Few individuals in Saginaw's cultural and educational history have achieved the level of professional excellence, respect, and love - both professionally and within the hearts of everybody touched by his music - as Michael C. Brush.
Indeed, as close friend and colleague Mike Manley so eloquently states the case: "Both inside and outside the classroom, for four decades, this immensely talented educator, musician and humanitarian has left an indelible mark on his students, his colleagues, and his community."
So it is entirely fitting that on Friday, October 14th, a 'Community Tribute to Michael C. Brush' will take place at The Saginaw Arts & Sciences Academy' Performing Arts Auditorium, located at 1903 N. Niagara in Saginaw, from 7-9 PM. Titled 'Melodies & Memories', this well-deserved tribute will be rendered in four acts, each covering specific periods of Mike's illustrious career, with a focus on his myriad contributions to the Saginaw community and beyond. Proceeds will go to support the Saginaw Public Schools Foundation and the SASA Buy-a Key initiative for a new Grand Piano at the school.
Personally, I have known Michael for over 30 years, first encountering him at the tender age of ten when I attended my first big rock 'n roll show at Daniel's Den to see Gary Lewis & the Playboys. Mike's band The Paupers were the opening act and the pandemonium and excitement generated by that one performance was enough to fuel my own interest in music, and the people that create it, for the majority of my own lifetime.
A product of Saginaw Public Schools, Michael could have taken his musical skills as a keyboardist, singer, composer and arranger to larger cities and carved out a lucrative career as a performer. Instead, he chose to return to his hometown and inspire students for 30 years as an innovative music instructor, first as a traveling elementary teacher, then as the music instructor at Hanley's Program for the Creative & Academically Talented, and finally, from 1999 until his retirement in 2010, as the Director of the award-winning Voice/Keyboard Department at the Saginaw Arts & Sciences Academy.
One of the many gifts that Mike possesses is an ability to inspire creativity. Consequently, from elementary choirs to his SASA choirs, Mike would adopt an innovative approach of having his students often perform his original music. He originated the highly acclaimed Saginaw Kids Choir in the 1990s, which performed & recorded exceptional material featured in the album 'Songs For Us' - a collection of socially conscious songs that was released in 1994, also performed collaboratively with the Los Angeles Choir formed within the L.A. Public Schools that went on to earn Michael special acknowledgment from the City of Los Angeles, which he was awarded at 'The Review Music Awards' Ceremony that same year.
But apart from these classroom accomplishments, Mike has constructed a hard-earned reputation as one of the most talented & versatile musicians performing in the Great Lakes Bay Region, beginning as a teenager during the Garage Band era of the mid-60s with such groups as the aforementioned Paupers, followed by The Ferris Wheel and Michael R. Thomas.
During his college years, Mike earned a living as a keyboardist/vocalist in the Detroit area before returning to Saginaw to carve out a career as one of our area's best Jazz & Blues musicians with groups involving noted drummers Jim Fulkerson and Mark Dault, jazz guitarist Ron Lopez, and later with vocalist Julie Mulady in Brush Street.
At the same time, Mike started throwing himself into developing his talent as a prolific composer, writing hundreds of songs, many finding their way onto his own albums, beginning in 1985 with his first release, 'Exposed'. Today Mike is still wood-shopping material with his new group, The Fabulous Retreads, giving him an opportunity to get back to his rock 'n roll and Blues roots.
Finally, what distinguishes Mike beyond the professional and musical arenas is his community involvement. He has worked on projects with the Saginaw Symphony, Pit & Balcony, the Saginaw Choral Society, the CAN Council and United Way, and has always generously donated his time, talent and energy to improve the quality of life in his hometown.
This has not gong unnoticed, as Mike has been the proud recipient of The Herman W. Coleman Human Relations Award from the Michigan Education Association, an All Area Arts Awards from the Saginaw Community Enrichment Commission, a Crystal Apple Award from The Saginaw News, a Unity Award from the Los Angeles Unified School District, and over 60 Review Magazine music awards, voted upon by this publication's readers.
As originator of the Michigan Jazz Trail and noted vocalist Molly McFadden notes, "Michael is amazing. He plays with sensitivity, adds intricacies, harmony and rhythms that make it marvelous to perform with him. He is that rare pianist who breathes with the singer and understands immediately the emotional interpretation of a song and silently says to you, 'Ok, I know what you are doing and where you are going. I am with you.' And the rest is history, two artists painting on a canvas with similar brush strokes. Oh yes, he is also a very kind individual who cares about humanity."
In this vein, and with the above background, recently I sat down with Michael to discuss the many varied aspects of his illustrious life and career in greater detail, on the eve of this well-deserved October 14th Tribute to the Music & Melodies of Mike Brush.
Review: What was your first memory of the piano. How did you first get interested and inspired by music?
