Updated: Feb 14, 2021
At the beginning of Tom Browne's mega hit Funkin' For Jamaica there's an iconic spoken piece with a few brothers "Jive talking". One of them (Winky) says "take it to the Cosmos". I always wondered what that meant. Tom explained "all the Jazz players of the time were really into Coltrane. When the music became free and you lost all musical form and just went for expressiveness and energy we called it the Cosmos. That's a Coltrane thing".
Where were you born and raised, and who or what inspired you to become a musician?
I was born and raised in St. Albans Queens. St Albans, Hollis & Jamaica is like a tri town area – they are all side by side. By the time I was coming up there were so many people there, that it gave a dichotomy to the type of music that was there. James Brown was on one block in Jamaica and Count Basie was on another. That was so representative of the vibe – it was a Jazz Mecca as well as a Soul/R&B Mecca. That vibe influenced a lot of the younger musicians who were coming up there.
Was the horn the first instrument that you played? Did you take lessons? What was your entry into becoming a musician?
My Dad was a trumpet player, and I didn’t know that until much later actually. He actually helped me gravitate towards music in some ways, but the first instrument was the piano. I messed around with piano for a time and ended up on trumpet. Every young aspiring musician who wants to become a professional should have some training on piano, because it’s the foundational basis that most of your writing and arranging comes from. Even today if I’m working on a tune, I don’t have to contact someone to write my music down – I can chart the chords and melody.
Was there Jazz in your household growing up?
My Dad was pre Bebop and from the swing era. It was that kind of music – July Jones, Harry James that era of 30s and 40’s music, there was a lot of that in my house and I dug it. I was introduced to The Bop and Cool Jazz when I went to college. I was trained as a classical trumpet player and I initially rebelled against playing Jazz because I felt that it wasn’t technically correct music. When I heard Clifford Brown I changed my tune immediately.
I read on your Brown Sugar album that your big break came from playing in a club where Earl Klugh saw you and told George Benson about you, then Dave Grusin came to see you. Is that pretty accurate?
Yes that’s pretty accurate. It was the Breezin’ lounge in Uptown Manhattan.
When these people took notice of you, how long had you been out there playing the live circuit of clubs?
I had been out there for awhile, but it still wasn’t like I was 100 percent committed to it. It wasn’t a hobby, but I wasn’t totally committed. In the early 70’s I joined a musician named Weldon Irvine . Weldon was responsible for Young, Gifted & Black by Nina Simone and Mr. Clean by Freddie Hubbard. He was really like a rallying point in getting a lot of the Jamaica Queens musicians together and nurturing them to be ready for musical careers. So I was into the club scene, but it was more something to do than me really going after a musical career. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
You were serious enough to have a manger though at that time - Jimmy Boyd?
He actually took over as my manager right then! When I played Breezin’ lounge, I got offered a contract by Creed Taylor – CTI Records. Jimmy was George Benson’s first manager so he knew the business quite well. He saw that things were getting pretty serious (as far as me getting a deal), and he literally took that contract and tore it up. He said that I could do better. It wasn’t that Creed wasn’t a great company, but he said that there were other opportunities out there that were more tailored to what I could do, and he was right! We got offers from Warner Bros. and Columbia. No disrespect to CTI at all, they were a great company, but we ended up getting an offer from GRP which was distributed by Arista. Jimmy reasoned (and I agreed with him) that Columbia had 4 or 5 trumpet players, they had Miles and Chuck Mangoine at that time. We decided it would be better to go with a company that offered and a decent percentage, and where I’d be the only trumpet player and not get lost in the shuffle. This way they’d really have to push the records, and he was right. GRP was a new company,and everything worked out well.
GRP was David Grusin’s company right?
Yes GRP was Dave Grusin & Larry Rosen.
Ok, you went to The Music & Art school in New York right? And that’s the school that the FAME television show was based on?
Well there were 2 sister schools. There was Music & Arts and The High School of Performing Arts. It was like 2 divisions of the same school – same principal, same staff. The television show was actually based around the high school of performing arts.
Brown Sugar was your first album, correct? Right out of the gate you’re up there with Patti Austin and people like that. Were you cool about it, or was that a big deal to you?
