Claremont couple has musicians playing in tune

Jim Brown, of J.Brown Violin Maker in the Claremont Village, may have abandoned his career as a musical educator long ago, but the luthier and musical aficionado has spent more than a decade making up for lost time.

Through their small Claremont mom-and-pop, now in its 16th year, Mr. Brown and his wife Debbie have dedicated thousands of hours, and countless dollars, to Claremont’s young musicians. Each year,  the local violin maker matches donations raised at the Claremont School of Music’s Play-a-thon (this past year to the tune of $1500) and makes regular fixes to students’ instruments while taking on 60 percent of the cost himself. If a school needs money to help a student pay for an instrument, Mr. Brown is there with check in hand.  

“As long as my business is open, I am going to give back to our music education system,” Mr. Brown pledged. He has yet to waiver from that mission.

“The arts are the lifeblood of humanity,” Mr. Brown said. “The arts are what allow people to be fully human. Computers take care of tasks and other things, but it’s the arts that allow us to be who we really are and develop into individuals.”

The work ebbs and flows, but Mr. Brown is kept relatively busy, at present working on a cello, a viola and 2 violins in addition to his regular repair work. Like any artist, Mr. Brown didn’t enter business with hopes of striking it rich. For him, it was about heeding his roots and making good on old promises. The local arts advocate continues to make good on that promise.

“When the opportunity arose to get back into music in this way, I said, I have to make up for that, and do what I can to foster education not just in words, but in action. I think we’ve proven that.”

A history of music

Mr. Brown could never get away from music; it is practically a part of his biology. His father was a talented musician with a “golden voice” who loved the classics and his uncle was once chosen to sing at the Hollywood Bowl.

“I was surrounded by good music,” as Mr. Brown explained.

His parents were happy to see the musical talent passed onto their son. When he was a young boy, Mr. Brown remembers his mother paying him in quarters to sing “Autumn Leaves” to family members. At age 8, he and his brother were selected out of the audience to sing on stage at the Engineer Bill Show. They proudly belted out Davy Crockett.

Despite his background, Mr. Brown didn’t receive formal training until his friend convinced him to join choir in middle school. He continued his training at Fontana High School. He remembers the music budgets were much different during his formative schooling years.

“They had private voice teachers coming in to teach—at no charge,” Mr. Brown’s wife, Debbie, recalled.

“The programs back then had huge budgets, and I was exposed to that,” Mr. Brown added. “The late ‘60s were the beginning of the end of all these programs.”

Under these bountiful programs, Mr. Brown’s musical career flourished. He received numerous honors in choral music and was selected for the Young Americans, a touring group of young musicians. He continued his musical education at California State University, Fullerton, where he earned a degree in choral directing studying under his idol, Dr. Howard Swan, a Pomona College graduate responsible for the expansion of the choral music scene in the United States.

“I had the best in the world as my director, another reason I felt really guilty for giving up my music education.”

The best musical education around could not help combat the cuts to California schools, which thrashed music education budgets into nothingness. Unable to find a job and downtrodden by what Mr. Brown saw as the destruction of music programs in California, he abandoned his dreams of teaching music. In the years following, Mr. Brown described himself as a nomad jumping from job to job: a professional golfer by day, an actor by night. Though he gave up on teaching, Mr. Brown found he could never get away from music. During his nomadic years, Mr. Brown decided to add the classical guitar to his musical repertoire, intrigued by the spectrum of sounds that flowed from the instrument to accompany his singing.

“I wanted an instrument that I could take with me and achieve full harmony and not just the melody. You can’t carry a piano around with you and they didn’t have the portable ones back then so I learned the classical guitar,” he explained.

His instructor also happened to build classic guitars and when he offered to teach Mr. Brown, he took him up on it. The result grounded Mr. Brown’s nomadic spirit.

“It makes a great sound, the full harmonic spectrum,” he said. “It was very pleasing.”

After mastering the art of the classical guitar, Mr. Brown found himself drawn to the cello, which he felt was the instrument that produced a sound that best approximated his voice. He started searching for someone to teach him how to make a cello, but no one would allow him to make the jump from the simple classical guitar to the more intricate cello.

“You had to start off making violins. That was sort of the prerequisite,” he said.

He found a violin maker in Riverside willing to teach the budding luthier. After a 3-year apprenticeship with the violin maker, she encouraged Mr. Brown to take his talent and open his own business. The suggestion took him by surprise.

“It sounded kind of crazy, a music business in California,” Mr. Brown said. But he took the chance, opening up J.Brown Violin Maker in the Old School House in 1997. He recalls his first customer, a woman who later admitted she came in to test the water and see if he was “the real deal” before handing over her instrument. Sixteen years later, she is still a customer.

Now located off Bonita Avenue and Indian Hill, next to Rhino Records and Video Paradiso, Mr. Brown’s clientele has significantly expanded, allowing him to continue to make the violins, violas and cellos Claremont residents have come to know and cherish. And in turn, Mr. Brown gets to whittle away in his workshop, doing what he loves.

“Look at what you create,” Mr. Brown said, motioning around his shop to the instruments lining the walls. “When used properly, [an instrument] creates something beautiful. Even all by itself, it’s doing nothing but pleasing your eye. It enhances the human spirit.”

J.Brown Violin Maker is located at 232 N. Indian Hill Blvd. Find out more about the local luthier by calling 624-0849.

—Beth Hartnett


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