Brush: I started piano lessons at the age of eight and it really all began with my teacher, Donna Sudlow, who lived across from Jones School in this little house. I didn't know at the time that she would gig on the weekends, but she taught me what a scale was and by my second year into it, took out a book of popular songs that she would write in chords to play along with the melody line, which is pretty much what I'm still doing today - writing a melody and forming chords. But she did this in 'stride' style - she was a stride pianist.
By the time I hit the 5th grade, I was asked by my classroom teacher to play the piano and accompany the class when they sang. That's when I learned the song 'Running Bear', which was a big hit at the time. Kids would circle around the piano and I thought to myself, now this is pretty cool. I practiced a half hour a day starting out, but by the time of that 5th grade experience, discovered an identity with music.
Review: And then by the time you hit Junior High you were already a rock star when you formed The Paupers…
Brush: Well, we were known as 'The Squirrels' for about a minute or so before we became The Paupers, but yeah, we would play at South School. I recall that Ron Surgeson played sax in The Squirrels and then put bass strings on a guitar so he could play bass. Randy Jarrard (our guitarist) borrowed Tom Burt's drums so he could play drums, which I don't remember why or how that happened; and then Randy and Bob Hughes played guitar. But again, this is hazy. All of those guys have better memories of this period than I do.
I recall that I was happy I had professional instruction, because when the guys in the band started talking about chords, or asking how to play certain ones, I knew what they were. We learned the popular songs of the day little by little and then became the house band at Daniel's Den. It felt like a whole other world. We opened for a lot of major bands, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, The MC5. And The Paupers lasted until about 1968 until I formed Michael R. Thomas with Ron Surgeson and Tom Burt. It was organ, bass, and drums. We liked Teegarden and Vanwinkle. I played a Hammond C3.
Review: What about your time with The Ferris Wheel?
Brush: We went down to Detroit and recorded some of Dick Wagner's songs, who was also our producer. I remember going to his apartment on the East Side of Saginaw and he played song after song and we would go, 'Yeah, we like that one.'. He would play and sing these songs in his living room and it sounded like a recording.
Review: What happened after that?
Brush: After Michael R. Thomas I was going to Delta College and would go down to the Ginger Blue Coffee Shop (where JB Meinberg's is now) and perform poetry with music that I composed on the piano. I would be in history classes at Delta and sit there writing poetry, so around that time I thought it would be a good idea to become a musician in terms of a career.
I moved down to Ypsilanti and went to school to study Special education, but did one semester only to stop and then went and played piano for about 5 years. There were so many people in college and my soul wasn't into it, so I moved down there and played at this great club called The Back Seat near Pontiac that was different than a bar. It was a concert setting for people there only for music. I had a trio down there and with Craig Marsden we became the house band.
After that I moved back to the Saginaw area and married my wife, Kathy. She was already a teacher and I had a lot of course work completed, so I spent 10 years teaching elementary school, which was very different. There weren't any books or real material, so I had to develop lessons from scratch by the eyedropper method.
Review: What did you learn from those early teaching experiences at Elementary School?
Brush: That my job was to make kids enthusiastic about music. If you're enthusiastic you'll learn more, so I would structure lessons that would involve kids right away. The best lessons initiate and in 30 minutes you've put together a nice experience for kids. My first schools were Emerson and John Moore and then the old Central Junior.
Review: As you became more experienced as a teacher, how did you approach maintaining order in the classroom in order to forge ahead with teaching?
Brush: By engaging the kids into whatever it is you are doing. You can't lecture. You need to teach by involvement. So in the 1980s I started writing songs for school programs. I wrote one song called 'I'm Gonna Make It In This World' that was about picking an occupation and making something of your life in this world. It had a nice beat to it, with kids singing, and it was appropriate of what I was trying to get across to the kids, so I started doing more of that.
I realized that I couldn't find songs that said what I thought needed to be said about equality and social issues, so the first song that I wrote in that vein that kids still sing was 'Walking As Children'. This was a complicated song to write.
Review: What about your first album of original material, Exposed, that came out in 1985?
Brush: Mike Manley was working for the School district and we got to know one another and would talk about music. I started putting this album together as a demo to get my songs recorded and this big producer named Bob Baldori hooked me up with his publishing company. He wanted songs for people to record, so part of my arragnement was that I could make a demo of the songs that he was going to publish. That project worked out good.
Review: What about the SVSU Jazz Band? That introduced you to a whole new set of talented players from the area and of course was headed up by the late great Charlie Brown out at SVSU.
Brush: When I moved back here and got married and went back to school I met Ron Lopez and Bob Grundner, two pivotal people in my career. I remember going out to SVSU to talk with this guy named Charlie Brown and walked down a hall only to see this guy with wild red hair and a bald head and sandals on, pushing a cart out of a closet. We went to Europe twice with that band and would play a lot of gigs. I met a lot of important people through that group, including Mike Sheets and Pam Jenkins.
Review: After that you started forming the trios, correct?
