Houston jazz and blues diva Jewel Brown may be the only woman on the planet to have worked in Jack Ruby's nightclub and done a special command performance for Russian political jefe Vladimir Putin.
A Yates High School graduate whose life story makes Alice in Wonderland look believable, Brown has returned to performing more lately, appearing at this year's New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and as one of the featured acts along with Milton Hopkins at this week's Chicago Blues Festival. Her first recording in years, as vocalist on local bluesman Milton Hopkins's album, dropped last week as Milton Hopkins & Jewel Brown on Austin's Dialtone Records.
A natural talent, Brown hails from a very poor Third Ward family, and began singing at her church when she was five. By age nine, she was winning the weekly talent contests at Fifth Ward's posh Club Matinee, located in the middle of what was in those days called the Bloody Fifth. Brown was always accompanied by her mother.
"We were so scared we wouldn't stop anywhere, just drive straight to the club and straight home," she recalls.
One night Nat King Cole watched her win the contest, then sat with Brown and discussed the music business.
"He tried to discourage me from pursuing singing," she says. "He was very sincere, and he knew how rough it was. He had a daughter about my age, and he didn't want her singing in clubs, growing up in that life. Well, I told him that I went everywhere with my mother, and she wasn't afraid of nothin'."
Brown turned pro when she was 12, performing regularly at the Manhattan Club in Galveston. Having lied about her age to enroll in school early, Brown was receiving offers to tour before she graduated.
"Lionel Hampton and his wife, Gladys, wanted me to go to Europe," says Brown. "I said, 'How much does it pay?' And Gladys told me $75 a week, and I said, 'No thank you, ma'am.' But I did perform with Lionel that year at the Houston Coliseum."
Brown notes her father, who worked for Brown & Root on Harrisburg, was illiterate, so he was insistent that his children finish their educations.
"I worked to help my family," Brown says. "But there was never any question of quitting school to take a singing job. Daddy wouldn't stand for that."
So she performed in her brother's band — "We worked all the joints: Bar B Ranch, Whispering Pines, Shady's Playpen" — and by the time she graduated at age 15, Brown had assisted her parents in buying a home on Eagle Street in Third Ward, her residence now for 58 years.
During a trip to Los Angeles in 1957, she sat in with Earl Grant's band and was signed right away. She stayed at Club Pigalle in Los Angeles for a year and returned to Houston in a 1957 Ford convertible.
She then took a job in Dallas for nightclub owner Jack Ruby, who had not yet shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald. She worked for Ruby for more than a year — "I filled that place seven nights a week, he never gave me a day off" — but that all ended the night Ruby called her a "money-hungry bitch."
Brown returned to Houston, but before long her phone rang and her agent had a strange question to ask: "If you had to choose, would you rather work with Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong?"
Armstrong's singer, Velma Middleton, had died, and both jazz bandleaders were inquiring about vocalists through all the major agencies. Brown chose Armstrong.
"I was young, but I'd been hipped by a lot of people," says Brown. "Duke had 17 players to feed, and he traveled everywhere by bus or boat. Louis only had seven counting him and the singer, and he always flew. Guys like Bill Doggett, they had educated me about this kind of stuff.
"I wasn't a Dixieland singer, but I figured I could do the gig with Louie," Brown explains. "Mama always told us to be like a rat and have more than one hole to crawl into."
Brown completed a two-week Texas tour filling in with Armstrong, then went back to working whatever shows she could get. One morning after a show in Dallas, her phone rang again.
"This very serious voice says, 'This is Joe Glaser. I'm working with Louis Armstrong. I need you to catch a plane in Houston this afternoon at 3 p.m.,'" she says. "'You'll fly to New York and meet the band, then fly on to Boston to begin the tour.'
"Well, he didn't know I was in Dallas," Brown laughs. "I grabbed my stuff and headed down Highway 75 driving 110, 115 miles an hour. I got stopped about halfway and I started bawling to the officer. He felt sorry for me and just told me to slow it down and be careful. As soon as I couldn't see him anymore, I was right back at 115."
Arriving at her home, she told her sister to help her pack, and they drove to Hobby Airport.
"I got out and told her, 'This convertible is yours now; a 707 is gonna be my new car,'" Brown says.
Decked out in magnificent gowns she chose herself at places like La Bianca on Seventh Avenue in New York City, Brown toured the world with Armstrong from 1961 to 1968, when the jazz legend fell ill. She began to work on her own in places like Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe, but in 1971, her mother's condition worsened and she suddenly retired.
"I just felt like Daddy needed my help with so much," says Brown.
She took an interest in her brother's hair salon on Dowling and worked there for 15 years. She also opened a successful insurance brokerage. After Brown's father passed away, she began to take a few special gigs just to keep active, working with the famous Heritage Hall Jazz Band.
Last year Dialtone Records owner Eddie Stout approached Brown. He told her he was putting together a session for a new album by Milton Hopkins, Lightnin' Hopkins's cousin. The result, Milton Hopkins & Jewel Brown, is a mix of romping blues covers that includes "Jerry," a tune Brown sang with Armstrong, as well as other blues chestnuts like "Daddy, Daddy," Little Willie John's "I'm Shakin'," and Lightnin's "I'm Leaving You Now."
Hopkins and Brown are part of a large Houston contingent performing this week at the Chicago Blues Festival as part of a tribute honoring Lightnin's 100th birthday.
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Besides last month's Jazz Fest, Jewel also recently played one of the strangest gigs of her career, a birthday party in Russia.
"We flew into Moscow, then we drove out to this very secluded place in a bus," she explains. "I'd never seen a place like this, not in Paris, not in River Oaks, nowhere. I mean, it was fancy. And there was so much security, machine guns everywhere."
She eventually discovered she was singing to a mixed-gender crowd of 50 people, and Russian President Vladimir Putin was in the audience.
"Just like that party, music has taken me a lot of places," Brown reminisces. "But the sad thing about Houston is, if you're going to make a living in music, you've got to go somewhere else. All the greats — Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, Milt Larkin, hundreds of people — they had to leave Houston to make a living playing music. It's sad, but it's a fact."