Joe Brazil: Justice for Joe

Attacking the Ivory Tower

A rally at the Husky Union Building on the University of Washington campus kicks off “Joe Brazil Day.” On April 21, 1976, 350 people march to the University President’s Office and present a written demand – before May 5, an open meeting involving testimony from students, faculty, and community be held to officially grant or deny tenure to Assistant Music Professor Joe Brazil. Brazil, a saxophonist from Detroit who recorded with John Coltrane, teaches the History of Jazz, the most popular class in the School of Music. He frequently brings leading jazz artists to perform in class – Earl “Fatha” Hines, Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner, and many more.

“I’ll accept this,” says President John Hogness, “and I’ll have an answer.” Ed Woodley, head of the Black Student Union isn’t satisfied. “We’re tired of waiting and getting no answers.” The protesters head for their next stop.

Behind locked doors, police guard the Music Building. Five uniformed officers secure the west door, eight at the north, and ten at the east. More stroll through the corridors. Classes are cancelled. Outside, the crowd chants “Justice for Joe!”

Brazil had been denied tenure by the School of Music faculty during the previous school year. No public notice of the meeting was given and no minutes had been taken. Protestors believe this procedure violates the Open Meetings Act enacted in 1971 by the Washington State Legislature.

“It’s unfortunate it had to come to this,” says Brazil. “Hopefully people came here to learn.” Brazil is not vengeful. He tells the crowd that many of the people voting against his tenure are “just dumb, not mean.”

The Detroit Jazz Scene

Joseph Brazil was born in Detroit on August 27, 1927. He studied saxophone at the Detroit Institute of Music and Conservatory of Music. After graduating from Cass Technical High School in 1946, he joined the US Army and was stationed for a year at Fort Lewis in Washington. There, he performed in a band with other enlisted men. They called themselves the G.I. Jazzmen of Geiger Field.

Brazil returned to Detroit and got a job at Chrysler as a tool maker and inspector. He purchased a home with one of his brothers and outfitted the basement with a bar, baby grand piano, and chess boards. Soon, talented local musicians and touring artists crowded into the small room to jam.

Visitors included trumpeter Donald Byrd, saxophonist Sonny Red, pianist Barry Harris, bassist Doug Watkins, and drummer Roy Brooks. When saxophonist John Coltrane was in town in September of 1958, he stopped by to jam with Joe Henderson and Brazil. A recording from the session is available on YouTube. The tempo on “Sweet Georgia Brown” is clocked at a blistering 350 beats per minute. Brazil made many recordings at his house, even Coltrane practicing.

Detroit jazz chronicler Jim Gallert interviewed musicians about Brazil’s jams. “Everybody you can name used to come by those sessions,” recalls drummer Bert Myrick in Before Motown. “I talked to Trane for about an hour, sitting on the basement steps.” Brazil made a space where a community of jazz artists could hang out, learn, play, and build relationships free from commercial constraints.

Brazil and Coltrane established a lasting relationship. In Alice Coltrane’s biography Monument Eternal, pianist Kenneth Cox says that Alice McLeod met her future husband John Coltrane in Brazil’s basement.

Brazil in Seattle

Brazil got a tool making job at Boeing and moved to Seattle in September of 1961. Two years later he enrolled at the University of Washington to study math and computer programming. He got a job as a mechanical technician at the UW Applied Physics Lab in 1965 and was promoted to a computer programming job in 1967.

Meanwhile, Brazil made a splash on the local music scene. He gigged at the Seattle World’s Fair, appeared with trumpeter Webster Young at the Red Rooster, singer Woody Woodhouse at the Mardi Gras, bassist Rufus Reid at the Checkmate, saxophonist Charles Lloyd at Seward Park, and led the house band at the Penthouse with pianist Jerry Gray, bassist Chuck Metcalf, and drummer George Griffin. The Penthouse band played Saturday afternoon matinee sets before national touring acts.

One notable group came to the Penthouse the last week of September in 1965. Coltrane was touring after the release of his award winning album A Love Supreme. The band stayed at the Frye Hotel but Coltrane spent the week at Brazil’s house. Coltrane was interested in documenting the new direction of his ensemble so he paid out of his own pocket for a live recording at the Penthouse and a studio session in Lynnwood. Brazil sat in on saxophone at the Penthouse and played flute in the studio. The live recording was released as Live in Seattle and the studio date as Om.

Brazil began to dedicate himself to sharing music with young students and using his extensive network of musical relationships to connect interested students with mature artists.

In 1968 Garfield High School initiated a “magnet” program which included fine-arts curricula. Brazil was hired to teach jazz. Also, Brazil taught in the Summer Emphasis on Education and Knowledge (SEEK) program at Garfield. He also headed the music program for the Seattle Public Schools Extended Services Program (ESP).

