Music was serious business for Tom Brown, but even more it was his love and passion.
A well-known music teacher in the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake School District and a popular area musician and composer, Brown died at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady on May 25, losing a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was a resident of Clifton Park. A percussionist who wrote over 400 compositions and won numerous awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, Brown was 83.
“He was a very serious person when it came to music,” said Niskayuna’s Phil Pratico, a trumpet player who performed with Brown live on WRGB’s “The Earle Pudney Show” in the early 1950s. “He was the kind of guy who once he got interested in something he was very focused on it. And he was a tremendous musician. We played a lot of miscellaneous concerts and dates together and had a great time.”
A 1951 graduate of Mont Pleasant High, Brown grew up on Laurel Avenue in Schenectady. Before he was 18, he was performing with “Garry Stevens and the After-Six Seven” on WRGB, and then with Pudney. Both shows were broadcast live at 6 p.m.
“I was at Hartwick with him and I can remember Tom traveling back and forth almost daily to Schenectady to do the show,” remembered former Gazette writer Bill Rice. “He was a superb musician, an excellent percussionist, and that included playing the drums along with the vibraphone.”
Brown got a degree in music education at Hartwick and then earned a master’s from SUNY-Potsdam’s School of Music.
By the mid-1960s he was associated with Stan Kenton-sponsored jazz clinics in California, teaching and performing with such musicians as trumpeter Doc Severinson, guitarist Johnny Smith and bassist Eddie Safranski. He was later director of National Stage Band Camps, which toured college campuses around the country every summer.
He taught music at Watervliet High School, and also served on the faculty at Schenectady County Community College, Skidmore College and The College of Saint Rose. But he really left his mark at BH-BL, where for more than 20 years he was a music teacher and the district’s band director.
“He was a pioneer in the development of jazz bands and big bands in high school,” said Rice. “He really was one of the first to develop bands at the high school level, and he was an excellent teacher and composer.”
Brown’s serious approach to music was reflected in his teaching style.
“He could be a taskmaster who set very high standards for his students,” said Pratico. “Sometimes kids need to have a great coach and he was like a great coach. I think he got that from going to Mont Pleasant, which had a great music program at the time.”
Devoted to craft
Brown just didn’t demand a lot from his students. He kept a very close watch on himself. He long ago came up with a set of eight rules to live by. One of them on the list, which he referred to as “Just for Today,” read as follows: “I will do two things I don’t want to do. Just for the exercise.”
“He honestly cared so much that he poured himself into everything he did,” said Kathryn Lowery, Brown’s daughter. “Whether it was caring for his family or working with his students he put everything he had into it.
“He could have played professionally. He did play with Stan Kenton. But he thought life would be too risky as a musician, so while he still played in this area, he was drawn into teaching. He earned his own money to go to college so he would tell his students, ‘No excuses. Just do the next step.’ ”
Brown’s wife, Grace Boyajian Brown, a 1954 Mont Pleasant graduate and a violinist, said her husband’s ability to play his beloved vibraphone suffered greatly over the past five years.
“He couldn’t play anymore, but he loved music and he would still talk about it,” said Boyajian Brown, who married Tom in 1956. “He had plenty of wonderful memories.”
Lowery and her younger brother, David Brown, both graduated from Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake. At one point all four Browns, and Kathryn’s husband, Sean Lowery, were members of the Schenectady Symphony. Kathryn Lowery now plays with Glimmerglass Opera, and David Brown is a sergeant major in the U.S. Navy’s Jazz Ensemble based in Washington, D.C.
Tom Brown was also director of the Eastern U.S. Music Camp at Colgate University, now in its 41st season. The family will continue to run the camp this summer.
A memorial service for Brown will be held Aug. 8 at the Believers Church at Glenville on Swaggertown Road.