Sunday, September 11, 2011

R.I.P.: Pearl Thuston Brown

Tribute: Pearl Thuston Brown Was a Sophisticated Lady of Jazz
by Joe Lambe - Kansas City Star
Sept. 10, 2011

Who: Pearl Thuston Brown, 84, of Independence.

When and how she died: Aug. 28, after suffering flu symptoms.

A stateswoman of jazz: Brown was a professional musician since 1951, a singer and piano player at Kansas City nightclubs who toured with Lionel Hampton's band and entertained troops during the Vietnam War.

The woman who had worked with Count Basie and Billie Holiday still performed at the Blue Room's jam sessions until shortly before her death.

In a Kansas City Star interview two years ago, Brown said of her retirement, "I may be walking all bent over, but I'll still be playing."

Pam Hider-Johnson, a program director with the Elder Statesmen of Kansas City Jazz, said Brown, its last surviving woman member, embodied elegance.

"If (Duke) Ellington thought of 'Sophisticated Lady,' that was her," she said. "She wore evening gloves."

Friends said she was also a consummate entertainer who cracked jokes and could be a bit bawdy. Jayne McShann, daughter of the late jazz artist Jay McShann, said: "Pearl was funny, she was down to earth and she spoke her mind."

Her "family": Bishop L.F. Thuston, 54, of the Church of God in Christ in Kansas City, was her nephew -- one of 38 nieces and nephews.

Brown, who never had children, treated nieces and nephews like they were hers, he said. She would play with jazz greats, return with presents for all and chat with them about Ellington, Holiday and many others.

"We felt like we knew them through her," Thuston said. She married childhood sweetheart Rudy Brown many years ago, divorced him and for a time was married to the brother of soul singer Sam Cooke. After they divorced, she remarried Brown, a Kansas City, Kan., firefighter, in 1984. They remained together until he died about six years ago.

She also outlived her parents, two brothers and a sister and could relate family history going back to slave cabins and the Choctaw Indians -- often mixing music and folk tales.

"She was last of that generation," her nephew said. "She reigned as queen of the whole tribe."

Varied resume: She survived racism and sexism, two plane crashes and the dangers posed by rowdy audiences, Thuston said, and she saw her protection and survival as the work of God.

She composed jazz and gospel music and loved Kansas City more than any of the great cities she had toured, he said. She also was a fine seamstress, a beautician and a gourmet cook who always stayed busy.

Brown said in her newspaper interview that she always worked hard -- playing Kansas City clubs in her 20s -- "two or three jobs sometimes in one night."

Although she toured as a singer with Hampton's band, over the decades she mainly was a solo artist at venues on the County Club Plaza and downtown.

A critic praised her respect for melody and her style of elaborate cascades of piano notes. That was when she put out her first CD at age 81.

Last year, she received a lifetime achievement award from the American Jazz Museum, which also has exhibited some of the elaborate gowns she made for her performances.

She had played music since she was a child in Kansas City, Kan., and lived there until she moved to Independence about a year ago, said her friend Betty Crow.

"She was everyplace, playing and singing, out to the clubs," Crow said. "She had been in the jazz world when jazz was jazz and she was still going strong."

And doing it with style, McShann said. "She always had a hat on, she had pearls on, jewelry, scarves -- she was a classy woman."

Survivors include: 38 nieces and nephews and untold friends.

Last words: "She took her music seriously," McShann said, "and she was eloquent, statuesque -- I can just see her now."

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