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Leonard Brown, professor and a founder of annual John Coltrane Memorial Concert, dies at 72

Leonard Brown was an Associate Professor of African American Studies and Music at Northeastern University.
Leonard Brown was an Associate Professor of African American Studies and Music at Northeastern University.(Janet Knott/Globe Staff/File 2005)

The first John Coltrane Memorial Concert was conceived in the mid-1970s during a creative time for jazz in Boston when there was “a lot of avant-garde and new music,” Leonard Brown would later recall.

“It was very cutting edge with new ways of conceiving the music as well as having the older tradition of bebop and swing going on,” Dr. Brown, a founder of the annual Coltrane tribute, told Motif magazine in 2016.

A saxophonist, scholar, and music professor emeritus at Northeastern University, Dr. Brown died March 7. He was 72, had lived in Framingham for many years, and had heart disease.

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In the Motif interview, he described the setting in Greater Boston’s jazz history that gave rise to the annual concert celebrating the legacy of Coltrane, a legendary saxophonist and composer.

“It was at the Friends of Great Black Music Loft, a creative space that drummer Syd Smart had, where the energy really came together,” Dr. Brown said. “You’d meet other artists with like minds, find out what’s happening, talk about doing things together, take a lesson with somebody on trumpet or dance; it was an eclectic offering of learning performance traditions so we used to do a lot of music down there. This is where the Coltrane concert grew out of.”

The first concert was held in 1977, a decade after Coltrane died, and the annual tribute found a permanent home at Northeastern several years later. A few months ago, Dr. Brown was able to leave the hospital to help officiate at the 41st tribute.

“He’s never missed a concert,” said his wife, Cheryl Render Brown, a Wheelock College professor emerita who formerly chaired the early childhood education department.

The annual memorial concert became an institution as the saxophonist’s fans gathered to celebrate his music.

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“This is the oldest tribute to Trane in the world,” Dr. Brown noted in a 2005 Globe interview.

The impetus to launch the first concert, he told interviewer Ben Shaw for the Motif interview, went beyond music and the respect he and the other founders had for Coltrane.

“Part of it was political since as black musicians we needed to be the ones who defined what it’s about, where it comes from, and where it goes,” Dr. Brown said.

In the preface to “John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom: Spirituality and the Music” (2010), which Dr. Brown edited, he wrote that “essential to the purpose of this book is the understanding that John Coltrane’s musical and spiritual foundations are rooted in Black American culture.”

Dr. Brown, who also wrote a couple of chapters, added that all the book’s contributors were “Black Americans with extensive knowledge of the roles and functions of Black American music, historical and contemporary.”

The writers “grew up in black communities where Black American music culture played and continues to play a central role in how we identify ourselves and how we view the world — past, present, and future,” he wrote. “We all have participated in the ‘doing’ of music as a central aspect of our individual personal development, including singing and instrumental performance in church, school, and the community.”

The younger of two children, Leonard Brown was born in Lexington, Ky., and grew up in Frankfort, Ky., the hometown of his father, James Blackburn Brown, who was schoolteacher, then a school principal, and then a professor at Kentucky State University in Frankfort.

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Dr. Brown’s mother, Ione Lewis Brown, was an elementary school teacher who took time off from work while her two sons were young.

“She stayed home until Leonard was in second grade, and then she was his second-grade teacher,” his wife said.

“Leonard grew up in a real strong family of educators,” she added. His parents were civil rights activists, “and he became very much an activist and a voice himself. His parents had modeled a lot of that: speaking out and speaking up.”

Dr. Brown’s parents both played piano, and he took lessons from his mother. During the segregated era when African-American musicians were turned away from hotels and stayed with families while touring, he met many luminaries who visited his family’s home.

“He remembers riding on the shoulders of Duke Ellington when he was a little boy,” his wife said.

The influence of Jackie McLean, a saxophonist, composer, and bandleader, drew Dr. Brown to the sax. “I thought Jackie’s sound was great; it made me really listen and what he played was always exciting,” he told Shaw.

Dr. Brown graduated from Frankfort High School and received a bachelor’s degree from Kentucky State. He later graduated with a master’s in psychology from the University of Cincinnati, and a doctorate in ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where his dissertation was titled “Some New England African American Musicians’ Views on Jazz: An Ethnomusicological Study.”

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He began teaching at Northeastern in 1986 and became an associate professor of ethnomusicology, African-American history, and jazz studies before retiring to emeritus status in 2015. Joining Northeastern’s faculty provided “the opportunity to go in and integrate African-American and black studies into the standard curriculum,” he told Shaw.

“I feel like I was able to make some pretty significant contributions to who is going to get presented as important in our general education process and helped move the curriculum into a multicultural paradigm,” he added.

Previously, Dr. Brown’s career included directing a Head Start center in Cincinnati and directing a community health clinic in Boston.

While living in Cincinnati, he met Cheryl Render, who had grown up in the city and applied for a job at Head Start. They married in 1974 and had three children.

“He was a fabulous father, a wonderful role model, and was extremely involved in his kids’ lives,” his wife said.

Dr. Brown coached his children’s sports teams and visited their classes over the years, bringing along his saxophone to ensure that students could expand their musical horizons.

In addition to his wife, Dr. Brown leaves two sons, Omrao of Washington, D.C., and Sashi of Bethesda, Md.; a daughter, Samira of Atlanta; and three grandchildren.

Family and friends will gather to celebrate Dr. Brown’s life at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Fenway Center at Northeastern University.

During the more than four decades Dr. Brown helped plan and put on the annual John Coltrane Memorial Concert, integrity was “very important to us,” he told Shaw.

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“All of us aren’t trying to play exactly like Trane — or anybody else for that matter — you have to get your own sound,” Dr. Brown said. “However, we can still be true to the integrity and conviction that he brought, as well as the spirituality.”

The saxophonist’s influence was substantial. “Coltrane’s life and music have served as a rock for me in my career as a musician, scholar, educator — and in my personal life as a husband and father. There is a brilliant honesty and integrity in Coltrane’s sound,” Dr. Brown said in an interview posted on the massjazz.com website.

“Trane’s sound is full of inspiration, dedication, and clarity,” he added. “His attitude values continued diligent pursuance of knowledge that can be used for the good of all humanity.”


Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.