The baby maker
Nat M. Brown
Nat M. Brown is a soul singer. At a time when so many vocalists engage in what legendary record producer and Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler recently called “oversouling,” Brown imbues his sung melodies with a relaxed grace. He also plays tenor and alto sax; he calls it smooth jazz, but he plays enough notes for it to qualify as post-bop. Brown lost his eyesight at age 12, in 1952, after being shot. He lives in Elk Grove and plays once a month at the Ryde Hotel, down Highway 160 on the Sacramento River. He posts his upcoming dates on his Web site, www.natbrown.com.
How long you been playing?
When I lost my sight in St. Louis, Mo., they tried to get me to go to the Missouri School for the Blind, and I said no. I had befriended a guy who was in the hospital, and learned that I wanted to learn to play saxophone. He told the social worker that if they were to offer me a saxophone, I would go to the school. I went to the school on a Sunday. They gave me a saxophone; on Monday, I had my first lesson. Two years later, I was playing in the nightclubs over in East Saint Louis, Ill.
What sax players are you into?
Of course, Charlie Parker is the man. Sonny Stitt—and [Sonny] Rollins. See, I think the crucial thing is I’ve never had formal lessons; I was taught the scales and that sort of thing. But basically, I’m self-taught.
And you also sing?
Yeah, I started singing when I was about 14, 15. But most of the time, I worked as a side musician, when I worked with Ike and Tina [Turner], Etta James and all those people. And then I worked with a group called the Handicappers. Then I started singing. We had a regular vocalist, who wanted to take a break, and so I would pick out some songs, and I would start singing. And I really liked people like Brook Benton, Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls. I had an opportunity to work with Jackie Wilson, and I was influenced by him somewhat. And then I stopped playing because I had to get my master’s in rehabilitation counseling. Before I moved here, I was doing some recording, but nothing serious. Then I decided, “Hey, I might as well go for it.” So in ‘97 I did my first CD, First Day in Love. The second was Intimate Moments, and the third was Treasures of Love. And I have a Christmas CD.
When you play at the Ryde Hotel, do you have a band?
I’m a single artist. I have a MiniDisc system, and all of my material is on them; I transferred them from the CD to MiniDisc. I have [an amp] head, two speakers and a monitor. And I can hook it up and do a four-hour show.
How would you characterize the material you do?
I do a variety. I can play material that would relate to someone from 35 to 90. Even some younger people have heard what I do and were really impressed with it. You know the outdoor festival they have in Oak Park [at McClatchy Park]? I was there with [smooth-jazz saxophonist] Gerald Albright, and I did some songs and got a really nice response. And a friend of mine in Las Vegas—I did a week there—he said the style of music I do would make a person fall in love with a rat [laughs].
So this is romantic music?
Oh, yeah. One guy, he said that he and his wife got pregnant with my music. In other words, as the result of my music, they came home, put my CD on and got in a romantic mood, and the next thing you know, a couple of months later, she was pregnant [laughs]. You know how people are; they’re probably exaggerating. But the following that I have, they’re very responsive.
Does it make you happy, making other people happy?
That’s the most rewarding part of it—when people walk up to you and say, "I really enjoyed that" or, "You made this a wonderful evening for me" or, "Do you do private parties or weddings?" Of course, I do all of that stuff. And my thing is, I love to make money like most people do because it’s a part of life. But my emphasis isn’t on the money. I like doing benefits, I like going to senior-citizen places and entertaining them. They can’t pay a whole lot of money. And that’s OK because I think, eventually, that will all come. If I just stay focused and keep doing what I’m doing and connecting with people, then the rest of it will fall into place.