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In the land of the giants
Mel Brown is a franchise player
by Mark Anderson

ortland has long suffered at the hands of the City of Angels. For starters, Oregonians resent Los Angeles for sending its free-spending expatriates to drive up real estate prices and clog the freeways.

Then there's pro basketball. No city seems to have an answer for L.A.'s two-time defending champion Lakers and Shaquille O'Neal, whose strength, substance and size-22 sneakers make him an unparalleled protagonist – a giant even in the land of the giants.

Franchise player: Mel Brown can carry a team.

But if, as some say, jazz is basketball set to music, then Portland may already have the answer: Mel Brown is a franchise player.

This notion may not be as absurd as it sounds. Brown, with two decades as Motown staff drummer among his credits and Diana Ross and the Temptations among his road trips, is still at the peak of his game. And a drummer's equivalent of the onsetting sluggishness of a 40-year-old basketball body is probably a lot closer to 70 or 75.

All this jazz-meets-basketball talk was made necessary by Brown's March 7 appearance behind the drums for a National Kidney Foundation fund-raiser at Portland's highbrow hall, the Schnitzer.

The show, dubbed "Swingin' with the Schonz," was organized by would-be crooner and longtime play-by-play announcer Bill Schonely, whom the local NBA team recently put out to pasture.

As opening act, Portland's 15-piece George Reinmiller Big Band boasted Brown along with a lineup of local first-stringers, and they provided top-flight Count Basie-style renditions of hits and off-the-beaten-path nuggets, mostly from the 1940s and '50s.

The visiting team – the headliner – belonged to Steve March Tormé, 40-something son of the late Mel Tormé. The father, best known as the scat-singing "Velvet Fog," was also the chestnuts-on-a-roasted-fire co-writer of "The Christmas Song."

The kid, a remarkably mediocre singer, apparently spends down dad's trust fund to employ an unobjectionable quartet and tour the world. It was shortly after intermission and just before launching into a stiff set of yawners that the kid issued his thinly veiled putdown:

"I'm glad to see your basketball team doing so well," he grinned. "But I'm from L.A., so we'll see you in the playoffs ... maybe."

Playing at home: Mel Brown and friends regularly appear at Jimmy Maks in Portland; click image for CD info.

Brown had just spent the show's opening half playing his drums like some Olympic event – skiing and skating with gymnastics, track and marathon mixed in – an unwavering lesson in economy with another trick always up his sleeve; loud as a roar one minute, an impossibly beatific whisper the next.

He was handed the spotlight for "Drum Boogie," a 1940s Gene Krupa hit, but Brown mostly worked the background – imagine Pippen and Rasheed as one – endless energy, assists, rebounds, defense and a ready smile, yet clearly able to rack up a 50-point performance had the situation required.

Stalwart bassist Tom Wakeling, Stan Bock on trombone and vocalist Shirley Nanette were among the first half's leading scorers, while other players checked capably in and out of the lineup. Reinmiller's band played the home-court advantage like confident, spirited professionals – well worth keeping an eye out for in the local listings, with Brown or without.

Clearly and in retrospect, the show was over by halftime. And ultimately, the younger Tormé's saving grace was in not taking himself too seriously while digesting the humble pie.

The Tormé place: Mel with kid and dog in the '50s.

"For those of you familiar with my CDs," he said on the way to another breezy show-biz yarn, "... and I'm sure that's none of you ..."

The crowd's chortle acknowledged what amounted to a brick of a free-throw attempt: momentarily amusing, slightly embarrassing, but little lasting effect.

"I've been singing jazz since ..." he began gamely a little while later and with a quick glance at his wristwatch, "... well, not for very long ..."

Then the kid tried to sneak a fast one by.

"It's a pleasure to be here," he said, "but, man, that first band is hard to top."

And you could almost hear every Portlander in the place, sitting politely but thinking: Not even in your wildest dreams, kid. Tonight you’re in Portland.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and visit prior editions of tripewriter.

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