John V. Brown Jr., Duke’s vice provost for the arts, is a music man at his core. His generous smile widens when he talks about his passions, which include working with students. He played in his first symphony concert at 13. And now he’s also a professor of the practice of music. His resume is lined with as many complexities as that distinctive style of American music. His terminal degree is in law. He’s been a Pulitzer Prize juror and a Grammy nominee. He’s also a member of the Screen Actors Guild. And he has performed around the world for such luminaries as President Barack and first lady Michelle Obama and alongside many famed artists, including Rosemary Clooney and Wynton Marsalis.
What do you consider your greatest work achievement? Being in a place where I can help connect people with their emotions and feelings, and give them an opportunity to express them through art. It is a blessing for me to be immersed in music as my passion and my life’s work, and now I get to help others feel that immersion across all of the arts. I like being in a position where I can help the arts reach people in meaningful ways as human beings.
What is your idea of perfect happiness? To find love at all levels – in life, at work, and with family and friends.
What is your favorite journey? Being a father and watching my son evolve, grow and become his own person.
What is your most marked characteristic? A toss-up – loyalty to friends and family. And being accessible to people so I continue to make friends and grow the tribe.
When and where were you the happiest? Right here, right now.
What is your greatest extravagance? Fine dining.
What talent, outside of music, would you most like to have? I would love to be able to dance. I’d also like to be involved in engineering-style creation. To build an elaborate, innovatively designed, futuristic, tech-filled automobile or building.
What is the trait you like most about yourself? I’m relatable. I like people. I always think the most positive thing I can think about a person first.
What do you most value in your friends? Honesty, loyalty and trustworthiness.
Who is your favorite hero of fiction and why? It’s Batman. Batman is well-resourced, has high morals, is committed to his cause, and also has boundaries – he does not kill.
Who is your favorite hero of sports? Muhammad Ali. Because of everything he stood for, everything he believed in, and how he did not compromise his beliefs. He accepted the consequences of the choices he made, and led by his beliefs.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? Nothing. Because God made me what He intended me to be.
What is your motto? Work hard and play hard.
What is your favorite music (for relaxing and driving?) For relaxing, I like ballads. I’m very deliberate about those that are at a certain tempo. It is where the maturity of playing slow tempos comes out. In the immediate, I think of the adagietto from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. For driving, I like to listen to music that has a groove that makes me want to move. I tend to gravitate toward ’70s R&B, medium/up-tempo Barry White, Bee Gees, Ambrosia, Prince, Sting and Mint Condition.
What is your favorite go-to snack?
Rice Krispies Treats. I make the best in the world. I stand by that statement.
What is your favorite spot on the Duke campus? It’s the Bull Durham Bar at the Washington Duke Inn – for the food, the atmosphere and the friends.
What would you tell someone if they asked you to define jazz music? Jazz music is freedom that is more representative of the dichotomy of America than people realize. It’s music that comes from people who are not free – playing freely.
What is a strong piece of advice you have received about life? To thine own self be true.
What is one thing you’d like tell our alums about your role at Duke? It is positioned to touch every part of society. In the name of Duke, arts help connect people with their own ideas, with each other, with communities and the world. I’m happy to be the person in this role who is committed to achieving these connections and making Duke best in class.
P.S.: His Rice Krispies Treats are better than yours.