Most would consider Jewel Brown’s peak to be the time she spent singing with Louis Armstrong in the ’60s. That’s fair. But while the films Louis Armstrong and All Stars and Solo do stand as the most visible of her endeavors, they fall short of highlighting a deep pedigree earned in the nightclubs and juke joints of Third Ward in the years prior. Brown started at a young age. Her first professional appearance was at Galveston’s Manhattan Club, along an area of the Seawall once reserved for blacks known as Brown Beach (where Menard Park now stands). That club would become but one destination for the hardworking singer, who would go on to work for Jack Ruby in Dallas and then tour the world with Armstrong before retiring from life on the road in the early ’70s to take care of her ailing mother. Over the last couple of decades, Brown started making appearances again, and in recent years has come around to a bona fide second act in her career. This month, Brown has a new album coming out with Japanese horn ensemble Bloodest Saxophone and she’ll be on tour once again, turning 78 this year and showing no signs of stopping. I spoke to Jewel about the Third Ward scene that molded her as a singer.
There was so much music in Houston in the ’50s that people always wanted to come through and play, right?
You darn tootin’. There were quite a bit of them. As a matter of fact, the first night I went out, when I was nine years old, I got a chance to do a thing with Nat King Cole at Club Matinee in the Anchor Room. I was nine years old! And then I started doin’ the talent shows, and that’s one thing as far as gettin’ a little… you know, start gettin’ a little notoriety and stuff. In Houston back in the day, the Dowling Theatre was what The Apollo Theater is today. That’s what we had. We had the Park Theater and the Dowling Theatre — those were the two theaters in the Third Ward. But it was the Dowling Theatre that had the shows between the movies. The movie would be on, and as soon as the movie would go off, the show would start again. They did shows like three or four times a day, like they did at The Apollo Theater. And man, we had shows at the Emancipation Park – on the backside there? They would play movies on the big screen – you know, they had a big screen there, a film screen. And then they would have the shows on that back stage back there. I don’t know if it still exists, but that’s what they did. And that was our recreation on the weekend! Everything went on at the Emancipation Park. Across the street from there was the El Dorado. So it was a lot goin’ on just right there in that one block! It was most fantastic.
And you had the same sort of thing going on in Fifth Ward, too. Were a lot of people going back and forth between there? Did it feel like a circuit between those two neighborhoods?
Well, at that time, there wasn’t as many cars as there are today. But a lot of the people who could afford it were coming out of Fifth Ward into the Third Ward, and of course in the Fifth Ward, we had the Peacock, and we had the Club Matinee’s Anchor Room. And right to the side of there, they had what was called The Whispering Pine. Joe Brown. Joe Brown just died here about three or four years ago – the man who owned The Whispering Pine. And then we had like The Double Bar Ranch, where a lot of things came there. We had quite a bit, you know, that was going on. Even down Dowling Street, we had clubs. The G&A Café, and entertainers and all used to come off in those places. But I learned most of what I started out doing at the Club Matinee. Before then, I was in mostly the juke joints.
There were a lot of those!
Oh yeah. The most famous one at the time was called Shady’s Playhouse. And then it got so big for him that he got a place on the Gulf Freeway and called it Jeff’s Playhouse. That was his name, Jeff. Why he named the other place he had Shady’s Playhouse I don’t know. But that’s where I met Henry Haye’s band with Elmo Nixon, who had the hit record at that time. “Alabama Blues.” And all that kind of stuff. That’s the era I came from.
And what about before that? Did you grow up singing in church? I mean, you’re talking about nine years old, were you singing before that?
At five years old I was singing in my church in the junior choir. At five years old, yes. At Rose Hill Baptist Church. They’ve changed now – it’s called Greater Rose Hill Baptist Church, but back in the day it was just Rose Hill Baptist Church. On the corner of Sawyer and Holman.
And were there singers who influenced you back then? I always kind of feel like I hear some Big Mama Thornton in what you do, but I guess this is even before Big Mama Thornton, right?
Big Mama Thornton, and old Lightnin’ Hopkins would be singin’ on the corner at Fannin Street. You know, I mean Houston has a lot of history, and there was Arnett Cobb, and Illinois Jacquet.
You worked with Arnett Cobb, too, years later, right?
