Dr. Kevin Brown, Columbia Public Schools’ new assistant superintendent, never goes anywhere without his saxophone. He plays both tenor and soprano sax, and he started when he was 23, fresh out of grad school and teaching at Southern University of Baton Rouge.
“I was teaching kids at the university basically my same age,” Brown says. “I went to a pawn shop, and I just wanted to look around, and I saw some instruments, and I had a master’s degree and everything, and I decided not to teach summer school — I wanted to learn how to play the saxophone.”
He started out teaching himself, squeaking out the notes to “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” He baffled his parents by playing “Jingle Bells” repetitively in July.
Eventually, he got a private teacher, and once he got good enough, he studied at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, in Milwaukee, under instructor Berkley Fudge, a famed Wisconsin saxophonist.
Brown taught in the daytime and played in the nighttime.
“To be honest, I’m glad it happened late in life for me because most people put their instruments down, but I had gotten my education out of the way, so I wasn’t depending on the instrument to make money,” Brown said. “You know, I had a teaching job, but I surrounded myself with other people who knew far more than I did, so I was able to gather stuff from them and practice for hours and hours, and I did, and I’ve been playing ever since.”
Brown thinks learning music can be an important part of education, and he appreciates the emotional side of learning music.
“Being a jazz musician, or an improviser, has sometimes helped me on the job in dealing with things that I’ve never dealt with before,” he says. “But on the other side of that, it’s a great outlet. It allows for relaxation.
Brown has taught psychology, sociology, government, and history at collegiate and secondary levels, and this is his first year as assistant superintendent for secondary schools. In his role, he will ensure that middle and high schools align to the CPS vision for student success.
“This includes making sure that your principals are savvy and that they are strong, instructional leaders with the capacity to lead their faculty and staff, and ensuring that the teachers are doing what is best for all students every 50 minutes throughout the day,” Brown says. He specifically would like to focus on equity and achievement gap concerns.
For Brown, education and music are both passions. Every once in a while, he wonders what his life would be like if he had pursued music professionally.
“Every time I hear Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, every time I hear the great jazz people that no longer live – and still live, such as Wynton Marsalis and Nicholas Payton – I have strong desires and wishes to play at that capacity.”
But you can only professionally pick one, Brown says; “You can’t straddle the fence.”
After playing with two bands in the past in Wisconsin, Brown is looking forward to meeting musicians in Columbia. He has played at Murry’s before. Brown was out to dinner at the restaurant while interviewing for his position in Columbia, and he asked if he could sit in with the band.
“They said, ‘You have your instrument with you?’” Brown remembers.
Luckily, he had it in his car.