When the jazz genius Oscar Brown Jr. died in Chicago last May, at age 78, he was broke, underemployed and nearly forgotten.
The man who penned the lyrics to such classic tunes as "Work Song" and "Afro Blue," the creator of groundbreaking urban musicals such as "Kicks & Co." and "The Great Nitty Gritty" had been scraping by for years — decades, really.
Though his songs and larger works became anthems for the civil rights era, though jazz musicians around the world riffed on Brown masterpieces such as "Dat Dere" and "Hazel's Hips," money and fame commensurate with his enormous talent always eluded him.
But an unflinching new documentary, "Music Is My Life, Politics My Mistress: The Story of Oscar Brown Jr.," sets the record straight, eloquently summing up Brown's enormous achievements while capturing the man's wizardry as performer, songwriter and undaunted social activist.
"I've always thought of Oscar as one of those people who is a grand contributor to the music but is never really recognized because of the content of what he does," writer Amiri Baraka says early in the film, pinpointing one of the primary reasons behind Brown's struggles.
For Brown spoke his mind — in poetry and song and conversation — decrying the blatant racism of the Chicago he grew up in, bemoaning a nation that throughout its history regarded blacks as unequal.
"I always wondered as a kid how would it be to [live] in a country where you really could love the country, and feel that the country was your country," he says in the film, which overflows with illuminating footage of the man in conversation and in performance.
"Because I always had this feeling that I was in a hostile situation here."
Brown transformed his rage into some of the most searing song lyrics and soaring melody lines ever penned in the jazz tradition. The slave trader callously peddling human flesh in "Bid 'Em In," the street vendor hawking "Rags and Old Iron" and the griot spinning the ancient tale of the "Signifyin' Monkey" all revealed the meaning of race in America, and all set to a swing beat and a deep blues undertow.
Exquisitely edited, "Music Is My Life" links key moments in Brown's biography with corresponding passages in his work, showing how inseparable the two were. Only a man incensed at the tragedies visited on generations of African Americans could have railed so passionately in "Forty Acres and a Mule," only an artist who embraced his community would have been able to enlist members of the Blackstone Rangers to perform his inner-city musical "Opportunity Please Knock" in the mid-1960s.
To the credit of director Donnie L. Betts, it's all there in the film: the artistic triumphs and the colossal commercial defeats, the stylistic innovations and the feuds with other musicians, the generosity of spirit and the inevitable personal shortcomings.
If some moments of this film inevitably produce tears, others inspire optimism, for it's impossible not to be elevated by the rhythms of Brown's music and the sight and sound of him performing it.
'Music Is My Life, Politics My Mistress: The Story of Oscar Brown Jr.'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Directed by Donnie L. Betts. Once daily through Wednesday at Landmark's Westside Pavilion Cinemas. Check listings for showtimes.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun