Friday, June 8, 2012

Jack Brownlow: A Hometown Favorite


© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


Every town has one.

Whether its Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Reno or Seattle.

Somewhere in these cities, there is an exceptional Jazz musician who is mainly known only to those familiar with the local Jazz scene.

For whatever reason, these local Jazz musicians don’t travel, preferring to stay close to home while working the occasional club date, party or benefit.

Every so often, a group of local admirers cobble some schimolies together and produce a compact disc to put on display their local favorite’s talents.

These fans know that their player is special and want portable accessibility to the music while at the same time doing their bit to document it for posterity.

Until the advent of e-commerce, the “distribution” of such recordings often consisted of making it available for sale on a card table that was staffed by someone before and/or after gigs or performances.

When you’ve listened to a lot of Jazz, you can usually tell when someone is special.

You hear it first in the phrasing and with the ready expression of ideas while soloing.

Jazz soloing is like the geometric head start in the sense that you never catch up.

When you improvise something it’s gone; you can’t retrieve it and do it again.

You have to stay on top of what you are doing as Jazz is insistently progressive – it goes forward with you or without you.

People who can play the music, flow with it. Their phrasing is in line with the tempo, the new melodies that they super-impose over the chord structures are interesting and inventive and they bring a sense of command and completion to the process of creating Jazz.

These qualities help bring some Jazz musicians to national, if not, international prominence. Deservedly so.  It’s not easy to play this stuff.

We buy their recordings, read articles about them in the Jazz press and attend their concerts and club dates.

But throughout the history of Jazz, be it in the form of what was referred to as “territory bands,” or local legends who never made it to the big time or recorded, or those who only played Jazz as a hobby, word-of-mouth communication somehow managed to inform us of the startling brilliance of these locally-based musicians.

Such was the case with pianist Jack Brownlow who for many years was one of the most highly regarded Jazz musicians in the greater-Seattle area.

The eminent Jazz author, Doug Ramsey, first brought Jack Brownlow to my attention in 1999 when he hipped me to the fact that Jack’s trio would be appearing at Seattle’s Jazz Alley to commemorate the release of its Jazz Focus CD Suddenly It’s Bruno [JFCD 031].

I was living in Seattle at the time, and little did I know it, but Bruno [Jack’s nickname] and I were neighbors as we both resided in the Green Lake suburb of the city.


Listening to Jack Brownlow play Jazz that evening was a memorable experience.

He reminded me of Nat King Cole, Paul Smith, George Shearing and Bill Evans, all of whom are piano stylists in the sense that their technical ability, or as some call it today, their “pianism” is implied rather than stated.

Jack plays “pretty” piano; the instrument’s sonority rings true. There’s a lot going on in the music, but you’re not overwhelmed by it. He guides the music where he wants it to go and in so doing takes the listener with him on a melodic musical journey.

His knowledge of harmony is huge, but here again, much like Jimmy Rowles, it’s understated. Jack hints; he alludes; he creates impressions. He frames the original chords with substitutions and augmentations, but he doesn’t hit-you-over-the-head while doing so.

To my ears, a key underpinning of Jack’s style is his strong rhythmic sense. He is able to play so lightly while weaving in and out of his inspired solos because of his absolutely centered sense of time. He always knows where he is in the music.

Doug Ramsey wrote the following insert notes to Suddenly It’s Bruno and has graciously allowed us to reprint them on these pages.

They contain a wonderful overview of the career of his friend and a gifted pianist who over the years became a hometown favorite of many Jazz fans in the Seattle and Washington-state area.

© -Doug Ramsey, copyright protected; all rights reserved. Used with the author’s permission.

Suddenly it's Bruno

“Well, not quite suddenly. Jack Brownlow has been playing his inventive melodic lines and exquisite harmonies since he was a boy in the 1930s. At 12, he discovered that he could play any song in any key, without written music, an inheritance from his mother. He studied formally, but when he demonstrated to one of his piano teachers that certain Chopin sonatas needed harmonic improvements, she decided she had taken him as far as she could. His development accelerated. In his teens he was a professional pianist, working in his home town of Wenatchee, Washington, and occa­sionally in Seattle, across the Cascade mountains.

Following his days as a Navy musician in World War Two, Jack spent four months in Kansas City. Most of his play­ing there was at Tootie's Mayfair, a club where Charlie Parker and other KC heroes had worked a few years earlier. As in Bird's day, the experience was intense and the hours were long, from 10 in the evening until 4 a.m. Later in 1945, Brownlow and his service friend Jack Weeks, the bassist and composer-arranger, lived in Los Angles. Working out his Local 47 musicians union card, be spent six months playing around California—mostly at the Big Bear resort in the mountains above Los Angeles—with Weeks and the prominent dance band of his father, Anson Weeks. With an addi­tional six-months hiatus in Wenatchee, he completed the union waiting period and returned to LA., immediately find­ing work with dozens of players prominent in the yeasty post-war Southern California jazz community. Among them were Lester Young, Lucky Thompson and Boyd Raeburn. With Raeburn's trailblazing big band he played piano when
Dodo Marmarosa was otherwise occupied and is heard on some of the bands radio transcriptions.

