Dayton Daily News ad for Weather Report's Nov. 2 performance.
Okay, I’m a day late with this, but we need to commemorate Ishmael Wilburn’s first gig with Weather Report! It took place on Nov. 2, 1973, at the Palace Theatre in Dayton, Ohio, a 1920s-era movie palace that saw its share of live music going back to the heydays of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Count Basie.
The advertisements for the show listed Eric Gravatt as the drummer, even though Gravatt had left the band in June. Taking his place was Greg Errico, whose first gig I wrote about here. By October, Errico was preparing to leave the band, so Joe and Wayne began looking for a replacement.
Ishmael, who was born and raised in Philadelphia, was then in a local band that featured original material in a funky-jazz vibe with a female vocalist. Weather Report came to town on October 14. This was the night Joe and Wayne heard Alphonso Johnson play bass with Chuck Mangione, leading to Alphonso joining Weather Report. It was also the night that Wilburn got on Joe and Wayne’s radar.
“We had a guy who sort of managed our group, and I think he was somehow connected to Wayne Shorter,” Ishmael recalled. “He went down to the show to see them—I didn’t go to the show—and he let them hear a demo tape of some originals we were working on, and they liked the drumming. Joe liked my foot. That’s what I remember the guy saying when he came back. He said, ‘Hey man, those guys want to talk to you. They want you to do an album with them. Joe really likes your foot.’ I said, ‘Wow, my foot!'” [laughs]
I asked Ishmael what Joe meant by his “foot.” “My kick drum,” he explained. “How I play my kick drum. Where I drop and how I played my kick drum. He really liked the feel of how I played.” Going back to the recording of Sweetnighter, Joe was keen on finding a drummer with a powerful bass drum sound. Ishmael fit the bill.
Ishmael Wilburn in 1973-74. Photo courtesy Ishmael Wilburn.
I have to imagine that getting an offer to play with Weather Report, let alone record an album with them, was probably the last thing on Wilburn’s mind at the time. He was twenty years old and his experience was mainly limited to local groups. “I had done some things with local bands in Jersey, New York—small club stuff, maybe a big venue where we weren’t the main draw—you know, a doo-wop group or something like that. I had backed up a lot of doo-wop groups up to that point. That was the thing in Philly.”
Nor was Wilburn all that familiar with Weather Report’s music. “I had never really heard of Weather Report. [laughs] I was more into Cold Blood, Earth, Wind & Fire, Rare Earth, Chicago—that kind of stuff. I was coming from a gospel background.” Nevertheless, when the offer came, Ish was willing to give it a try.
Joe and Wayne wasted little time getting Wilburn to a gig. Ten days after they were in Philadelphia, Weather Report had a show in Washington, D.C., and they invited Wilburn to come down. “Somehow or another I was supposed to go meet them,” Wilburn told me. “They paid for me to go to D.C.; they were supposed to play at Constitution Hall. I took the Amtrak down and I think I was going to sit in or do something at soundcheck so they could get a feel for me. But something happened. They didn’t get into town and I was delayed, and it was getting late. I think the show was pushed back or something. Anyway, I didn’t meet them. So I came back to Philly and started doing my daily thing.
“And then I got a call from their manager, and he said, ‘Listen, they want you to play a gig with them.’ I said, ‘What? I have never even played with them. I have never met them. You’ve got to be kidding me.’ So I said okay.” Wilburn caught a plane to Dayton—he had never been on an airplane before—where he met the band for the first time. After checking into the hotel, he went to the Palace Theatre for soundcheck.
“I was actually playing on Greg Errico’s drums. He had these Ludwig clear acrylic drums—huge drums—and I’m not very good at playing other people’s drums. I hate that. I don’t like going and sitting in. But anyway, we did a soundcheck for about forty minutes, and I was nervous as hell.
