s degree at Temple University. Once settled in Berkeley, she went on to chair the Masters in Management Program at John F. Kennedy University, then moved on to UC Berkeley, where she was practicum coordinator for the Kenneth E. Behring Center for Educational Improvement at the Graduate of School of Education when she died in June 2004.
“I lost my mother and my brother in the same year,” said Brown, “and it renewed my interest in my grandmother as a way to connect with my mother. It’s also a way to reconnect with a lost period in my own past, which I can only remember in terms of going to studios and clubs with these groups and these big, fancy guitar-like things.”
One of his few clear memories of that period is meeting another jazz great, Ella Fitzgerald.
Brown did reconnect with his grandmother when she moved to Berkeley a month or two before her death on Sept. 22, 1978.
“She died when I was 14, and I didn’t take it that seriously at the time,” he said. “We both loved music, and we even talked about writing songs together. But she wasn’t in good shape. The jazz lifestyle isn’t noted for longevity.”
Brown has made one trip to the East Coast to gather material for his project. “I went back to locate her ex-husband and niece, who were basically estranged from her,” he said.
His biggest booster is his spouse, Akana Nobusa-Brown, executive director of the Japan Pacific Resource Network, an Oakland-based non-profit organization which seeks to build bridges across the Pacific on issues of community empowerment and social justice.
Brown is also working to assemble a complete discography, a listing of all the recordings his grandmother made over the years. That too is proving difficult, he said.
Compounding his difficulty is the simple fact that most of the musicians who played with his grandmother have died. “I have talked to Marian McPartland and Mister C, but most of her folks are gone,” he said.
But he’s not giving up.
“They say that jazz is the only truly American art form, and I can see a lot of parallels between today and the time when jazz took root. They were desperate times” for the African American community, “and today’s youth face conditions that are very similar,” he said. “I hope I can make some of the connections with that proud history for today’s young people.
“I also see jazz and jazz musicians as forebears of the civil rights movement. There was a lot of crossing of color lines in those days, and those were the folks who set the stage for what followed.”
And for an example, he points to his grandmother, whose 1940s trio consisted of an African American pianist/singer accompanied by white women on bass and drum.