When Scott Brown, the award-winning director of bands at Seattle’s Roosevelt High School for 38 years, retires at the end of this school year, he’ll leave behind a stunning legacy.
Brown, who announced his retirement this month, led Roosevelt’s jazz groups to four first-place wins at the world-renowned Essentially Ellington Competition and Festival, presented in New York by Jazz at Lincoln Center. He has headed Roosevelt’s band programs since 1984 but is making “a clean break,” he said. Once he steps down, he will not continue as director of the jazz band.
“I’ve been a lucky man,” said Brown, 64. “I’ve worked hard, but I’ve also been incredibly lucky. I’ve only had one job in my career. That just doesn’t happen anymore.”
Brown’s announcement prompted an outpouring of praise.
“Scott Brown is a man of style, intellect and fire,” Wynton Marsalis, managing and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, said through a spokesperson. “His bands were always excellent and a reflection of his absolute dedication to American culture. He is a true jazz man with grace and sophistication to spare. I will miss his enthusiastic conducting on our Rose Hall stage.”
Ex-students joined the chorus.
“Scott Brown changed my life,” texted Grammy-winning vocalist Sara Gazarek (class of 2000), on tour in Europe when she heard the news. “I arrived at Roosevelt High School in 1996 without an ounce of information about the history, culture or musical stylings of this beautiful Black American art form … I carry him with me at every performance and recording.”
Drummer D’Vonne Lewis (class of ’02), who plays with Brown in the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra and leads the band Limited Edition, also acknowledged Brown’s influence.
“Everything I do is from him,” said Lewis. “Dynamics, precision, swing, blues feeling and basically to play from your heart and give it your all. Going to Roosevelt High School with Scott Brown was like being in college while we were in high school.”
Born in Seattle, Brown grew up after age 11 on Bainbridge Island, where he played trombone at Bainbridge High School and jammed at home in an impromptu family band. In 1984, a year after graduating from the University of Washington with a degree in music education, Brown started at Roosevelt, succeeding Waldo King, who started the first jazz programs in Seattle schools in the 1960s.
Though Brown is known best for big band jazz, former student Kelly Clingan (class of ’97) points out that he also led marching band, concert band and the pit orchestra for musicals and even taught piano lessons and vocal jazz.
“He’s a true educator,” said Clingan, who carries on Brown’s legacy as education director of the Seattle nonprofit JazzED. “I watched him help people switch from flute to trombone. He really got in there and did the dirty work.”
Brown also exposed his students to the world, leading bands on trips to Europe, where they performed at the Perugia and Montreux jazz festivals, among others, and to China and Mexico.
Brown has particularly fond memories of the band’s 1995 trip to Mazatlán, Seattle’s sister city in Mexico, where the band donated instruments to local musicians and shared the stage with them at the Teatro Angela Peralta.
“We really got cookin’,” he recalled. “That was very powerful.”
He is also immensely proud of the time Roosevelt brought the Count Basie band to the 5th Avenue Theatre in 1991 and the kids opened the show. A gigantic poster commemorating that concert still hangs in Roosevelt’s band room.
Brown’s accomplishments have not gone unrecognized. In 2007, he received KCTS’ Golden Apple Award, the state’s most coveted honor for teachers. DownBeat magazine, the “jazz bible,” named Brown Jazz Educator of the Year in 2004. Seattle’s Earshot Jazz and the Washington Music Educators Association have both inducted Brown into their halls of fame.
Observers chalk up Brown’s success to a combination of musical excellence, trust and high expectations of his students.
“He just operates as if they can and will deliver and there’s no reason they can’t,” said Nelson Jay, whose son Toby (class of ’19) played bass trombone in jazz band.
“He really trusts his students,” explained retired Roosevelt drama teacher Ruben Van Kempen. “I’ve subbed for his classes, and when it comes to jazz band, they walk in and they know exactly what they have to do when he’s gone. He’s created leaders.”
Modest by nature, Brown will, if asked, tell you that between 1999 and 2022 the Roosevelt High School Jazz Band made the finals of Essentially Ellington 22 out of 24 tries and placed in the top three 11 times, besting every other band in the country on both counts. But modesty doesn’t create numbers like that. When asked if he would have considered retiring before 2019, when Roosevelt won its fourth Essentially Ellington competition, matching Garfield High School’s record, Brown laughed.
“Probably not!” he admitted. “You think there’s a thread of competitiveness there?”
Brown’s agenda for retirement does not involve competitions. He plans to play more trombone and do woodworking in his home shop and a lot more sailing.
“Sara Gazarek just asked me to play with her at Jazz Alley in July,” he said. “One of my dreams is to be sailing in September instead of doing marching-band camp.”