"Most people, when they fight, they punch and then stand back to admire their work," he says, demonstrating as he lectures. "Having the ability to just blaze, and do an idea over and over again, frees up your brain to think about what your next move is going to be."
Brown may be a performer first, but the 37-year-old drummer carries himself like a teacher. His always-upright posture, perhaps a remnant from his time in the Marine Corps, lends a professorial air to the stories he tells. He's always spouting analogies to make his points clearer: In a single conversation, he'll bring up football, kung fu, the beach, driving and Michael Jordan. And he's got the credentials, having spent time as an adjunct professor at Rutgers University, and he's working on an educational book that he hopes to release this year. But Brown admits he'd be nowhere without the older musicians who taught him.
"That's one thing I like about the jazz community: It represents our village," he says. "If you don't get what you need from your father, you can get it from this other guy, or this woman, or whoever."
Brown's musical education started with his father, legendary Portland drummer Mel Brown. Though he was around "enough to qualify as a dad," Chris Brown says, the elder Brown was divorced from Chris' mother and always gigging or on tour.
"I did watch a lot of his videos, though," Brown says of his father. "I watched tons of his videos to try to emulate everything he did, even the way he dressed, the way he walked." Now, when Brown takes the Jimmy Mak's stage after his father's weekly Wednesday night gig, he has his own sound, a fiery mix of Mel's swinging straight-ahead style and tight R&B grooves.
Brown's musical personality blossomed at Rutgers, where he studied for six years after a four-year tour with the Marines. He learned from heavyweights like drummer Ralph Peterson and saxophonist Ralph Bowen, and by night, he worked his way onto the New York scene. But even as Brown toured with Roy Hargrove and jammed with Branford Marsalis, returning to Portland was always on his mind.
"The point of me joining the Marine Corps was to facilitate making it to the East Coast, to learn the things I can only learn there," Brown says, "and then bring that information back here so I could be a big fish in a small pond. That was always my plan."
But he didn't expect to be coming home so early: It was the death of his mother in late 2011 that prompted his return to Portland. Now that he's back, though, he's not going anywhere. In addition to his Wednesday night slot at Jimmy Mak's, he's working on a record with the Chuck Israels Orchestra, led by the Portland bassist who once played in the hallowed Bill Evans Trio. Even in Portland's smaller pond, Brown has found a new mentor in Israels.
"Chuck has been able to give me language to things," Brown says. "I was sitting on a lot of random jigsaw-puzzle pieces. And when I met Chuck, a lot of these pieces came together for me."
Brown doesn't think he'll ever stop learning. But while he's always picking up and applying new concepts, he feels ready to pass on the information he's received. "I wouldn't mind taking on a few more students," he says. He points to my notebook and smiles. "Put that in there."