“Then we did the concert. I had never played a room that size. Scared as hell. That was really something. It was a standing ovation. I really hadn’t understood how big they were in the jazz market. And afterwards Joe told me how great it was. Joe Zawinul was a character. Oh my God, man! He took a tape off the soundboard and gave me a cassette of it and said, ‘This is you. Listen to this. This is you!’ I didn’t even recognize me playing the drums with them. I said, ‘No, this is not me.’ He said, ‘Yeah, that’s you!'”
As I wrote in my book, so began a whirlwind that found Ishmael playing with one of the leading jazz bands of the day. A month later he was at Devonshire Sound Studio recording Weather Report’s fourth album, Mysterious Traveller. There’s no question that Wilburn’s playing was instrumental in creating the unique sound of that album, one of Weather Report’s best.
“Great memories for me out there,” Ishmael said of his time in Los Angeles. “We were out there recording, and I was staying in this little hotel bungalow. I had my own room. Dom Um [Romão] was like a mentor to me. I remember him cooking me lentil soup, stuff like that. I drove around L.A. a little bit, but I was twenty years years old. I got home sick. They flew me home for Christmas. It was weird being in L.A. with Christmas trees and Santa in shorts. I just couldn’t handle that.” [laughs]
There’s lots more about Ishmael’s experience with Weather Report and the recording of Mysterious Traveller in my book Elegant People: A History of the Band Weather Report. When I interviewed Ish for the book, I told him that Mysterious Traveller was one of my favorite albums, and that it must be gratifying to know that people are still listening to it decades later.
“It is,” he replied. “That’s my claim to fame. Every musician wants to be associated with an album like that.”
Today, November 24, is the fourth anniversary of Darryl Brown’s death. He was 64 years old. In the pantheon of Weather Report drummers, Brown is not well known despite being the band’s full-time drummer from July 1974 to the end of that year. Actually, Brown isn’t well-known as a drummer at all, even though he toured with the likes of Weather Report, Stanley Clarke, Natalie Cole, and Grover Washington, Jr.
If you do a Google search you won’t turn up any articles or interviews about his musical career. The primary reason for this is that Brown left professional music behind in his late twenties to pursue his education, eventually obtaining a medical degree from Drexel University College of Medicine. He subsequently practiced medicine until his death, with music relegated to a hobby.
When I was doing interviews for my book Elegant People: A History of the Band Weather Report, I knew that Darryl was someone I wanted to talk to, but his lack of internet presence and his retirement from music made it difficult to track him down. However, I also knew that he had become a medical doctor and some sleuthing led me to a Darryl R. Brown, M.D., in Casa Grande, Arizona. On a hunch, I called his medical office and sure enough Dr. Brown was also a drummer who once played with Weather Report.
I think I was the first person to explore Brown’s Weather Report days in depth. Darryl was an intelligent, articulate man whose recollections greatly enriched my book. Five years later, I tried to get back in touch with him and found out that he had passed away. Such a gentleman. I was—and am—sad that he is no longer with us. Since little has been published about Darryl’s background and musical career, I want to use this post to fill in some of those details, most of which did not make it into my book.
Darryl was born and raised in Germantown, a neighborhood in Northwest Philadelphia with a rich cultural history. A number of musicians come from Germantown, including Weather Report’s second drummer, Eric Gravatt. Brown was a childhood friend of Stanley Clarke’s and there’s a photo at Clarke’s website of the two as teenagers with saxophonist Byard Lancaster, another Germantown resident who was ten years their senior. Here is what Darryl told me about his childhood and early professional career:
I started playing the drums when I was about seven, and I had a very diverse musical experience. On the one hand, I had a teacher by the name of Harry “Skeets” Marsh who used to play with Count Basie and Duke Ellington. At another time I studied with a guy named Jake Hoffman, who was with the Philadelphia Orchestra. So because of that, I was exposed to a wide variety of music. Of course, in school I played in the band—the concert band, the orchestra, etc.—and in my house my mother played the organ and piano, and also played violin and sang in church.
