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Center Acquires the Bruce Vermazen Papers and Research Files on Tom Brown

Theresa Valerio, ca. 1912 (top left), Tom Brown, ca. 1920 (top right), Tom and Percy Brown, ca. 1904-1905 (middle), and Six Brown Brothers [Tom, Fred, Billy Markwith, Alec, Harry, Fink, and Vern], ca. 1912 (bottom).

The Sousa Archives acquired the Bruce Vermazen Papers, Research Files and Music Instruments on Tom Brown in June 2020, and completed the arrangement and description of this extraordinary body of materials in December.  The collection includes Tom Brown’s correspondence, performance contracts and business records, scrapbooks, audio recordings, music, programs,  and music instruments documenting the musical contributions of Tom Brown and his five brothers during the first decades of the twentieth century.  The collection also includes Bruce Vermazen’s exhaustive research notes, personal correspondence, and the publishing information for his book, That Moaning Saxophone, which documents the musical and personal lives of the Brown brothers.

Tom Brown (1881-1950) is best known as the leader of the saxophone sextet originally known as the Five Brown Brothers and later referred to as the Six Brown Brothers. The other Brown brothers that were a part of the sextet included William, Tom, Alec, Percy, Fred, and Vern. The music ensemble also included Billy Markwith, Harry Fink, and Matthew Amaturo.  The Six Brown Brothers were a vaudeville and musical comedy act formed in 1908 in Canada. The group started performing at circuses, then moved on to performance in minstrel and vaudeville shows before eventually becoming a Broadway sensation.  The music ensemble often wore clown costumes and  makeup, and Tom, as the leader of the group, served as the group’s blackface comedian and soloist.

In 1911, the Six Brown Brothers recorded numerous pieces arranged for saxophone sextet for the United States and Columbia Phonograph Company.  From 1912-1914, the group traveled with Primrose and Dockstader’s Minstrels, and between 1914 and 1923 they were featured in the Broadway shows Chin Chin (1914-1917), Jack o Lantern (1917-1920), Midnight Frolic (1918-1919), Tip Top (1920-1923), and The Bunch and Judy (1923).  Tom Brown met his future wife, Theresa Valerio, during his performance in Chin Chin. After completing their Broadway run, the group made a failed road-tour between 1923-1924 that was marketed as the Black and White Revue of 1924.  Later in 1924 the music ensemble returned to performing the vaudeville circuit  in Canada, the United States, and Australia. The group eventually disbanded in 1933, but Tom Brown continued to perform as a soloist in Canada between 1939-1944.  Tom eventually returned to Chicago to live out the remainder of his life.  During the last years of his life he operated the Tom Brown Music Company and continued to perform with local Chicago bands.

In Vermazen’s book That Moaning Saxophone: The Six Brown Brothers and the Dawning of a Musical Craze, he argues that the six Brown brothers were one of the prominent music ensembles to popularization the use of the newly invented saxophone for America’s popular music during the 1910s.  A 1912 Chicago review of the ensemble describes their music performance as a cross between Broadway comedy and endless toe-tapping ragtime.

The Browns are in town — six of ’em — occupying the strategic position on the Majestic bill…Their number took on its real color when the Brown family became the Saxaphone (sic) family.  To begin with, the saxaphone (sic) is, unaided, a humorist.  It looks like a sea horse and sounds like a canned fiddle.  One, alone, gnaws at a funny bone, but six, ranging from a little one, with the voice of a deflating rubber bladder, to a paternal one that croaks like a musical bullfrog, are too much for any audience.  The Browns raked the house with saxaphone (sic) ragtime, popular ballads, and tunes from the musical comedies of the hour. They had unnumbered encores.  They bowed and bowed and then played again.  It was a great afternoon for Anglo-Saxaphonophobes.

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