Jewel Brown remembers Jack Ruby only as her boss, and that’s all she’ll say about that.
She also remembers Louis Armstrong, who introduced her to the world. He, too, was a good boss and then some.
“He was the most fantastic person I’ve worked with my entire life,” Brown says. “It was just a gift from heaven to be able to work with him.”
Brown sang eight years with Armstrong’s All Star Band, returning home to Houston to care for her ill mother. Houston is still home for Brown, who’ll perform in LSU’s Hot Summer Nights, Cool Jazz season finale Friday, June 24. She’ll be joined on stage by the series’ quartet, pianist Willis Delony, bassist Bill Grimes, trumpeter Brian Shaw and drummer Troy Davis. Delony, Grimes and Shaw also are faculty members in the LSU School of Music.
The concert is titled “An Evening with Jewel Brown,” dedicated to the singer’s career, which began with her first professional gig at age 12 in the Manhattan Club in Galveston, Texas. Lionel Hampton would offer her a chance to tour Europe with his band before she graduated high school, and she’d later spend a year-and a-half headlining in Ruby’s Dallas nightclub.
Yes, he was that Jack Ruby seen firing the gun at a grimacing Lee Harvey Oswald in the 1963 photograph. Brown already was touring with Armstrong when that happened.
“I don’t have anything to brag about,” she says. “I worked for him seven days a week, and he paid me.”
It was the only work Brown had known since winning her first talent contest at age 9 at the Masonic Temple in Houston’s Fourth Ward. She won the contest nine weeks in a row and put the money away for a new house for her parents, which she bought for them at age 15.
“My parents lived here until they died, and I’m still here,” she says. “It’s been 62 years that we’ve been in this house.”
It was also when the money started rolling in that the leader of her choir at Rosehill Baptist Church told Brown she had to make a choice between gospel and secular.
“I chose the one that paid,” Brown says.
And it paid well. Hampton’s offer came to her after she sang with him at a local venue at age 13. But Brown was too young to hop a plane to Europe, so she kept plugging away at the local places.
Brown was one of six children, and her older sister was married and living in California by the time the singer hit 20. On a visit, Brown jammed with her sister’s saxophonist husband, and his best friend, pianist Louis Rivera.
Rivera insisted they go to the Club Pigalle, where he was working with blues musician Earl Grant. Introductions were made, Brown sang and continued singing there with Grant for the next year.
Then it was on to Dallas, followed by offers from Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.
Brown carefully considered both. They were legends, so how could she go wrong with either? Well, she could.
“There were 17 members in Duke’s band, and I would have been only the seventh member in Pop’s,” Brown says. “I knew I would have more stage time with Pops, so I went with him.”
The year was 1961. She was still going strong with Armstrong’s band in 1968, when her dad called. Mom had suffered a stroke, and Armstrong told her to go. That’s when she realized Dad couldn’t take care of Mom by himself, and she left Armstrong’s band.
“I was thankful to my parents for all that they’d done for me,” Brown says. “I owed them more, and after my mother died, my father told me I should go back to work, but I didn’t. I knew he needed help, too.”
So Brown stepped away from the music business and teamed up with her brother in running a barber shop. She sold insurance and worked as a tailor, having been trained by a designer who worked with legendary costume designer Edith Head.
When the time was right, she began singing again in the local clubs.
“I did what I had to do,” she says. “I loved my father, and I wasn’t going to leave him alone.”
Brown also married along the way, had children and divorced.
Last year, at 77, she revived her career at an age most people are well into retirement.
Brown suffers from scoliosis and osteoporosis, and she has only partial sight in her right eye after surgery to remove a large tumor from her brain a decade ago, but she isn’t complaining. Brown goes where she’s in demand, including New Orleans’ Jazz and Heritage Festival and Satchmo Fest and records for Dynaflow Records in Austin.