Oh, yes, I did! I went to Europe with him twice. Yes. At that time, his son-in-law Steve Williams was handling things for him.
And I know that at one point … well, obviously you ended up working with Louis Armstrong, but I know that Duke Ellington was courting you, too, at one point, right? He was trying to get you to sing with his band.
You know, what actually happened was I working for Jack Ruby in Dallas, and I left him due to a problem that evidently he had, and I refused to deal with it anymore and I left and I started working for a gentleman named T.J. Jefferies. He had the club Chalet.
That was still in Dallas right there?
That was still in Dallas. At that place, it was a restaurant as well, and I believe Mr. Tony Papa, who was Dallas branch officer for Associated Booking Corporation, had told him about me. Told Mr. Glaser, that is. Joe Glaser about me. And that interest in me came because Velma Middleton had passed in Africa, and she was Louis Armstrong’s singer. So what happened was they was on a search for a singer, and they didn’t exactly know what to do because they knew that Louis and Velma had a very friendly bond. And they didn’t know if putting another singer in would hurt Louis’s feelings or something. They didn’t know how to handle it. But when Mr. Glaser came down and heard me, I understand he heard one show – I was doin’ two shows a night – and I heard that he heard one show and then he went straight on back to New York that same night. He just came down to hear me so he’d know what Mr. Tony Papa was talkin’ about. So I had been… my first husband was Eddie Curtis, who’s my son’s father, and [Glaser] called him in to come and talk to him, because you know, that was a strong investigation on whoever they were gonna put with Louis, you know what I mean? You had to be a person that was kinda on the up and up! He didn’t use anybody who was on drugs or alcoholics or anything of that sort. You couldn’t work with Louis if you had a problem. At any rate, he asked my ex-husband about me, and he said, “Do you think she could handle it?” And he told him – what he means to this day I don’t know what he meant by it – but he told him, he says, “Look – her? She’s all nerve and no nerve.” Whatever that was.
All nerve and no nerve!
That was his explanation to him, that she’s “all nerve and no nerve.”
Maybe that means that she can just handle anything. Whatever it takes.
I guess so! That’s the only thing I can think of. So anyway Mr. Glaser called me in Dallas, and said that, “Jewel, if I put anybody with Louis Armstrong, it’s gonna be you.” I say, “Well, thank you Mr. Glaser.” I say, “That would be just fine, but you need to give me a call, because I’m here in Dallas and I’ll need to go to Houston to exchange some things and redo some things and let my parents know where I’m on my way,” you know? He called me about 12 o’clock that day and told me that his plane would be leaving at 3 o’clock. So I got to pack up all my stuff up in Dallas and I got to drive to Houston and get to the airport. And I did it. I got to Houston in two hours! I hit the pedal and I drove 115 miles an hour all the way in except when a cop stopped me, and I told him, “Mister, you can’t hold me up. I got to go. I got somethin’ I gotta do. I got to get to my mama.” Just like careful.” He didn’t give me a ticket or anything. He just say, “Just be careful.” When I got out of his sight, I put the pedal right back to the metal and got home. And made it to the airport. And when I got there, all the guys knew me because they all used to come to Club Ebony. And when I got there, I said, “Listen, I got to get to New York. Don’t y’all let that plane get away from me. Help me get down there quick.” My ticket was already there, and they took me the shortcut way outside of the terminal. And got me on the plane. And when I was on the plane, I fell straight to sleep with my purse and my bag still in my lap. I just sat down and fell off. I don’t even know whether not I tightened the seatbelt up, but I couldn’t have done that because I still had my purse and a bag in my hand. I fell asleep and slept all the way to New York. I didn’t even wake up; they didn’t feed me or nothing. I slept all the way to New York. And when I got off the plane, my foot hit the last step on the plane and I hit the first step on the bus. My foot never hit the ground. And went straight on in … the bus pulled off and straight on in to Boston, Massachusetts. We were goin’ to Storyville for George Wein, who had the Newport Jazz Festival. That was my first night of work with Louis.
And did you get to really meet him before the show or were you just shuffled right out on stage?
On the bus all the way from New York to Boston!
What was that bus ride like? Were you comfortable, were you nervous?
Everybody on the bus made me comfortable. All the guys. Tyree Glenn. You know, Tyree was from Corsicana.
Oh yeah! Right.
