Fine arts community mourns loss of John Brown

The local performing arts community lost one of its pillars over the weekend. John Willis Brown Jr., known throughout Demopolis for his work with both the Canebrake Players and the Demopolis High School theater department, passed away at his home.

Brown had previously served as a music instructor at the University of West Alabama and had just finished celebrated his 15th year as Director of Worship Arts at First Presbyterian Church of Livingston at the time of his passing.

“He ended on a wonderful note. A week ago Sunday, he celebrated his 15th anniversary as Director of Worship Arts at Livingston First Presbyterian Church,” Jody Tartt, Demopolis High School theater teacher and a long-time friend of Brown said. “He spent that whole week and several days before that performing in Birmingham for the Jewish High Holy Days service. He was doing what he loved.”

Brown, a graduate of the Alabama School of Fine Arts, will be honored during a special service at First Presbyterian Church of Livingston Thursday, Sept. 27 at 2 p.m.

“John’s music training began at an early age and his exceptional talent was evident not long thereafter. He was accepted to the Alabama School of Fine Arts where he continued to study organ performance, but soon discovered that he was also a gifted tenor. John made his professional operatic debut while studying at Birmingham (AL) Southern College.

“For nearly 20 years, John performed in operatic and musical theatre productions, concerts and recitals across the country and in Europe,” Brown’s obituary reads. “In 1995, however, John decided to leave his life on the road and return to his beloved hometown, where he shared his considerable musical experience with new generations of aspiring performers.”

“When you were working with him on a musical project, he knew all about the mechanics of the voice because he was a trained operatic tenor. And then he knew all about the music because he had been trained in piano and could play the organ. He just had so much to bring to the table as far as making sure that anything he did was well rounded. And he was just such a delightful person.,” Tartt said of her late friend, who also made a profound impact on the Demopolis High School theater program through his contributions on stage and off. “He had such a great relationship with the students here because he wasn’t really a teacher in their eyes. He was a guest artist. So he could be playful with them and he could teach them in a way where I think they felt like John was more of a contemporary of theirs. And, of course, they were able to act with him on stage in Hairspray and in Alice in Wonderland. They all talked about how much he meant to them.”

Brown’s influence over the arts and those who relish them crossed venues, mediums, races and genders as he used his talents across west Alabama and beyond.

“I met John when he performed in the DHS production of Hairspray.  I was asked to make his costumes. He played the part of ‘Edna’. I enjoyed being around him. He was so very talented and always happy and encouraging,” Jennifer Roemen, who would later take voice lessons under Brown, said of a man whose talent and personality at times seemed larger than life.

Brown had been a pianist at Brewersville United Methodist Church, was cofounder and Music Director of Sumter Theater Workshop, was a member at The Coleman Center for the Arts in York and served as a private instructor of both piano and voice.

“The most wonderful thing to me about John Brown is he wasn’t afraid to dream and no dream was unachievable. He took our church choir to Carnegie Hall twice. We talked about all the things we were going to do here. And I just learned to just dream right along with him. That’s probably the greatest gift that I think he gave me and the contributed to this program is that nothing was unattainable. He was just such a positive force,” Tartt said. “He was really a treasure. There is an old saying in the theater that everybody is replaceable. But John Brown is not replaceable.”

Brown is survived by a long list of friends and cast mates, his sister Sandy McClung, niece Heather McClung, nephew Keith Brown, cousins Jennifer Rooney and Gordon Brown, aunt Mary Armstrong Marine and his constant companion, his beloved dog Biscuit.

In lieu of flowers, it is requested that donations be made to the Worship Arts Ministry at First Presbyterian Church in Livingston, The Coleman Center for the Arts in York or a local animal shelter.