Brazil joined a steering committee of black leaders to address issues of justice, schools, jobs, community education, racism, economics, and political power. He founded the Black Academy of Music “dedicated to uplifting the consciousness of people through music.” Faculty included trumpeter Floyd Standifer, saxophonist Jabbo Ward, and bassist Milt Garred. Brazil raised funds to bring saxophonist Joe Henderson to Washington prisons. One of Brazil’s students, Gary Hammon, received one of the first scholarships to attend the New England Conservatory.

Jazz Studies in Academia

The Civil Rights Act of 1965 and the Black Power movement led white universities throughout the United States to develop Black Studies programs. American universities needed graduates to know about American culture and music, including jazz. The Music Educators National Conference (MENC) created the National Association of Jazz Educators (NAJE) at a 1968 meeting in Seattle.

Several jazz artists joined the faculties of prominent American universites – trombonist David Baker, trumpeter Donald Byrd, saxophonists Archie Shepp, Jackie Mclean, and Nathan Davis, pianists Mary Lou Williams and Cecil Taylor, and drummer Max Roach. Seattle’s participation in this national trend brought Joe Brazil to the University of Washington.

Black Studies at the University of Washington

In early 1968, the UW Black Student Union (BSU) surveyed the 834 classes in the school’s catalog. None of the School of Music classes used materials by or about black people. “It was audacious and outrageous,” says BSU organizer Larry Gossett (now Chair of the King County Council), “that all the classes focused on European music even though the most creative, innovative, and distinctly American music came from blacks.” The BSU concluded that the UW was “institutionally racist.”

The head of the BSU, E. J. Brisker, called UW President Charles Odegaard and demanded that the university provide $50,000 to create a Black Studies program. With no money forthcoming, 70 BSU members and friends occupied Odegaard’s office. Odegaard agreed to the BSU’s demands which included hiring black representatives on the music faculty, specifically saxophonists Joe Brazil and Byron Pope to teach jazz.

Jazz at the University of Washington

Within a week the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences established a Special Curriculum Committee on Black American Culture. Brazil and Pope submitted a proposal for a Black Music curriculum to the School of Music. A single faculty position was opened. Brazil refused to compete with Pope for the job. Pope was hired to begin teaching in the fall.

Pope taught the History of Jazz three days a week, gave private lessons, worked with the jazz ensemble, and performed twice on the UW Jazz concert series. At the end of the school year Pope recommended that the curriculum and faculty be expanded to include all forms of Black Music and that the program move from the School of Music to Ethnomusicology. These suggestions were ignored. Pope left the UW.

Brazil in the School of Music

Without a teacher for the History of Jazz class, the Acting Director for the School of Music, John Moore, urged Brazil to take over. Drummer Garry Owens volunteered to be Brazil’s Teaching Assistant. “Joe was the hub to bring the music and history together and serve as an inspiration,” says Owens. “He didn’t come to write books. He came to play and teach. He taught me that I could be a revolutionary in art – defend it, keep playing, and keep hope alive.” Today Owens manages projects for the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods.

Bassist Jeffrey Winston also worked as a Teaching Assistant for Brazil. “Joe was a voice in the wilderness,” says Winston. “He wasn’t credentialed so he got no respect. He devoted his life to spreading the word about the music.” Today Winston produces jazz concerts in Los Angeles for World Stage Stories and serves as secretary for the California Jazz Foundation.

Herbie Hancock at UW?

At the end of the school year the BSU demanded that the School of Music engage a Jazz Ensemble in Residence. Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi ensemble was in Seattle for a jazz festival concert. Brazil held the group over at the Club Ebony for a week and brought Hancock to speak in the History of Jazz class. Over lunch, the Director of the School of Music, William Bergsma, discussed the possibility of having Hancock’s band in residence at UW.

Because there was no budget for additional faculty, Bergsma turned to the Rockefeller Foundation for financial support. Bergsma developed a community-wide plan that included students from the Seattle Public Schools and Cornish School of Allied Arts. Brazil’s teaching role in Seattle Public Schools was mentioned in the plan as a prototype. The proposal requested $333,889 for three years beginning in the summer of 1971.

The Rockefeller Foundation offered $100,000 over a two year period. The Foundation’s Director, Norman Lloyd, wrote, “I was impressed with every aspect of the jazz proposal. There is a real chance that if it gets started it could serve as a model, particularly for other institutions that understand the importance of jazz in our culture but have not discovered how to deal with it in academia.”

