Joyce Brown (1920 – 2015) – is regarded as both the first Black woman to conduct any Broadway show (in 1965) and to open a new show as conductor (1971). Her contribution was phenomenal: to music and music education; to building up Black community on Broadway; and to making opportunities for Black musicians at every stage of their career was phenomenal. Yet when she died in 2015, there was no obituary that recounted her achievements on the pages of a national newspaper. To date, she has no Wikipedia page, and Google turns up only a few articles that lay out her achievements.
This article builds on the little that is known about her by searching through digitised newspaper records of her work. It lays out Brown’s career alongside her own words, retraced from the many interviews she did during her career.
In May 1965, the New York Times reported with some surprise that ‘Joyce Brown Wields Baton in Absence of Regular Leader’ (reassuring its readers that the role of a conductor was a ‘man’s job’). Brown, then 45, was conducting the Broadway musical Golden Boy, which starred Sammy Davis Jr., at the Majestic Theatre on the conductor’s days off. The Times reported that she faced that audience’s surprise at the beginning of every performance that ‘a woman is up there leading proceedings’. Brown explained that she was accepted by the musicians, but ‘intermission, though always brings comments […] The people come up to me and say they have never seen a woman orchestra leader before and they want to know how I got started and everything else.’
Joyce Brown was born in 1920, possibly in New York. Her parents, James and Julia Brown came to the US from Montego Bay, Jamaica. She had a sister and three brothers, and her parents were deeply religious Episcopalians. Brown originally conducted the choir and played the organ for her church. At home, the family loved music, but jazz music was forbidden: ‘My parents were very strict. It was the devil’s music to them’.
Brown trained at Teachers’ College at Columbia, New York College of Music, New York University School of Education, and Julliard. She played piano, cello, viola, saxophone and trumpet, explaining: ‘I studied all the instruments in order to be able to orchestrate and compose.’ Whether she was able to enact her hopes of composing is unclear – much later in her Broadway career she poignantly told interviewer Nora Taylor that ‘There’s a deep well of composition in me and I am ready to do it. That is why I want to go to Europe’.
She began her professional career as a music teacher in junior high before beginning an eleven-year stint as resident MD, conductor, and pianist at the nightclub Latin Quarter. Some accounts suggest she played for industrial musicals and roadshows, but there’s little to confirm this.
She was certainly a rehearsal pianist for Saratoga (1959), a Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer musical. She was shortly after employed as production pianist on Bye Bye Birdie (1961) before becoming replacement conductor on its national tour. This led to her first Broadway conducting role with Golden Boy, in the meanwhile she played in the pit for several shows including All American (1962), Wildcat (1962) and Hot Spot (1963). She mentioned in an interview that she also conducted How Now Dow Jones (1967/8).
Intriguingly, though poorly credited in newspaper coverage, Brown seems to have had a role in Michael Butler’s transfer of Hair to Broadway in 1968: ‘I was called in to straighten out Hair, to put it on a more professional level. So many of the original flower people have never been on stage. They knew nothing about harmony or stage discipline.’
In 1970, Brown took the role of conductor on Purlie, an adaptation of Ossie Davis’ earlier 1961 play Purlie Victorious, composed by Gary Geld and Peter Udell. The production starred Cleavon Little, Novella Nelson and Melba Moore, but Brown was herself something of a star. She described her conducting as mentally embracing her whole orchestra in her arms, recalling an incident when her violinist was struggling and she embraced her:
‘I knew something was wrong but I didn’t need to know what. What I’m trying to say is that there is so much human feeling that’s ignored […] I learned a long time ago that in the position that I’ve chosen as conductor or ‘leader,’ or whatever, you’ve got to live it and try to understand, or else you don’t belong up there’ (Joyce Brown, 1973)
Brown’s band were a draw in themselves, after the show finished ‘the audiences have been sticking around to stomp and sway to the music of the pit band’. She explained what was happening by saying ‘With this show they don’t want to quit when the curtain comes down. They play on for the pure joy of it, that’s what gets to the audience. That old joy of the music!’
After the success of Purlie she wrote vocal arrangements and conducted Galt MacDermot’s Via Galactica (1972), though it only ran for seven performances. George Abbott saw her conducting the ill-fated rock musical, and hired her for his revival of Pajama Game (the original production was directed by Abbott and Jerome Robbins in 1954).
Brown was committed to music education – for example, running workshops at Urban Gateways summer musical program at Malcolm X City College in 1972, while on tour with Purlie. Building a community, and making space for Black musicians to move forward was deeply important to her. One interviewer noted ‘She has friends across the world who pick up the phone at any hour and call her to talk over problems, feelings, or just to assuage a spot of loneliness, “Being a mother hen makes you a human being”. This emphasis on Brown’s motherly affection to her band, which is extremely common in interviews about her and her practice, is revealing of contemporary racialised and racist concepts around Black women.