I grew up in a part of Philadelphia called Germantown, and there were a lot of talented people living in Germantown. My mother and dad met the great organist Jimmy Smith at a car repair place and got to be friends with him. He used to come over to our house and he would bring his latest recording on a reel-to-reel tape, with Wes Montgomery and Grady Tate. He would get on the organ and he’d sit me down at the drums. He got me started in jazz and basically showed me how to play. And actually, when I was thirteen I was featured in a concert with him out in New Jersey.
Larry Young—you probably remember him from John McLaughlin and Tony Williams—came to the house a few times to jam. And there was a local saxophonist, Byard Lancaster, who had gone to Juilliard and at one point played with McCoy Tyner. He encouraged me to get better and to play and explore all avenues of music.
There was a club in downtown Philadelphia called the Showboat. They had matinees in the afternoon. My mother and father got to know the owner there, and he allowed me to come into the matinees. And there I had an audition with Mongo Santamaría. I once sat in with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. As a matter of fact, he gave me a little cymbal that day, which was really cool. And there was a bagpipe player you may have heard of named Rufus Harley; he played there and let me sit in.
When I was fourteen I formed a band called the Latin Unit. Some of the guys were older than me. One was Arthur Webb, a flute player from West Philadelphia who was known for recording and playing with Ray Barretto. And there was a local percussionist named Peachy German, a bassist you may have heard of named Charles Fambrough, and a young piano player by the name of Stanley Clarke.
A little later—in high school or right after—I joined a band called Andy Aaron and the Mean Machine, and Stanley was the bass player; he had made the transition from piano. We used to do these cabarets, and Grover Washington, Jr. played with us at the cabarets and things like that. In the meantime, my parents were pounding on me to go to college, but because I had these fortunate experiences while I was still in high school, they saw my talent and ability and my burning desire to play music, and I think they kind of understood.
So after I finished high school, I went on the road with some local bands and ended up in Connecticut. And I guess I got lucky. Natalie Cole was in Hartford, Connecticut, and she decided to come out of college to pursue music and have a band. So I auditioned for her band and played for her while I was up there in Connecticut. I was around eighteen, and one day I got a call from Grover saying, “Hey man, I want you, I’d like to hire you for my band.” So I moved back to Philly and played with him for a couple of years. From what Joe Zawinul told me, that’s the first time he heard about this “young and talented drummer.” From there, I came back to Philly and played in some local bands, including Good God, which opened for Weather Report a few times.
Brown joined Weather Report in mid-1974, just weeks after his twenty-first birthday. He got the gig by auditioning at Bob Devere’s house (Devere was the band’s manager at the time), after which Joe told him, “Man, you’ve got some big ears.” You can see him in action playing “Boogie Woogie Waltz” in this clip, which was originally filmed for an episode of the television program Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert that aired on December 14, 1974.
Darryl was Weather Report’s regular drummer for the rest of the year, but Joe and Wayne would often bring in other drummers who would join Brown on the bandstand. At one point, Ishmael Wilburn, who recorded on Mysterious Traveller and toured with the band before Brown, came back for a few gigs. But none of the other drummers stuck, which served to motivate Brown.
“There was one time they brought in another drummer from Philly, Emmanuel Hakim,” Brown told me. “He was a very talented drummer, but he played in small jazz trios and things like that, and we were playing like a hard core rock band. In fact, we even opened one time for ZZ Top; somebody thought we could play for that kind of audience. But the bottom line is, I remember Emmanuel playing and doing what he could, but I don’t think he had ever played that loud and that hard. When he finished he just said, ‘Damn!’ [laughs] And it was nice because he was somebody that I had watched. He was older than me, and he was in the band Mean Machine before me. And of course, that didn’t work out.
“And then they got this guy from Africa, and they sent him over, and for some reason he was under the opinion that he actually had the job. So, same thing, that didn’t work out. He even came over with his family, and they sent him back. So these things were happening, and at one point I didn’t like it so much because it told me they had eyes for somebody else potentially. But at the same time, as these guys were being rejected, I kept saying, ‘Well, I must be doing something right,’ because they’ve got to be comparing them to me. And obviously, if a guy came along that they thought did a better job, then they would probably hire him.”