In late 1946, Weeks enrolled at Mills College for the opportunity to study with the modernist French composer Darius Milhaud. Another young veteran named Dave Brubeck made the same choice. Brownlow considered going to Mills, but he returned to Wenatchee, went into the printing business with his father, married and raised a family. Bruno——his nickname ever since a neighbor's child pronounced Brownlow that way—never gave up his night gig. He played for dances, in taverns, in clubs, in concerts. He accompanied singers and wrote instrumental and vocal arrangements. The lack of sleep was compensated by steadily deepening musical skills. Soon, musicians who worked with Bruno or heard him in the Pacific Northwest circulated word about him, as had Navy musicians and his LA. colleagues.


Ray Blagoff, later a lead trumpeter in name bands and the Hollywood studios, was with Jack at the Farragut Naval base in ldaho. 'We were all in awe of his ear,’ Blagoff says. 'He could play anything in any key. We met shortly after I reported to Farragut. ‘I told him I'd like to play I Had the Craziest Dream " in E. He didn’t 't bat an eye, and I was thrilled because no one had ever been able to accompany me in that key. I told him I had learned the tune from the Harry James record. He said Harry James recorded it in E-flat and my turntable must have been running at the wrong speed.’

His uncanny ear was matched by harmonic acuity and an accompanying gift of melodic inventiveness. Musicians who heard him were impressed. Those who worked with him were astonished. They included the violinist Joe Venuti, whose cantankerousness equaled his brilliance. On their first meeting, Venuti tried his famous trick of derailing the accompanists by changing keys every few bars without warning. Every time he turned left, Bruno and his protégé, bassist Jim Anderson, were on him like flypaper. After Venuti got over his frustration at not being able to instigate one of the train wrecks that gave him so much pleasure, they all settled in and played a great gig.

Bruno moved to Seattle in 1965 and dedicated himself totally to music for the first time since his Los Angeles days. He became a fixture at America’s Cup and, for years, at Canlis, the elegant restaurant high above Lake Union. Usually, he played alone. Occasionally he was joined by Jim Anderson or another bassist. Canlis patrons with sophisticated hearing, among them George Shearing and Alan Hovhaness, were treated to chords and melodic patterns light years beyond what they might have expected as a background for dining. After dinner, the serious listeners joined the cocktailers clustered around the piano.

Musicians serious about developing in harmony, improvisation and repertoire have always found in Jack a wise and will­ing teacher. On his nights off and frequently during the day, the music room of Brownlow’s house, Chateau Bruno, became a workshop for developed and developing musicians. Over the years, they have included trumpeters Randy Brecker and Jay Thomas, guitarist John Stowell and bassists Clipper Anderson, Rufus Reid, Dean Johnson, Andy Zadrozny and Gary Peacock They studied informally with Bruno, as did saxophonist Don Lanphere when he was growing up in Wenatchee

At a party at my house in New York in the early 1970s, the alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, hearing Brownlow for the first time, said, "If I played piano, that's how I'd want to play it.' Paul did not have his horn along. He tried to persuade Bruno to extend his East Coast stay so that Desmond could round up bassist Ron Carter and a drummer for some sessions. Brownlow had to get back to Seattle. The results of what would have been an intriguing partnership must be left to the imagination.

In the mid-1990s, Jack reached the saturation point as a restaurant pianist. He ended the nightly job at Canlis and put himself once again on the jazz market. Work materialized almost at once at clubs in Seattle. The pocket conservatory in his living room saw increasing activity, as the city's latest crop of young jazz players showed up to learn and jam. Bassists are particularly attracted to Bruno's harmonic wisdom. There have been so many of them that if there is ever a Jack Brownlow Big Band, it is likely to be Bruno and 15 bass players. In 1996, his first album, Dark Dance appeared as a CD on the Bruno label. He and Clipper Anderson appeared as a duo at the Bumbershoot Jazz Festival in Seattle in 1997. Musical director Bud Shank featured The Jack Brownlow Trio at the Jazz Port Townsend Festival in 1998… .

Bruno became a Seattle institution soon after he established himself in the city in the 1960s. Fans and musicians spread his name far beyond the Pacific Northwest. For years they urged him to record. When he finally did, it was for a label [his own] with virtually no distribution. Now, after five decades of exquisite music-making, Suddenly It’s Bruno takes him to a wider audience and matches his accomplishments to his legend.”