OSCAR BROWN JR. was an authentic American original, a 20th century Whitmanesque voice of insight, reason and imagination. Accomplished as a songwriter, performer, playwright, poet, essayist, activist and much more, he may simply have been too diverse to garner the acknowledgment that his enormous talents so clearly deserved.
Two years after his death at the age of 78, the creative legacy of this African American from Chicago is beginning to receive some attention via the efforts of an unlikely source: singer Linda Kosut, a self-described "white Jewish girl from the Bronx." Kosut has released "As Long as You're Living," a recording of Brown's songs and poetry, and her nightclub show tribute bearing the same title has been performed in venues around the country for the last year.
On Tuesday, "As Long As You're Living" made it to the Jazz Bakery for a one-night presentation. It deserved a far longer run.
Kosut is correct to note the differences between her background and Brown's. But it was precisely those differences that underscored the universality of Brown's art as well as the versatility Kosut brought to her interpretations. Wisely, she never attempted to sing the Brown songs in any style other than her own, with its warm, dark sound and articulate, theatrically trained phrasing.
Her rendering of Brown's lyrics for Thelonious Monk's " 'Round Midnight," for example, blended late-night storytelling with the life-defining metaphors of his poem "This Beach." A seemingly unlikely combination, it was, instead, an illuminating view into the complex byways of Brown's imagination.
Other songs -- "Mr. Kicks," "A Dime Away From a Hot Dog" and "Long as You're Living" -- displayed Brown's extraordinary capacity to combine multilayered insights with engagingly communicative language.
Kosut, accompanied by the Max Perkoff Trio, tackled it all with splendid results. And she was the first to acknowledge, after the set, that for all its entertaining excellence, "As Long as You're Living" only opens the door to Brown's treasure trove of creative works.