Brush: I played with these guys in the William Lewis Group, which is where I met Jim Fulkerson. Then I went through a phase where I didn't want to play and had to step back a bit. Jim got burned out on bars and didn't want to do it, so we brought Mark Dault into the group and recorded two albums with Brush, Lopez, Dault. After that period I formed Brush Street with Julie Mulady. We'd done some retirement dinner things for ther school district and at the suggestion of Spence Dambro, formed a band and really stepped the game up. We had some great material on our first CD. I was trying to get more serious about it and play less as a bar band. I was trying to make it more of a bigger presentation, which is when we started doing things with the Symphony that worked out pretty well. I'm still not done developing that direction in my music.
Review: Who are some of your main influences musically?
Brush: Tom Waits and Randy Newman and Mose Allison, but Newman the most. I like his fictional characters and situations that are fun to write lyrics around. Plus his work is concise. he might write a song two minutes long becuase 2:05 would be too long. And all his songs tell stories. I like the linear storytelling thing about it.
Review: Let's talk about your career at the Saginaw Arts & Sciences Academy. What was your first year at SASA like?
Brush: I started in the Fall of 1999 at SASA the year that I turned 50. First, it was the hardest year of my life because I had to learn so much plus so much was different. I was dealing with accomplished and sharp students. Mary Ellen Gase, the prior instructor, had a different approach and me following that same approach was not going to happen. It wasn't a continuum.
I owe a lot to one student, an 11th grader at the time named John Wenzel. I was struggling about what tgo do and who I was in the classroom and John saw through that. I feel I owe my survival that year to this one student because he saw through what I was struggling with and helped me build a bridge both ways between me and the kids, and the kids and me. I mean, these classes were 3 hours long every day and what was I going to do? It was a huge learning curve.
Review: What was your game plan and goal with your SASA classes?
Brush: I wanted them to understand music and theory and to do that you have to be creative. I wanted them to learn through creativity, which is the SASA motto. I would challenge them in assignments to write things down, pull things together. We would have these things called 'musicales' where students could select their own songs and take a topic, develop it, and perform it in class. When they have to share and perform a lot, hopefully they don't feel worried about getting creative and sharing ideas.
Review: When you look back at students of yours that have accomplished things out of SASA, do any stand out? Or perhaps you don't wish to identify specific students and forget anybody.
Brush: There's too many to mention. As a teacher you hope you're able to inspire a student and give them a reason to pursue their dreams.
Review: What in retrospect is the most challenging thing a teacher faces each day?
Brush: That's a great question. As a teacher every day you have to go into the classroom with a sense that if the day before was bad, just drop it. Go in and start each day new because everything else is in the past. Right now in the moment is all we have, really. So occupy those moments with inspiration.
Review: Care to share any of your best memories from teaching?
Brush: Well apart from the 'big things' in terms of student accomplishments, I remember certain students doing something in class that would make my jaw drop and kick you out of nowhere. I remember one musicale we were doing and a student, Richard Baskin, came up and we were remembering Broadway. He did something from Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcost and had a robe on. He did this song 'Close Every Door' and it was the perfect version of what I felt the writer was trying to get at. He did this right in the classroom, so everybody could see it. Those kinds of things are unforgettable and touch me in many ways more than the big accomplishments, the awards, and all of that.
Review: Do you miss teaching?
Brush: Right now I'm trying to go through things I've done and organize them. I'm writing arrangements and taking some of the songs I did with the Septet and working to evolve them. It's like unfinished business that I need to tend, so am moving to the next thing that I feel I need to do. When you turn 60 it's a magical thing, but you also realize that you're looking at the last act of your life, so you better keep busy. I'm retired but I'm not. I'm always involved with projects so don't have time to think about what I'm missing.
Review: What do you consider the greatest accomplishments over the expanse of your career?
Brush: I guess being able to do as many things that came along as I could. Being able to live in my own house with my family and not have to travel constantly to achieve my goals in life. It's been great to have all the opportunities to play music with the people that I have and do the things that I have. I'm always moving on to the next thing and like the fact that I don't have enough time to pat myself on the back. It's pretty cool that there was always a next thing to go to.
Review: What's your next big project?
Brush: I'm working on a concert coming up around Christmas that will allow me to take 20 students that I choose and work up new arrangements for original material that is unfinished. When I did the 'Made in Michigan' concert with Leo Najar and The Bijou Orchestra before Leo passed this summer, it inspired me. I'll probably go with 4 brass instruments and 3 strings and get a couple other singers and utilize Brush Street, but I'm looking forward to this immensely.
Review: Any final thoughts?
Brush: I think that people who do things that are known by other people within the community by their own nature are inspirational. Whether one is positive or negative, we reap what we sow. I'm just honored for all the appreciation that I have received over the years. It is both humbling and an honor.
Tickets for Melodies & Memories: A Community Tribute to Michael C. Brush are $10.00 for students, $20.00 for adults, and $100.00 for a Patron Donation. Please RSVP by October 5th and mail payment to M. Brush Tribute Tickets, 550 Millard St., Saginaw, MI 48607, or call Janet Nash at 989-272-3114.
16th November, 2023
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