Bill Brown knows that the highs and lows of life both professionally and personally can make you a stronger person. Those experiences have made Brown a renowned operatic tenor who has performed throughout the United States and around the world. He has brought those experiences to UNF as a charter faculty member instilling in his students the need to be both disciplined and dedicated. It is a combination which has served him well in his stellar career.
Few probably would have guessed what kind of musical career Brown would achieve when as a 5 year old, he "performed" on a box reciting bible verses. His family was intensely religious and in Jackson, Miss. the church dominated life, especially in the African American community. "They put me on a box and I spouted bible verses," he recalls. "My nickname was 'preacher' and that was my first taste of the stage."
Brown attended a private school in Jackson and was introduced to music. However, he pursued his love of music outside the classroom. He lived across the street from a man who had a radio show and his own band . Brown wanted to play in the band and his parents didn't have enough money so he took odd jobs and earned enough money to buy his first instrument. By the following year at age 14, he was in the band playing a trumpet and going on road trips on weekends. "My grandfather was dead set against me playing in the band. He said 'no grandson of mine will ever play the devil's music.' "
Fortunately for Brown, his grandmother convinced his grandfather to soften his opposition and thus started a musical career which was combined with academic training over the years. He entered Jackson State University with a solid reputation as a jazz musician when he says he was forced to perform a voice audition. "I decided to be ridiculous by imitating an opera singer and sang God Bless America. Before I knew it, I was told I would major in voice." That decision did not sit well with Brown who saw his future in the horn. "Why did I need to major in voice? I was already established as a professional trumpet player." However, one teacher persisted in pushing him into voice and by his junior year he decided he would be an opera singer. "When I told my classmates that I wanted to be an opera singer, they all cracked up. There were no black opera singers at that time. They laughed at me, but I was serious." After teaching for a short time at Utica Junior College in Utica, Miss., Brown auditioned at Indiana University and succeeded in winning a fellowship in 1960 to complete his master's degree.
Two years at Indiana led to an appointment with the Navy Band in 1962 in Washington, D.C. It was one of those experiences which marked a high point and low point in his career. Although he was the first black ever appointed to the Navy Band, it was also Brown's first encounter with racism. "It (racism) really affected me. I became very negative and it hurt my work," he says.
Finally, Brown says he realized that his attitude was counterproductive. "I realized that the only person I was hurting was myself." The turnaround in his work was noticed by the president of the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore who offered Brown an associate teaching position.
In 1966, Brown left the Navy and started doctoral work at Peabody where he also did some teaching. That was followed by a fellowship to Tanglewood, the most prestigious summer festival in the country in 1968.
Brown's career blossomed after his ABC network television premier of John LaMontaine's Christmas opera "The Shepherdes Playe" in which he had the starring role. He began performing more than 40 weeks a year around the country. It was during one six-city Florida tour that he stopped in Jacksonville as part of the FCCJ Artist Series. "I hated Jacksonville. There was a terrible stench here. If someone had told me that I would ever return to Jacksonville I would have told them they were crazy."
But Gerson Yessin and UNF President Thomas Carpenter heard Brown's FCCJ performance and met with him later to talk about a new university they were building which needed musical faculty. "I initially turned them down, but Gerson was persistent and told me this university would be different and would understand the artistic temperament."
Brown decided to take the chance and has never regretted the decision. His career has continued to flourish while at UNF. When he looks back over the years he singles out his first appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1982 as the highlight of his career. "I had made a pact with myself that I would never enter Carnegie Hall until I played there." It also was another high and low in his life. Three days before the concert his father had died and the family withheld the news from him. The day after the concert he awoke to rave reviews in the New York Times and news of his father's death.
Brown's discipline and dedication got him through the experience. And now at 59, he remains just as disciplined, doing 100 situps, and 100 pushups while jogging three miles, seven days a week. He remains just as dedicated telling his students, "Music is the only profession I know which has the same intensity of preparation as a doctor or a lawyer yet there are no guarantees of a job when you finish your preparation. One doesn't pursue a career in music solely based on making money. One has to be addicted and incredibly dedicated."