Oscar Brown Jr., a singer, songwriter, playwright and actor known for his distinctive blend of show-business savvy and social consciousness, died on Sunday in a Chicago hospital. He was 78 and lived in Chicago.
The cause was complications of a blood infection, his family said.
Mr. Brown was most often described as a jazz singer, and he initially achieved fame by putting lyrics to well-known jazz instrumentals like Miles Davis's "All Blues" and Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue," but efforts to categorize him usually failed. As a performer, he acted his songs more than he sang them; as a songwriter, he drew as much from gospel, the blues and folk music as he did from jazz. He preferred to call himself an entertainer, although even that broad term did not go far enough: he saw his art as a way to celebrate African-American life and attack racism, and it was not always easy to tell where the entertainer ended and the activist began.
His song "Brown Baby," recorded by Mahalia Jackson and others, was both a lullaby for his infant son and an anthem of racial pride. Other songs, like "Signifying Monkey" and "The Snake," took their story lines from black folklore. The album "We Insist! Freedom Now Suite," for which Mr. Brown wrote lyrics to the drummer Max Roach's music, was one of the first jazz works to address the civil rights movement.
His commitment to art as a tool for change was most evident in the numerous stage shows he wrote and directed in his native Chicago, which addressed social issues and often had poor black teenagers in their casts. The most famous of these shows, "Opportunity, Please Knock," was created in 1967 with members of the Blackstone Rangers, a street gang. His most recent production was a 2002 revival of "Great Nitty Gritty," a show about gang violence that he had first staged 20 years earlier with young residents of the Cabrini Green housing project.
Oscar Brown Jr. was born in Chicago on Oct. 10, 1926. His performing career began early: he acted in radio dramas as a teenager and was the host of a local radio program called "Negro Newsfront" while still in his 20's. But he did not become actively involved in music until after he had worked briefly for his father's real estate business, run unsuccessfully for public office twice, and served a two-year Army hitch.
After a few lean years as a songwriter, he was signed by Columbia Records as a singer in 1960. Things happened quickly after that: his first album, "Sin and Soul," was released to critical acclaim, and in 1961 he made a triumphant debut at the Village Vanguard in New York and presented excerpts from "Kicks & Co.," a musical for which he wrote the book, music and lyrics, on the "Today" show. "Kicks & Co." never made it to Broadway, closing a few days into its Chicago tryout that fall. But Mr. Brown did reach Broadway in 1969 when Muhammad Ali starred in "Buck White," his musical adaptation of "Big Time Buck White," Joseph Dolan Tuotti's play about a black militant leader. (Mr. Brown himself starred in a San Francisco production.)
Mr. Brown's career never reached the heights some had predicted for it, but he remained a cultural force in Chicago. He also continued to tour occasionally, often in musical revues that he wrote, most of which also featured his wife, the singer and dancer Jean Pace Brown. She survives him, as do a son, Napoleon; four daughters, Maggie Brown, Donna Brown Kane, Iantha Casen and Africa Pace Brown; 16 grandchildren, and 4 great-grandchildren. His son Oscar Brown III, a bass player, died in an automobile accident in 1996.
In addition to his other activities, Mr. Brown made several noteworthy television appearances over the years. He was the host of "Jazz Scene U.S.A.," a syndicated series produced by Steve Allen in 1962, and "From Jumpstreet," a 13-week PBS series that examined the history of black music in 1980. In 1990 he was a regular on "Brewster Place," a dramatic series on ABC that starred Oprah Winfrey, and two years later he had a recurring role as a jazz pianist on the Fox sitcom "Roc."