And then there was Billy Kyle, who made me feel extremely comfortable. As a matter of fact, he became like a confidant for the years I was there until he died, and that’s when Marty Napoleon came in, an Italian guy. And, oh boy, he was also sensational. Joe didn’t hire nothin’ but the best guys that could play. On anything. And that’s what they were all about. And it really spoils you, too, because when you work eight years almost with the guys that could – you could call anything, just a key and a tempo, and they on top of you? Oh, man – you know, it was heaven!
And so you worked with them until what, 1968?
That’s right. It was November or December of ’68.
So what happened then? You just moved on to something different?
No, what happened was that Pops was feelin’ ill, and gave everybody nine weeks’ worth of full paychecks, you could only cash one a week. When I saw Louis again it was on TV on the Johnny Carson show, and Johnny asked, he say, “Louis, what happened to ya?” He said, “Well, the doctor said I had very close veins.” Not varicose, but very close. That’s what he called them! I have very close veins. The house came down, of course. He was quite a comic onstage too, you know. He was a man loved all over the world. There wasn’t a place we went he didn’t pack the house.
All over Chile, Santiago, Valparaiso, Australia, Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane … just all over Australia, all over New Zealand.
When you work with someone like that, on that level, did you feel like you brought a little Houston with you? Did they ever ask you about Houston? Did they know about the history?
Well, I tell you – I understand that the boys in the band say, “Look, out of all the people you know about, who do you think would be best to put with the band?” And I understand the boys said, “Man, I think you need to get that little gal down in Texas.” And that’s what I understand. Mm-hmm.
Brought that Third Ward flavor around the world.
That’s what I’m talkin’ about. And all over the world, they like that Texas sound.
What’s your experience like in the studio now? Is it a completely different world for you than it was back in the day?
No, it’s the same world, and I have the same love for music. It’s a little bit different with musicianship of guys. Most of them like to have everything that they can read, and back in the day, you had it in the mind. In the heart, in the spirit. You know what I’m sayin’? But now it’s all written.
If you could put together your dream band, just people that you can think of that – you know, this drummer or that bass player or guitar player or saxophonist – who would you have?
Let me tell you somethin’: when you say “saxophone,” a guy from here named Don Wilkerson. One of the baddest saxophone players ever. He got a chance to do an album called The Texas Twister. He worked with Ray Charles, but he became an addict, and Ray Charles had to fire him. But he was one of the greatest … he was one of the greatest saxophone players there ever was. But there’s so many musicians. Fred Ford and all those guys that I came up with. That I used to just love to work with, you know? There were some great musicians from here.
How challenging was it as a black woman working in music in the ’50s and ’60s?
Well, everywhere I went, I was wanted – the difference between when you are actually wanted and when you’re begging for a job to go somewhere. Everywhere I ever went, I was wanted. I was asked to go.
So you retired for a number of years and then you came back and you’ve really had a second act for your career, right?
Actually, it became like a new beginning. When I retired I was in Las Vegas, workin’ on the strip at The Sahara with a show called the “Fillies de Soul,” and when the show was over there they was takin’ it to Stardust, but I told them, I said … “Well, y’all,” I said, “I got to go help my dad with my mom.” Because it plagued you too much. At that time, I was callin’ long distance home all the time and that was wearing a budget out. So I say, “I got to go home and I got to help my dad take care of my mom.” And that’s what I did. And when I came home, my brother and I opened up a beauty shop, and then before that I did interior decorating, doin’ upholstery and carpet and whatever I could to make a dollar, you know? And then after my daddy died, that’s when I stopped doin’ all of that stuff and I started to work for an insurance company, American General, which became AIG. And then I retired from them at 70 I think it was, I retired. I’ll be 78 this year.
Did you always kind of think over the years that you would get back into music? Did you always kinda think, “Oh, I’m definitely gonna do it,” or was there ever a point where you kinda lost touch with it?
Well, I’ma tell you something: In order to keep yourself from grievin’ and all that sorta thing, I’ve always taken it to the Lord, and I’ve always asked him to be my guide. Yeah. I’ve always done it that way. It keeps you from being broken-hearted, because when you feel you’ve asked him to do that, and you feel that’s what he’s doing, because you asked. He said, “Ask and you shall receive.” So I took it to him. I gave it to him, and wherever he leads me, if it’s all good, then I’ll go.