When Portland musician Barra Brown takes the stage this weekend at First Presbyterian Church, in the audience will be one justifiably proud middle school band director.
“I am absolutely thrilled to death to think that I might have helped him,” said Robert Carwithen, or “Mr. C” to his students at Winston Middle School and Douglas High School. “This is what we’re all in this business for.”
Carwithen remembers Brown as a mature and focused student, who would morph back into a normal, squirrelly kid when he left the band room.
Now an accomplished flutist, drummer and composer, Brown, 24, is a triple threat who drums in four gigging bands and recently released his debut album.
He’ll next play a benefit in Roseburg for the nonprofit organization Neighbor to Neighbor mediation services, effectively his homecoming show. And he’s eager to play for the mentors and friends who believed in him.
“I’m really excited to show people what I’ve been up to, that this is a serious thing,” he said. “I’m not just up here hanging out.”
It won’t come as a surprise to family friend David Hutchison, one of the event’s organizers.
“I guess it’s selfish of me — I’m bringing him down here so I can hear him play,” Hutchison said.
Neighbor to Neighbor board member Steve Erickson has known Brown most of the younger man’s life.
“He was so gifted. He had a lot of raw talent,” Erickson remembers. “You could tell he was special.”
Barra Brown is the son of Roisin Brown, a Roseburg counselor and dance instructor who moved from Ireland to Alaska at 19. There she met the father of Barra and his two brothers. Growing up, the boy split time in Alaska and his dad’s native Oregon.
Brown remembers when Mr. C visited his sixth grade classroom with boxes of instruments to introduce students to the band program. He doesn’t recall why he picked the flute.
“I don’t think there was a reason. I think I was just drawn to it. I just liked the sound of it.”
Not long after, his mom took him to see University of Oregon flute professor Nancy Andrew perform at Umpqua Community College. He was blown away.
“I told my mom, ‘I want to sound like that,’” Brown said.
She told him he’d have to take private lessons, and work very hard. She signed him up with flute instructor Wanda Eddy, whom he credits with helping him get to the next level.
Brown started teaching himself drums at about age 12. He took part in concert and jazz ensembles, and thrashed around in punk and hard-core bands, the most established of which called itself Seas of Virgo (all original members were born under that sign, Brown explained). He used to break drumsticks at every practice.
After graduating from DHS, Brown attended Portland’s Lewis & Clark College, where he got a degree in music performance.
To make money, Brown is a nanny to three families, on top of giving lessons. He said watching kids is something he’s always been good at. Plus it gives him evenings free for rehearsal.
These days he also drums with some of Portland’s best young musicians.
Two years ago, he joined Alameda, a spacey “chamber-folk” act originally from Denver. The band plays big, layered requiems that churn like rolls of thunder reverberating in a Portland parking garage. It’s his most commercially successful band, having twice toured nationally.
The Adam Brock 4 plays “harmonically interesting pop-rock,” according to Brown. He met guitarist Adam Brock when Brock was a music major at Portland State University. Brock’s depth of knowledge and sweet voice make his lighthearted work more engaging, even to other musicians, Brown said.
The Wishermen is his most experimental outfit. The performance art trio plays with a sharp edge, assisted by vast pedal arrays and sample pads on the drum kit.
It began as a free-form musical “collective,” with a horn section and a collaborative songwriting approach. But these days Brown has stepped forward to keep it on track, because, he said, someone had to.
Decisions needed to be made regarding which shows to play, which chord to use, whose ideas to hear, and so on.
“There are certain decisions where you need someone to be a leader,’ he said. “Now I’m trying to figure out how to be a leader.”
Good thing, then, that he’s a drummer. Establishing the feel of a song is part of the job.
“I think the drummer is always the leader, no matter what the band,” he said.
His newest project is The Barra Brown Quintet, which he’s bringing to Roseburg. The group includes Brock, New York City transplant and trumpeter Thomas Barber, bassist Arcellus Sykes (a musical transcripiontist by trade) and tenor saxophonist Nicole Glover.
Glover, a Portland State University student, recently performed the national anthem at a Portland Trail Blazers game.
The quintet just released its eight-song album “Songs for a Young Heart,” a diverse, at times soaring, debut.
Brown wrote all the parts.
“(The band) exists solely to fullfil my compositional vision.”
But that’s starting to change, he said. He formed the quintet to play the songs he wrote, which were light on improvisation and heavy on formal structure. Now it’s playing the most “accessible” music of all his bands. That’s not all.
“I haven’t broken a stick in a while,” Brown said.
• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now I’m trying to figure out how to be a leader.