African American Studies
Interviewee: Dean (Thomas Norwood) Brewington
Date of Interview: October 8th, 2008
Summarized by Michael Kavanagh
Born Thomas Norwood Brewington in 1937 in Goldsboro, North Carolina, he ventured to the Bronx by train at four years old. While growing up in the Bronx, he had the opportunity to meet and play of the best jazz musicians of all time. Also known by names Norwood and Dean, he currently lives in Minnesota and regularly does musical gigs at local clubs in Minnesota and around the country.
At four years old, his relatives put him on a train from Goldsboro destined for New York City. His mother had moved to the New York some time before to find work and get settled. On his way to meet his mother, he stopped off Norfolk, Virginia to stay with one of his Aunts. After a few days, he boarded the train again and vividly remembers meeting his other Aunt at Penn Station when he arrived. He lived on 145th Street with his mother before soon after moving to the Bronx.
His first house in the Bronx was on East 165th Street, just across from Horseshoe Park and near the Intervale Avenue subway line. He started at PS 99 at the age of five, and remembers his mother walking him to school the first day, showing him where to go as well as where not to go. After the first day, he was entrusted by his mother to walk to and from school by himself. Brewington had his first experiences with music while in PS 99. He attended music assemblies, music appreciation classes and became friends with classmate and fellow jazz musician, Joe Orange. Even though his father played the piano for fun and his mother sang occasionally, neither of them made a career out of music. Thus, he attributes his time at PS 99 for fostering his interest in music. What solidified his musical aspirations was when his mother and stepfather took him to the Apollo Theater to see Louis Jordan and his Timpani Five. He was no older than six years old, but still remembers to this day the crowd, the excitement, and those shiny instruments. It was at that time, he said, “that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
After the concert, he begged his mother to buy him a saxophone. His mother couldn’t afford a saxophone, and bought her son a clarinet instead. Brewington remembers playing the clarinet for a week, hating it, and then finally convincing his mother to buy a saxophone at a pawn shop. At nine years old, he started to teach himself how to play by trying to imitate the great musicians he listened to on the radio. He eventually started taking lessons afterschool. Before he could finish PS 99, he remembers getting into an incident with his fifth grade teacher that caused him to be recommended to repeat fifth grade. He credits this experience with negatively affecting his school experience overall, and furthering his drive to music.
Even though he was held back, Brewington found himself in changing schools anyway. He and his mother moved from Intervale Avenue to Fox Street, and he attended nearby PS 54. At PS 54, he finished the fifth and sixth grade Oliver Beener. Beener would become one of his best friends.
Once in junior high school, Brewington and his friends started a jazz band. There was Arty Jenkins on saxophone, Tiny Burton on drums, and Oliver Beener on trumpet, just to name a few. Confident they could compete, the junior high school group entered a high school band competition. And in eighth grade, they won the city-wide competition.
While many of his friends went on to private high schools for the performing arts, Brewington went to Morris High School which was close by to his house. Halfway through high school, Brewington had decided he did not want to go to school anymore and ultimately never graduated. In 1956, he joined the Army at the age of eighteen, even though his Father, a World War II veteran, tried to talk him out of it. And after two weeks, he admits his Father was right. He wanted to get out.
During his time in the Army, he did basic training at Fort Dix, then to Fort Lewis, Washington and finally to a base in Alaska. The snow and cold was something he had to get used to being from the Bronx. While in Alaska, he joined the military band. The military band mostly playing in parades for foreign dignitaries at the base. While he did not meet anybody in the army interested his Jazz per se, he did meet some great musicians, including saxophonist Irv Williams. They remain in contact today and have seen each other do gigs in Minnesota.
In 1957, he got out of the army and returned home to the Bronx. He loved hanging out with his old friends: Tina Brooks, Penny Grant and Oliver Beener as well as James, Josh, and Thelonious Monk. He remembers drugs coming into the Bronx only once he returned from after the Army. He recalls that some of his friends were involved with drugs, but he was never got involved. One unforgettable neighborhood memory during that time was when he and his friends were all hanging out on Elmo’s stoop on Lineman Place when it collapsed. Tina broke his ankle as a result and his horn was in pawn. Brewington let Tina borrow his instrument because he was not playing it at the time. Brewington remembers when he asked Tina for his instrument back, Tina had already pawned it. Brewington was upset at the time, but was eventually able to buy his horn back from the pawn shop.
In 1962, Brewington moved to Minnesota after a break up with his daughter’s mother. He decided he needed to get out of New York and his goal was to earn his way to California by playing his instrument. His first stop was Philadelphia, then Detroit and Chicago. From Chicago, he hitched a ride with a guy headed to Minnesota. After being there a week, he got a gig that lasted for six months, two nights a week at a club called Blue No. He has not recorded any of his music but is currently working on a project with his band in Minnesota.
He will always remember the neighborhood he grew up in and the feeling of community where everyone looked out for one another. On Fox Street, between Intervale and Home Street, everybody knew everybody. Everybody played with everybody, everybody talked to everybody. On that block, everybody was one big family.
Brewington, Dean. Bronx African American History Project. By Maxine Gordon. Fordham University Project, October 2008.