A group of toe tapping, head bopping fans and fellow musicians lined the dimly lit bar thirsty for a drink and a good time. While couples swayed and gyrated on a small dance floor, Shawn Brown and his bandmates performed the Chi-Lites hit Oh Girl on a recent Monday evening at Ruby's Elixir in St. Petersburg.
During his first set, Brown took a moment to invite 25-year-old keyboard player Jeremy Lomack to the stage to perform an original song. Brown is known for helping young musicians come out of their shell by giving them time to showcase their talent during his shows.
"My thing is about my music being able to provide something for somebody," Brown said. "There's nothing like bringing a kid on a stage, and he's never played in front of a whole lot of people, and just seeing that look on his or her face when they think, 'Wow, here I am.' "
One of those young musicians Brown invited on stage years ago was Eric Darius. Darius, one of jazz's top saxophone players, who now lives in Los Angeles, credits Brown for showing him the ropes of performing and entertaining.
"I first met Shawn when I was about 11 years old," Darius said. "My dad was taking me around to all of the clubs and bars that Shawn was performing at. From the time I was 12 to 15, I would go everywhere Shawn Brown was performing and just jump up there and play with him."
Brown has regaled Tampa Bay audiences for more than four decades while sharing the spotlight with rising talent. Through club gigs, concerts, special events and wedding receptions, Brown has delivered energetic performances. Now he shares the marquee Saturday with Darius and saxophonist B.K. Jackson in a special "Hot and Saxxy Night" at Tampa Theatre.
"B.K. is a protege of Eric. I've seen him always love Eric's playing, and he always wanted to be like him," Brown said. "I figured what a great concert that it would be to have those two guys perform (together)."
For Brown, the show will represent the preservation of local jazz and a personal triumph over cancer.
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The 51-year-old keyboard and organ player's story began at the age of 3 in a home surrounded by musical family members. At 7, he had his first opportunity to perform in front of a live audience at the Gospel Tabernacle Church that he and his family attended in Havre de Grace, Md.
"My mother would let me sing, but they would never let me play because I wasn't fluent enough," Brown said.
His musical influences were mostly gospel musicians like James Cleveland. "We weren't allowed to listen to James Brown. We weren't allowed to listen to anything secular."
Brown moved from Baltimore to Tampa with his father in 1980. From those teen years he rose to become known as one of the top Hammond organ players in the jazz community. He was featured in the documentary Killer B3 that debuted at the Gasparilla International Film Festival in 2013. In the film, directors Murv Seymour and Joe Bamford delve into the history of the instrument invented by American clock maker Laurens Hammond and showcase the lives of several musicians who have made the instrument popular since its inception.
Seymour said of Brown: "I remember watching him literally putting every ounce of his energy into his playing. Had I not seen him play in person, I don't know if the idea would have ever been born."
During the film, camera crews followed Brown to St. Joseph's Hospital, where he underwent surgery to remove cancer from his colon in 2009. Before his diagnosis, Brown's older brother, Hiram, who encouraged him to get screened, died of the same type of cancer. Shortly after his surgery, Brown underwent chemotherapy that caused him to experience neuropathy in his hands and feet.
Still, he continued to perform.
"It was so weird because I couldn't feel (anything)," Brown said. "It was all heart. It was all soul and it was just the weirdest thing. That's when you know whether or not you have a gift or you have a true feeling for your music. It just came out."
Brown credits his music for helping him recover and considers it a divine gift.
"My motivation for playing is my love for God. It's about sharing what you have. If you can play music and use if for the right thing … you can't beat that."
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Over the years, Brown encountered numerous offers to move to other cities with larger music scenes, but he chose to stay in Tampa with his four children.
"These organ players are becoming scarce because a lot of them are going overseas to perform because there is more of an appreciation over there. It's a shame for it to originate here, and we don't really have the appreciation," Brown said.
After many years in the entertainment industry, Brown feels that his drive is rooted in being happy with what he has.
"It's just so me, this life. You get past the point of trying to be the best player, because you're not. I don't care who you are.
"This is a heck of a world. You learn that it's about opportunity. It's all about being happy and being able to relax and enjoy life."