Tracing her career is somewhat more difficult after the mid-1970s. Brown worked with Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Theater, and in other advisor roles that seem not to have had official credits. She was part of the original workshop process for Raisin, as MD for the Arena Stage company, and vocal arranging material for the Broadway production.
‘I believe an orchestra should be fully integrated and I pick my musicians carefully. What do I look for? Well, they have to be good, of course, but I also feel they should be versatile enough to play all styles of music. And they shouldn’t have any hang ups that will disturb our sitting together for those two or 2½ hours each night. If you’re going to be a musician at all, especially a leader, you really involve yourself in everything musical. You should know every facet of the orchestra pit. My years of working in the pit, then being a leader, have really been an education for me.’ (Browne in O’Haire, 1973)
Joyce Brown’s Professional Credits
(This list is a work in progress)
- Golden Boy (opened in 1964, Brown joined in 1965) Assistant MD and replacement conductor
- A Time for Singing (1966) Assistant Conductor
- Darling of the Day (1968) Assistant Conductor
- Purlie (1970 and 1972 tour) Conductor
- Via Galactica (1972) Vocal Arrangements
- Raisin (1973) Vocal Arrangements
- The Pajama Game (1973) Musical Director
- Doctor Jazz (1975) Associate Musical Conductor
- The First (1981) Conductor and Vocal Arrangements
Off Broadway, Regional and Tours
- Bye Bye Birdie (1961) national tour – music director
- Kicks and Company (1962) Chicago – music director
- Ballad for a Firing Squad (1968) off-Broadway – music director
- Purlie (1971) Conductor for national tour
- Raisin (1973) Try Outs Music Director for Washington’s Arena Stage’s premiere; Vocal Arranger
- Gypsy (1974) National Tour Music Director
- Raisin (1973) Vocal Arrangements
- Alice (1978) conductor for Micki Grant’s adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, Forest Theatre Philadelphia starring Debbie Allen as Alice, dir. Vinnette Carroll
- Sophisticated Ladies (1981) although not officially credited, Donald McKayle’s biography notes her involvement on the musical staff
- Prime Time (1987) Music Director for the Amas Repertory Theater production (music Johnny Brandon, book/lyrics R.A. Shiomi).
Classical and Ballet
- 1974, Boston Philharmonia and the the Gary Burton Quartet (program included Michael Gibbs’ Seven Songs for Quartet and Orchestra, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 and Stravinsky’s Octet for Wind Instruments’
- 1976, Ailey Celebrates Ellington Music Director, Conductor
- 1981, Washington D.C. Youth Orchestra
- Latin Quarter, New York – Music director, conducting, pianist
- Dunes, Las Vegas – musical arrangements
- Thunderbird, Las Vegas – musical arrangements
Bunce, A “You’re the Conductor?” The Christian Science Monitor (1908-), Jun 17, 1970, p. 15. ProQuest.
Calloway, E., ‘Joyce Brown raps with Urban Gateways youth’. Chicago Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1960-1973), p. 10. July 10 1972, ISSN 25725297.
Calta, Louis, “‘Golden Boy’ Conductor Gives show’s Score Woman’s Touch: Joyce Brown, Pianist, Wields Baton in Absence of the Regular Leader.” New York Times (1923-), May 08 1965, p. 21.
Clay, C., ‘Show conductor Joyce Brown to make classical debut’. Boston Globe (1960-), Feb 1 1974.
Dreyfuss, Joel ‘Conductor Joyce Brown: Tapping a Musical Reservoir’. The Washington Post (1974-), Jun 17 1975, 2.
Handy, Antoinette D. Black Conductors 1930-2002. Metuchen, N.J. : Scarecrow Press, 1995.
“It’s Ms. Brown at the Baton in ‘Purlie’.” Michigan Chronicle (1939-2010), Jun 03, 1972, p. 1. ProQuest.
“Legitimate: Dearth of Black Conductors Puts ‘Purlie’ in Pickle.” Variety (Archive: 1905-2000), vol. 268, no. 5, Sep 13, 1972, p. 89. ProQuest.
O Haire, Patricia, ‘Joyce Brown Makes Pajama Game Jump’, Daily News (1920-2009), Dec 19, 1973, p.290. ProQuest.
Rose, Philip. You Can’t Do That on Broadway! Limelight Editions, 2001. [Internet Archive]
Taylor, Nora E. “Next, Composing: Joyce Brown Plays Unique Role as Conductor for Musical ‘Purlie’ Preparation Outlined Background Rehearsal Time.” The Christian Science Monitor, Jan 21, 1972, p.12.
Wahls, Robert. ‘Joyful Joyce’. Daily News (1920-2009), Mar 29, 1970, p.199. ProQuest.
Wilkerson, Lisa Nicole, ‘How Dr Joyce Brown Became a Pioneering Broadway Maestro’ ESPN, June 11 2017, https://www.espn.com/espnw/culture/feature/story/_/id/19602110/how-dr-joyce-brown-became-pioneering-broadway-maestro