I was in awe. Even today Patti is one of my favorite vocalists. She has a voice like butter. I was under (David) Grusin, and I was playing straight ahead Jazz. He saw the potential that my music could reach a wider audience. Working with producers like him, Joe Sample and Quincy Jones; they have the ability not to change you, but incorporate enough of their thing into yours that it works. Some producers will say “no play this, play it this way”, but cats like Quincy don’t do that – they let you be you. That’s why Quincy had so much success with Michael.
As far as what the charts and label would say, what were the hits from Brown Sugar?
Herbal Scent and Throw down. Throw down was just so different and lively and Herbal Scent was in the movie Cruising with Al Pacino.
Were you pleased with the outcome of the album, and what was your favorite song from it?
I really didn’t have a favorite song, but yes I was pleased with it. It was my first album and I couldn’t believe that it was out, on the charts and receiving airplay. I was just going with the flow! I wasn’t satisfied with the mix, but I came to understand that they mixed it so that it would work for everyone. Even with a record that I put out last year, I had to step back and realize that everyone doesn’t want to hear it the way that I do. As musicians we have to remember that if we want to make music for just us, we may as well just stay in our homes and make music. If we are making it for everyone, we have to consider what they might like. Some like a high end mix, where I may like a more bottom heavy mix. It’s give and take.
Your label mate at the time Bernard Wright is on Brown Sugar, and he was just starting out at the time right?
Yeah Bernard at that time I think was 14 or 15 years old. He is a talented brother!
Yes indeed! Which brings me to the Love Approach lp and of course the smash hit Funkin’ For Jamaica. Do you remember the time of year that song was released?
I know that it was 1980. I tend to think early 80, because I know that we went to Japan in the Fall and it was already out. I’m thinking maybe early Spring.
Ok that makes sense. I have memories of it being a Summer record and I associate it with cookouts, pool parties etc. But a hit would rock for an entire calendar year or more back then. I know that it isn’t possible to know when you have a hit, but did you think that you had something special when you recorded it?
No. Not at all. Not only did we not have any idea, the label had no idea. That album was done. We had 7 or 8 songs and we turned it in. Arista said that it needed one more song. It was a last minute throw away. I went home and I was toying with a bass line and a groove. I wrote it down and came into the studio the next day, showed Bernard Wright the bass line and we just built it up from a groove in the studio. Bernard played synthesizer bass on it and it literally just came together in the studio. We just handed it in as an extra song and nobody had any idea what that song was gonna do.
There was no MTV back then, and Soul Train wasn’t playing videos yet. Most videos were just performance clips. What was the purpose of making a video back then? I know that they played videos in the night clubs in the UK.
That whole video market was just happening. I look back on that video and say oh lord why did I do that? Spandex tops – what was I thinking?
Hey man, it was the 80s, you get a pass! I love that video. Who is the young lady singing the hook? My Mother swore that it was Chaka Khan. We almost had a bet going.
That was Toni Smith. Everyone thought it was Chaka. Even Chaka thought that it was Chaka. If you look online you’ll see that she’s covered it recently. She actually asked once “when did I do that”? It was so much in her face that she started doing it in her show.
Was that her first major performance and did she do anything else?
She did a few songs on the subsequent record. She did Thighs High. I believe that she had a solo deal and I'm not sure how that worked out, but she didn’t do anything with me after that (The Magic lp).
Back to the Bernard Wright aspect. He had a song on his debut called Just Chillin Out that used the same brothers who were talkin’ trash on the iconic intro to Funkin’ For Jamaica. Who were those brothers, and how did that intro come about?
The primary cat doing that rap we called him Winky, but his name is Alvin Flight. Him, his brother and a few of their friends were basically just talking about the scene in Jamaica and the surrounding areas. And they were honestly talking about how I didn’t fit in. The whole thing was a joke – “Tom Browne? he’s just a ordinary guy”. It was really them saying Tom where did you come from? You’re a Be Bop trumpet player, what’s that about? It was a verbal put down (of me) on record. I laughed it off though – all the way to the bank. Not that im trying, but it’s almost 40 years later and I still can’t get around (away from) that song. And that’s a good thing.