The UW Archives have documents declaring Brazil and others agreed “it was unrealistic to start such a large scale project with little prospect of continuing” and withdrew the application. But other documents indicate that Sam Kelly, Vice President of Minority Affairs said “there was no consensus opinion by the black members of the committee who were involved in submitting the proposal.” The next year Bergsma left the School of Music and the proposal was never resubmitted.

Cracks Widen Between Brazil and UW

Brazil considered resigning from the School of Music. David Llorens, the Director of Black Studies urged Brazil to stay and wrote a letter to support a promotion. “Clearly, the School of Music has been treating Mr. Brazil like a stepchild. It is entirely possible that they do not know that he is a superior man in his field, one whose experience is invaluable to the program in jazz music, and the Black Studies program, at this university.”

The Black Studies Executive Committee recommended to Director Moore that Brazil be promoted. Carver Gayton, Director of Equal Opportunities for Minorities pointed out that Brazil and the two other blacks received the lowest salaries among the school’s faculty. Brazil was promoted from Lecturer to Assistant Professor in 1972 with his salary split between the School of Music and the
Black Studies program.

Tensions between the School of Music and Brazil rose. Brazil continued to bring some of the biggest names in jazz to campus through his personal connections and taped their performances for student use, but the School of Music was not supportive. Director Moore contacted the local Musicians Union to try to prevent Brazil from video recording McCoy Tyner’s concert.

Black Composers

Brazil rubbed the faculty of the School of Music the wrong way when he addressed the African American Cultural Festival at Whitman College. He mentioned emerging research that suggested Beethoven and Hadyn had black ancestry.

In 1973 Brazil proposed a course on the life and music of Duke Ellington. The Seattle Times reported that the School of Music said “it possibly would accept a course on the history of outstanding black composers, not naming anyone.” Ellington died in 1974. Brazil was decades ahead of his time. Today Northwest High Schools win national contests playing Ellington’s music.

The Votes Are In

The end of Brazil’s employment at UW was sealed at a meeting of the senior School of Music faculty on October 17, 1974. The Black Studies faculty voted unanimously to grant tenure but the School of Music voted to deny tenure, citing a “travesty of classroom teaching,” playing recordings with minimal analysis, anecdotal discussions, lecturing from LeRoi Jones’ book Blues People, simple final exams, arriving late for class, and not attending committee meetings. The College Council ignored the Black Studies vote and unanimously agreed with the School of Music decision. Brazil’s appointment would end after the 1975-76 school year.

Student petitions to retain Brazil collected about 1,000 names. Brazil requested an investigation by Carver Gayton, the Director for Equal Opportunities of Minorities, for possible racial discrimination. “Mr. Brazil has brought the greatest array of top name Black Jazz musicians to this campus over the past five years than ever before in its history,” said Gayton in a letter to the Director of the School of Music. “I truly do not know of anyone who could have been able to accomplish as much as has Mr. Brazil over such a short period of time.”

Because the tenure meeting was not publicly announced and no minutes were kept, Brazil filed a suit in King County Superior Court for violation of the Open Meetings Act. He did not ask for tenure in his suit. He asked that each faculty member who violated the Act pay the penalty named in the law ($100) and that his tenure decision meeting be open to the public. The Court dismissed the case.

As Brazil’s career at UW drew to a close, protests and press coverage increased. Ironically, while the UW was ignoring Brazil’s role in the community, the King of Sweden, Carl Gustof, presented Brazil with a service award for the Black Academy of Music.

The More Things Change

Brazil was replaced by Milton Stewart, a black professor from the University of Michigan. He was treated with even less respect than Brazil. When Stewart was denied tenure in 1982, he wrote to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). “They desperately wanted me because I was a black person with a Ph.D. in music who taught jazz and other Afro-American music courses,” wrote Stewart. “One of their ‘reasons’ for terminating Joe Brazil was that he didn’t have academic credentials. I was used as a foil to make what they were doing to Mr. Brazil appear legitimate.”

Brazil Moves On

Brazil moved to Bellingham then Tacoma. He received recognition as an Elder of Distinction at the Pantages Theater during Black History Month in 2007. Brazil died August 6, 2008. A year later, his former student Gary Hammon organized a concert and celebration of Brazil’s life in Flo Ware Park.

People who knew Brazil remember him fondly. “Joe was way cool,” says organist Mikal Majeed. “He tried to influence us in the real music. He introduced us to progressive jazz. Joe tried to hook us up with the basics.” “Everyone knew Joe,” says Hammon. “Whenever I mentioned his name back east, people opened up to me.” Drummer George Griffin says, “Joe should have got more credit than he did. He was a well-educated man and always had something good to say.”

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