Jane Harvey Brown might not be a household name on the New Orleans classic jazz scene but it should be—and could be. Brown has several big assets in her favor. She’s a talented singer whose serious vocal training and education result in every note ringing true to tone. Plus, she’s got sass. Brown, a Massachusetts native who moved to New Orleans in 1994, respects the tradition and knows that having a solid band behind her is essential. At her third French Quarter Festival appearance, the vocalist will front her hand-picked Traditional Jazz All-Stars that includes the legendary 86-year-old pianist Lawrence Cotton, her husband and drummer Kerry Brown, trombonist extraordinaire Freddie Lonzo, noted New Orleans trumpeter Will Smith, banjoist Patrick Mackey and bassist Pete Roze.
“I’m fortunate to play with people like Lawrence Cotton, so it was really Lawrence’s name that got me that [French Quarter Festival] job originally,” Brown says. “It was because of Lawrence, and really Kerry and Lawrence together. And then we did a good job so they asked me back and then they asked me to do the Satchmo Festival too.”
While studying voice in Vermont’s Bennington College, Brown presented one-woman shows on the music and lives of such icons as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters and Billie Holiday. These days, she continues in a similar fashion by focusing on female artists and drawing from the works of New Orleans greats, including vocalists Blue Lu Barker, Sweet Emma Barrett and Lizzie Miles.
Many people might also recognize Brown as performing grand marshal duties for the Storyville Stompers and the Panorama Brass Band. (Panorama leader and former Bennington College student clarinetist Ben Schenck urged Brown to move here.) On those occasions, she switches from her signature fringed, 1920s style flapper dress to the classic black and whites.
“It’s an important role,” says Brown, who took her cues from the likes of Grand Marshal Fats Houston.
“You have to have regard for people who have come before you. You’re there to present the band and to give the people the sense that there’s something great coming.”
Brown, who also sings in the choir and as a soloist at Second Baptist Church, brings the same respect in her approach to performing New Orleans traditional jazz.
“You don’t get up there the first time and sing a song the way you think it’s supposed to be sung.”