On that note, as a musician with an anthem like that under your belt do you ever get tired of that song? I remember reading that Chaka Khan hates performing I Feel For You, and that the fans (understandably) are angry when she doesn’t perform it. I will be very honest, if I came to see you perform live and you didn’t perform Funkin’ For Jamaica I’d be more than upset. Are you bothered by that expectation?
I feel that the song is a blessing, but at one time I felt like Chaka. I felt that I was locked into the song. George Benson felt that way about Breezin’. You just get tired of performing it, but the point is are you doing this for yourself or the audience? Like I said before, if you’re doing it for yourself, then stay home and play your music in your house. If people are paying to see you perform, your obligation is to them. I'm at the point where I love playing it now. I make a joke in my show that I'm not playing it, and you could hear a pin drop.
Yes, I believe that many musicians may not fully understand how indelibly attached their music is to our life soundtrack. I'm literally transported back to my pre teens when I hear certain Earth, Wind & Fire songs. But I also understand and respect that the musician also has his history with the songs, which may not be as pleasant.
Definitely! And the artist has to take responsibility for all of it. If you stop performing certain songs because of new religious beliefs or because you’re tired of them, you must also take the responsibility of maybe not being able to tour anymore and losing income as a result of retiring those songs. That part goes with it and you have to accept it.
On the cover of Love Approach you’re in the cockpit of an airplane and you're a pilot today. Flying has always been a passion as well?
Oh yes, I was an airline captain for many years. In fact I'm at La Guardia right now training to go back on the airlines. But yes that’s always been a passion. In fact that’s what I was gonna do originally, and music happened first and things got flipped around. The hardest thing for me is to balance the 2. It’s a constant juggling act.
I always loved Nocturne from Love Approach. What else did the industry deem a hit from the lp?
Her Silent Smile and Martha did well. Martha was a song that I wrote for my wife.
Your first big hits coincided with rap music making its debut on record. As a classically trained musician who felt that Jazz wasn’t technically correct, how did you feel about rap music?
I didn’t dig it. I didn’t dig it at all. My attitude still today is that if you didn’t put the work in, the time, years and the training then what’s the value in it? How are you claiming it as art. On the other hand when you start searching out tradition in African heritage, and spoken word you’ll see Gil Scott Heron and people like that so it’s carrying on tradition in a way. I had to grow in my understanding, but one thing about being a musician is that you should always be learning, constantly evolving and gaining understanding. But I eventually came to understand that it was another form of spoken word that relates to today’s society. That’s all Jazz and Be Bop was. It spoke to what was going on at the time, so it’s right on time for where we are.
Definitely. There was a group called the Evasions and they had a song called the Wikka Rap in ’81 and they did an interpolation of Thighs High and Funkin’ For Jamaica. Did you hear it, did they license it properly, and as someone who didn’t like rap (it was more of a parody) what did you think of it ?
They went through the proper channels to license it, and as someone who wasn’t a fan of rap I didn’t really think much of it at the time.
Looks like in ’81 you released 2 albums - Yours Truly and Magic…
I know that I was contracted to do 2 a year, but I believe they were released once a year. I know Magic with Thighs High was ’81 and I thought Yours Truly was ’82. I could be wrong though.
Thighs High was funky. How did you go in that direction as a guy who started out playing straight ahead Jazz?
The problem is, especially back then – once you do a big hit record (like Jamaica) a label like Arista is gonna say that they want another. So I went from this Jazz trumpet player who Grusin was gonna try to cross over to “yeah give us more of that”. So I wrote the groove on Thighs High and Dave wrote the lyrics which is interesting. Dave wrote lots of TV themes like “fish don’t fry in the kitchen, beans don’t burn on the grill” which I took issue with because it can be problematic whenever you have a white person writing about how they perceive black life.
I’ve always found it interesting that sometimes an artist doesn’t really like their biggest hit(s). S.O.S Band didn’t like Take Your Time. Did you like Thighs High?
Not particularly. But it was a hit and the people like it, so I still play it. I will never let anyone who has paid to see me, see me not having a good time. I have to find ways to make stuff work, or there is no point in doing it.
I’ve also noticed Bobby Broom credited on some of your recordings. He was your label mate too right?