Given this, it’s surprising that Brown wasn’t retained for the Tale Spinnin’ recording sessions, which took place in January 1975. Evidently Joe and Wayne wanted to try something different, and Brown’s status with the band was left hanging. Although he was never told whether he was in or out, his Weather Report days were over. As a consequence of not recording with the band, Darryl’s stint with Weather Report remained relatively unknown until my book presented it in detail.
So what happened after Weather Report? Darryl tells the story:
There were a couple of things that happened. I played with some local bands, and I played with this one guy, Mike Pedicin, Jr., a great saxophone player who used to play with Maynard Ferguson and had some albums of his own. I did some studio work at Philadelphia International Records, and I also put a band together with some evolving great musicians-to-be, including Kevin Eubanks and Michael Wolff. And then Michael Wolff invited me to come to New York; he was putting a band together with Alex Foster called Answering Service. While I was in New York I got a call from Stanley Clarke for the School Days band. I toured with Stanley and did a record with him called I Wanna Play For You. Some of it was live, some in the studio. One of the nicest experiences I had with Stanley was playing at Madison Square Garden when we opened for Bob Marley. That was just amazing.
Somewhere after the Stanley Clarke tour I started taking some college courses. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do; I just felt that I wanted to further my education. I gravitated to science and was a biology major. That was kind of consistent with my household. My mother was a musician, while my father was a chemist. He initially had dreams of becoming a doctor, so he had pre-med books around the house. When I was little I just looked at the pictures and diagrams. But as I got older I started reading through them, and I think there was an influence there.
When I was studying sciences in college, I had some professors take an interest in me. They thought it was interesting that I had a music background and they encouraged me to consider medical school. Initially, I wasn’t sure, but there was a saxophonist out of Philadelphia named Al Rutherford who was Chief of Cardiology at the University of Pennsylvania. We used to play at a place called Grendal’s Lair in South Philly. He would come down and talk to me about my college courses, and he suggested that I think about medicine.
So as time went on I got more interested in it and I took the medical entrance exams. I did well and I started getting interviewed for medical school. Since there was a time lapse from high school to college, I wondered how that was going to look. I was also thinking about the musician stereotypes and I didn’t know how that would look to medical schools. But Al Rutherford looked at me and said, “Tell them you were playing music. Trust me, they will find it very interesting.” And believe it or not, during my interviews pretty much all they asked about was my experiences with music—who I played with and how I got involved in it. You know, you have to have the grades, but there are a lot of very bright candidates that they’re choosing from. If you have done something unrelated to science—especially if you have accomplished something—that seemed to be something they wanted. So that’s kind of how it went.
I think when I went back to college my parents were a little surprised. And then when I went to medical school, my dad didn’t know what to say. And actually I did play at the medical school, made some money there, which helped me pay for my tuition and all that.
After finishing his residency and passing his board exams, Brown moved to the Phoenix metro area where he practiced internal medicine for over two decades. Although you will find little about Brown’s musical career on the internet, you will find plenty about his character. Just read the comments about him from his friends and patients at legacy.com. He was well-known throughout the community, and many of his former patients posted online testimonials upon his death.
“He was an amazing doctor, musician and person and will be greatly missed,” one commenter posted.
“We had great conversations about the trials of parenting, music, and his generous spirit,” wrote another. “He was a wonderful physician and cared deeply for each and every patient including many of my family members. I loved his laugh and the smile he wore on his face every day.”
“Darryl was not only an amazing musician, he was also one of the finest men I’ve had the pleasure of knowing,” wrote a third. “He was always professional, both as a doctor, and, as I knew him best, as a musician. He carried his joy around with him and shared it with the world. What a smile. I’ll never forget him. If there is a Heaven, Darryl’s drumming with the band… and making them sound better than they are.”