Oscar Brown Jr.

As a performer, he acted his songs more than he sang them; as a songwriter, hedrew as much from gospel, the blues and folk music as he did from jazz. He preferred to call himself an entertainer, although even that broad term didnotgo far enough: he saw his art as a way to celebrate African-American life andattack racism, and it was not always easy to tell where the entertainer ended and the activist began.

His song “Brown Baby,” recorded by Mahalia Jackson and others, was both a lullaby for his infant son and an anthem of racial pride. Other songs, like “Signifying Monkey” and “The Snake,” took their story lines from black folklore. The album, “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite,” for which Mr. Brown wrote lyrics to the drummer Max Roach's music, was one of the first jazz works to address the civil rights movement. His commitment to art as a tool for social change was most evident in the numerous stage shows he wrote and directed in his hometown Chicago.

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