Third Ward Treasure Jewel Brown: "I've Seen 'Em All"
Jewel Brown and Milton Hopkins at the Continental Club, May 27
Photos courtesy of Gary Sapone
Along with Lightnin' Hopkins's cousin Milton Hopkins, Houston jazz diva Jewel Brown heads north to Chicago this weekend, where she and Hopkins will entertain folks with their new album, Milton Hopkins and Jewel Brown.
The festival is paying tribute to Lightnin' Hopkins since this would have been his 100th year had he lived.
Ms. Brown, at one time the singer for no less a band than Louis Armstrong's All-Stars, has been in semi-retirement, although she still takes the occasional choice gig. Check this week's print edition of the Houston Press for our in-depth feature on Ms. Brown.
Rocks Off: What is your feeling about the festival paying tribute to Lightnin' Hopkins this year?
Jewel Brown: It's a wonderful choice, and so deserving. I've been all over the world and I can tell you Lightnin' Hopkins is one of the most recognized Houstonians out in the larger world. His fame is truly worldwide.
RO: Did you ever meet him, work around him?
JB: No, I never met him, but when I was very young and my mother was driving me up to talent shows and things in the Fifth Ward, we would sometimes see him sitting on a certain corner and Momma would tell me, "That's Lightnin' Hopkins." So I knew who he was, but I was never around him.
RO: That was such a beautiful arrangement of his tune "I'm Leaving You Now" on the new record.
JB: Didn't that turn out well? Milton and the band really found a nice groove on that one, but it still sounds very much like Lightnin'. I think he would be happy if he heard it.
RO: You've lived in Third Ward your entire life. What are some of your vivid memories?
JB: I remember my daddy walking all the way to Harrisburg to work every day and back every night, walking the railroad tracks to work. He worked so hard to make ends meet. He'd go without shoes so we would have some. And I remember how bad I felt when he'd come home from work and his hands would be bleeding.
He was in maintenance of the heavy equipment at Brown & Root. When he retired, they hired three men to replace him. I'm not complaining, you understand; that's just how it was.
RO: What did your mother do?
JB: My mother was a natural seamstress. I remember her telling my daddy, "Brown, if you could get me a sewing machine, I could make the kids' clothes and save us some money." And daddy took 50 cents and he went to bet on what you'd call the numbers. He bet a nickel at a time, on the last one he won.
He took that nine dollars and bought momma a Singer sewing machine. And she became a fabulous seamstress. I'd be playing and she'd say, "Jewel, come over here," and she'd take a piece of cloth and hold it up and look at me. And then she'd tell me I could go play. The next thing I'd know, she'd say, "Try this on."
She didn't need a pattern -- couldn't afford one. She was really amazing. Of course, it got to where people knew her, so she made some outside money. Just helping daddy any way she could.
RO: Did you ever have any formal voice training?
JB: I had won quite a few talent contests and I'd done some paying gigs, but when I was maybe a freshman in high school, people kept asking me why I didn't try out for the Glee Club. I waited one day until the lady who was in charge of the Glee Club was alone, and I went in and told her I was a singer and that maybe I could get in the club or get in her class to learn more about voice.
So she played a song on her piano and I sang a few minutes and she stopped. She said, 'Girl, what you've got is natural. I wouldn't attempt to tinker with what you've got. I really don't think there's anything I can do for you.' So I never really had any formal instruction of any kind as far as singing goes.
RO: You traveled the world with Louis Armstrong for seven years. He had a reputation for being high all the time. What was that like for a young woman to be around?
JB: You know, you can hear anything. I've heard people say that for years. But truth is, Louis was a complete professional. Herb was his relaxation thing, but he was not high all the time. He would never do gigs high. That story is just not true.
RO: What was it like being a young woman around those guys?
JB: Oh, it was fabulous. It was like having six brothers looking out for me all the time. They were all gentlemen.
RO: It just seems so appropriate given your history that "Jerry," one of the numbers you helped popularize when you were in Armstrong's band, was chosen as the opening track.
JB: That song is like a part of me.
RO: Your voice is still in great shape. To what do you attribute that?
JB: You know, I started in the blues, but I eased over to jazz because the venues were nicer, the crowds were more respectful, the pay was better and I didn't have to do all that growlin' and shoutin'. That has a lot to do with it.
RO: You are considered one of the great female voices of your age, of all time even. To whom do you look up, hold in highest esteem?
JB: I've seen 'em all, and there are so many greats it's hard to pick one over another. Gladys Knight has been very inspiring to watch as her career has unfolded. She has a fabulous voice and has been such a class act.
But if I had to name one, it would be Sarah Vaughan. Now Ella [Fitzgerald] had her thing going, but Sarah, she was just a flat-footed blues singer. Ella was so good, she played with it, but Sarah, oh, my. She always drank a little shot of Hennessy or something before she went onstage, and when I could I would sit and listen to her because we became good friends in Vegas when I was working the Venetian Room and she was working the lounge.
So I'd go in and just listen to her. She was like an instrument. She was the last word. Let me put it like this: When Ella was playing with it, Sarah was gettin' it.
RO: Houston has had so many great female vocalists. Who are some of your favorites?
JB: Oh, I hate to do that, there are so many here. To pick one over the others is just not something I'd want to do.
RO: Maybe one that we might not necessarily think of?
JB: Yolanda Adams has these true tones, so beautiful. That girl is cold-blooded.
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