Yes, after Love Approach I met a lot of artists through my manager Jimmy Boyd. He put a lot of great and talented players together with me that weren’t part of that original Jamaica crowd. Bobby was a musician who was reaching out to George Benson and George brought him to Jimmy and we connected that way.
Did Bernard Wright play bass on Thighs High?
That’s electric bass on Thighs High, and that was Sekou Bunch.
Rockin’ Radio. You were on time for that one. Your playing combined with Maurice Starr & Michael Jonzun’s production was perfect for that breakdance/electro sub genre of music that was at it’s zenith in ‘83/’84. Was that your decision or the labels to go in that direction?
That was Arista’s decision. When I was with Grusin and Rosen their GRP was distributed by Arista, so they (Arista) were the money behind everything. One thing about a label like that is once you start getting hits, then those hits start to decline they want to come in and take over. Arista bought me out from GRP and I was signed directly to Arista. It was probably the worst time in my career, because where Dave Grusin was a producer who really tailored what he did to the artist, Arista had no producers. So they bought me out and assigned me to Maurice & Michael. Like you said they had the hits with New Edition and their own following ,but what they didn’t have was the ability that Grusin had to take an artist and create a sound that was identifiable with that artist. Maurice was the type of producer to say “I have a hit, play this”. It worked, but it wasn’t the Tom Browne sound.
I totally agree. It sounded like a Jonzun Crew/ Maurice Starr record with you playing trumpet on top almost like a guest. It definitely introduced you to a new audience and generation, who likely didn’t identify you with Jazz music or Funkin’ For Jamaica, much like Rock It introduced a new generation and audience to Herbie (Hancock).
Right, they could have gotten any trumpet player to play on that record with the same results. It just wasn’t identifiable as a Tom Browne thing.
I also noticed that you have David Spradley & Ted Currier who had done some great work with George Clinton as producers on the Rockin Radio lp.
Yes, again that was the label searching for producers who had hits, but not necessarily producers who work well with the artist in question.
I see that Maurice did a good amount of production on the Tommy Gunn lp as well. Probably on the strength of the success of Rockin’ Radio…
Yes, and it worked to a degree, but once you hit a certain number of sales it’s hard for the record label to go back. If you sell a million records and then 800,000 the next time, they will say that sales are down. They don’t look at the fact that you sold 800,000. By the time 1986 rolled around we had enough of each other and parted ways.
Most of your record covers feature you and a beautiful woman. Was that your doing or the label?
That was the label trying to find an image. The first 2 covers were me with the horn, then in front of the plane. Then came the player image. I can’t blame them, I went along with it. It was all for the sake of trying to sell records honestly. They had to airbrush Magic because one of the ladies was a little too exposed. My wife was right there and told me to make sure that I just looked ahead.
It’s funny on Tommy Gunn you have the lady & the boat - player thing happening but your wedding ring is very visible.
Arista tried to get me to take my wedding ring off for every cover, but my wife & I agreed that I wasn’t doing that.
When I grew up before corporate radio, every Sunday there was Jazz music after gospel music on Sunday mornings. Any day you would hear Grover Washington Jr. and Donald Byrd right along with Cameo and The Bar Kays. In your opinion what happened to urban radio that turned it into rap only? – and the worst rap that exists nonetheless.
We haven’t supported our own. My wife is Hispanic, and in Dominican culture the kids know today’s music, but they also know Celia Cruz! They are knowledgeable of music that goes back 50 years and they know that it’s their heritage. Not so with our kids. Our kids know today and that’s it. There’s that expression that says if you don’t know where you came from, you can’t possibly know where you’re going. Corporations see that we don’t see the value in our music, so they make it their own.
Now we see this genre called Smooth Jazz. Smooth Jazz has been around for 40 years. Like you said Lonnie Liston Smith was playing Smooth Jazz in the late 60s/early 70s. Ronnie Laws, Roy Ayers etc. Grover Washington Jr. is the father of Smooth Jazz and he was playing it 45 years ago. Roy Ayers, Ronnie Laws and Lonnie Liston Smith are still around, why don’t we hear their music being played like we hear Dave Koz and Boney James. It’s very frustrating, but the main reason is that we haven’t supported our own artists. Not just in music, but across the board culturally. We need to start supporting ourselves and our contributing.
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