Donald Ray Brown was born on March 28, 1954 in Desoto, Mississippi. At the age of two, Brown and his family moved to Memphis, Tennessee. Donald came from a musical family, which instilled a love of music in the young boy. His first foray into music included early stints on the drums, baritone horn and tuba. In the ninth grade, he began to play the trumpet and showed a great deal of talent on the instrument, winning several awards for his abilities.
Brown’s first musical mentors were his cousin Lloyd “Stan” Anderson, a gospel pianist and his sister Waddia, who was a gifted singer and pianist. Upon graduating from high school, Donald enrolled at Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis) on a trumpet scholarship, but he quickly switched to the piano. While attending college, he was persuaded to study jazz by his friend and classmate pianist James Williams.
At Memphis State, Brown gained considerable performance experience as a member of the Memphis Three, a trio of outstanding pianists who passed through the university in the 1970s including Williams and Mulgrew Miller. During this time, Donald began to build his résumé by doing studio work for Stax Records owner, Jim Stewart and Hi Records owner, Willie Mitchell.
Brown used his time in college to sharpen his composing and arranging talents by writing for the university jazz band. Upon finishing his studies in 1975, Donald performed locally before replacing Williams in drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the summer of 1981. The band at the time included trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, tenor saxophonist Billy Pierce and bassist Charles Fambrough.