They don’t call Carla Brownlee “Hurricane” for nothing.
On a recent Tuesday at Wilbur’s Bar and Grill, the sax player blows into her horn with enough energy to rock the audience. True to her nickname, she plays up a storm.
Brownlee sways with the music, lets out an “oh yes” and “that’s what I’m talkin’ about” when a fellow musician takes the spotlight.
This is a twice-a-month gig for her, and she’s got a following.
On this Tuesday, the fans do some chair dancing as they groove with her. She holds a long note, then pulls the horn away and wails in her warm, jazzy voice. If she’s winded, no one can tell.
This is what Brownlee has done for more than 50 years, and she is not about to quit.
She is considered one of top blues saxophonists in the country, has performed with musicians around the world, is a member of the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame, and often stands in with bands around the city.
Playing is like speaking and building a sentence, says Brownlee. You’re not thinking of the word you’re going to say next; you’re thinking the thought.
“In blues music you’ve got a feeling, thought or emotion you’re trying to convey and you’re kind of living in that,” she said. “It’s almost like you could do no wrong because you can put yourself in the mindset when you’re improvising that every note I play is going to be the most beautiful note you’ve ever heard.”
The early years: When Brownlee was 9, she told her mother she wanted to play the flute. She got a saxophone, instead.
“My mother chose for me,” says Brownlee, who grew up in Phoenix. “I guess she knew what she was doing though, because I enjoyed it.”
Her love of the blues was sparked when she was in high school and attended a B.B. King concert. “It just hit me in such a heavy way,” she says about King and his music. “I really glommed onto it. The next year he came to play and I didn’t have money for a ticket so I stood outside the stage door and listened to the concert. I was just amazed and that spoke to me. ... That’s where it started.”
She never received formal training in her instrument or music. But the blues require more of a feeling than a schooling.
“I always believe it’s therapeutic to … play music and hear and respond to your own sounds, just to play and enjoy, and that’s where I play from,” she says. “ I’m sort of self-taught out of ‘this sounds good, let’s try this.’”
The New York years: After high school, Brownlee moved to Tucson to study drama education at the University of Arizona. She tried to get a teaching job, but when one didn’t materialize, she headed to New York City. Word spread quickly about her talent on the sax, and she ended up traveling around the world, playing with such musicians as Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, and Dan Hartman. She popped up as a jazz and pop musician on such shows as “American Bandstand,” “Soul Train” and the David Letterman show.
A female sax player isn’t terribly common. But Brownlee has never felt lost among a sea of male musicians. “I do what I do and I don’t even think about stuff like that,” she says. “When I get to play with great musicians I don’t think of what gender they are, I just think of the music they’re playing. That’s primarily because everything else falls away.”
The Tucson years: She moved back to the Old Pueblo in ’93 and met up with blues musicians who reminded her that that’s what she loves the most. Though she plays other types of music, it’s the blues she prefers.
The network of musicians are tight in Southern Arizona, and it didn’t take long for others to realize she was way up there with her talent. She’s played solo and with a variety of Tucson bands, such as Kings of Pleasure, the Lisa Otey Band and the Carnivaleros. She’s now a member of the Bad News Blues Band.
Robert Shaw, executive producer of Lonely Street Productions and artistic director of Gaslight Music Hall in Oro Valley, says Brownlee is one of his favorite musicians. He has played alongside her since 2005 and calls her a respected fixture in the music scene.
“She doesn’t hold back, she elevates everybody around her, “ says Shaw. “Not a lot of players can do that, but she just ups the ante on whatever’s going on on stage. (She) just blows onto the stage and puts everything into a frenzy.”
Mike Blommer, president of Arizona Blues Hall of Fame and a member of the Bad News Blues Band, says Brownlee is one of the best sax players and singers he knows.
And she is committed to spreading the gospel of the blues.
“A big part of the Hall of Fame is how much you do to bring attention to the Arizona blues scene and community service,” Blommer says. “She’s done a lot of blues in the schools and she’s donated her time to go in and teach students about blues.”
Brownlee’s daughter, Peggy, plays the standup bass and prefers classical music, but often finds her way to the stage to play with her mother.
“I think she has an appreciation for other musicians and I think through the years they’ve built each other up and they have a strong respect for one another and their talents,” she says about her mother.
“My mom has always been supportive of others and does her best every night. She loves to support others by pushing them to do their best.”
Carla Brownlee will quickly say it’s not purely altruistic. The more you give, she says, the more you’re brought to a new level by all the musicians surrounding you.
Mike Yarema, a fellow musician who plays with her frequently, says it is Brownlee who often elevates others. “She can play anywhere for any band — she’s that amazing and she’s got so much experience,” says Yarema. “Playing with her makes me feel cool, very supported and comfortable.”
What’s next: Brownlee’s interest isn’t confined to playing music. She has scripted shows that incorporate some theatrical elements with the music. Next in that vein is “Jump, Jive ‘n Wail” Oct. 7 at the Gaslight Music Hall. It’s a dance party that focuses on the music of Louis Prima, who often slipped right into the music style of his times — the 1920s to the 60s. Prima, whose hits included “Just a Gigolo,” “That Old Black Magic” and “Under My Skin,” played New Orleans jazz in the ’20s, swing in the ’30s, big band in the ’40s, Vegas lounge music in the ’50s, and pop and rock in the ’60s. Brownlee’s show will play much of the music while dropping some juicy tidbits about the performer and his life.
And she’ll be joining the band for the show.
“She’s been working at this for a long time and it’s really neat to see her develop more into a production side,” says Shaw, who is producing the show. “She’s transcending the lines between sideband, backup player and producer.”
Don’t expect her to put down her horn to become a producer. This Hurricane will not lose her wind.
“If I ever stopped playing I think I’d go cuckoo because it’s such a part of me,” Brownlee says. “If there’s som–ething you love to do, that will feed your soul for a lifetime, never stop.”