LISTEN PEOPLE! THE STORY OF BRIAN BROWNE
Brian Browne was born in Montreal on March 16th, 1937. His father (a great Irish fiddler and avid music lover) made sure to fill the Browne family home with music to nurture a love of music in his children from an early age. Brian took to piano early and practiced frequently throughout his youth and teens. A self-taught musician who idolized jazz-piano heroes such as Art Tatum, George Shearing and Oscar Peterson, Browne was playing piano at hospitals and old-age homes before he left high school.
The Browne family moved to Ottawa in the early 1950s when Brian's father Leo, a bank manager for BMO, was transferred to manage the Bank of Montreal branch in Westboro. Truthfully, either Ottawa or Montreal would have been perfect to nurture the musicality of young Brian; both had thriving jazz scenes around this time and well into the 1960's.
He graduated from Fisher Park High School in 1955 and then attended the University of Ottawa. His initial plan was to become a lawyer but his passion for music was undeniable. Brian realized early on that he needed a solid foundation in harmony and musical theory to be successful. To achieve this, he switched his major and began to study music with composition as his major. He'd also go on to study at Boston’s Berklee School of Music and famously won a scholarship to study with Oscar Peterson at Peterson's Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto.
Upon his return to Ottawa in 1957, he formed The Brian Browne Trio with bassist Sol Gunner and drummer Glenn Robb. They took steady gigs throughout the Ottawa-Hull area (most notably Ottawa's Beacon Arms Hotel) with brief stops in Montreal and Toronto. He was adamant about his want to only perform alongside serious jazzmen, in serious clubs, so he was selective of where he and his band played. He had a short-lived radio show in Ottawa around 1959, where he shared some of his favorite jazz music, and also broadcast live performances of his band and others.
For two years he broadcast locally until CBC producer Peter Shaw discovered the show. With a slight rebrand, "The Browne Beat" radio show was born! This show was broadcast weekly throughout its run. This only helped to boost he and his band's status as purveyors of authentic Jazz. With this boost in status, the beckoning of high class rooms was too much to resist. He'd soon receive calls from Toronto's Westbury Hotel, Club Cav-a-Bob and Park Plaza Hotel chains, Niagara's lavish Park Motor Hotel and many others were also looking to book Brian's group.
They continued to play around Ontario through the early part of the 60's, but Brian was focused on going where the opportunity and respect for Jazz were present. Toronto was constantly one of his favorite places to perform and he felt that moving here would only facilitate his growth further. He'd officially make the move in 1963, settling down on Lawrence Avenue with his wife (married in 1960) and one year-old son.
After making the move, he found himself having to rebuild his trio. First, Brian recruited bassist Pearson "Skip" Beckwith. Brian first met Skip a year or two earlier on one of his many musical visits to Toronto. The two bonded and upon Brian's return, Pearson was his first choice on bass. Skip quickly introduced Brian to a friend of his, drummer Donald Vickery. Don and Skip were close friends who went way back; playing in various groups in their earlier years back in Halifax. With the three musicians in place, The Brian Browne Trio was reborn!
By 1965, The Brian Browne Trio had become a popular live draw in Jazz clubs across Ontario. Many fans had tuned in for hours to Brian's radio show, hearing his budding talent as a composer really take off! It only made sense that he'd record an album. He was approached in February by RCA Victor to do just that. The album was released in May of that year and sold fairly well. The album musically was top notch, establishing Brian as both a great arranger and performer. In addition to these accolades, the album features three original compositions of Brian's; Browne Sugar, Toot That Whistle and lastly, Blue Hair. The sessions were produced by Toronto- based promoter and songwriter S. B. Hains (writing songs for Earl Heywood, Sound 80, Mike Graham, The Fernwood Trio and more) and engineered by W.M. Giles; who also engineered Al & Ina Harris' lone album that year as well.
The minor success of the album allowed the Trio to perform in more places across Canada than ever. It also resulted in the group performing on some TV and radio shows, including a few on the CBC; Adventures in Rhythm, The Browne Beat, Nightcap, Jazz Canada and others Adventures in Rhythm, The Browne Beat, Nightcap, Jazz Canada and others. With all this recent success, plans for The Brian Browne Trio's second album were underway.
1966 and 1967 were busy years for Brian and his Trio. They’d record three albums, for three different labels, two stand-alone singles, and held down residencies at a number of clubs and hotels across Ontario. The TV and radio appearances were numerous as well, helping to further the group’s exposure.
First out of the gate in 1966 was “Listen, People” Brian’s second album for RCA in April of that year. This album featured a number of well performed covers but most importantly, four original songs by Brian; Slick Tom, A Mere Bag Of Shells, Happy Little Mothers and Nuts In May. The album performed well upon its release and local Quality Records signed them to a brief deal; recording one single. June saw the release of their first single “Blues For The U.F.O.’s/Flowers On The Wall” was released in June, 1966. The A-Side was another Brian original, a more pop-oriented affair this time around; unfortunately it failed to chart. The single would receive a U.S. release on the New York based Academy label, interestingly seeing three pressings; Grey/Black in June, Black/White on July 2nd and Grey/Blue on July 16th.
Around this time, Donald Vickery left the group after 3 years together; he was quickly replaced by Toronto drummer Alex Lazaroff. August saw the reformed group sought by J. Lyman Potts’ Canadian Talent Library label for an album recording with clarinetist Henry Cuesta.
Henry although American born, spent many years in Canada playing clarinet with a few groups, but mainly leading his own. After this recording, he’d briefly tour with the Doug Wilson Quartet in 1967 as well as performing on their lone single “Canada/Canadian Theme.” The following few years saw him release three more albums for the Canadian Talent Library label, leading his own group, before returning to the U.S. to join Lawrence Welk’s Orchestra.
The joint album between The Brian Brown Trio and Henry Cuesta in 1966, saw the band doing double duty; performing one side solo and the other backing Henry. On the band side, Brian again has some original material featured. Although only half the originals as his last album, “Swedish Summer” and “Stick In The Mud” represent strong entries on the album.
Due to the Canadian Talent Library’s business model, the album was not commercially issued; rather it was distributed to subscribing stations across Canada, the U.S. and U.K. This meant that while jazz fans could appreciate the songs (the ones that were chosen for play anyways), there was no way to actually buy the album and hear the rest of the music. Although originally this may have seemed like a bad thing, this proved instrumental in getting his foot in the door with the CBC.
1967 early on saw The Brian Browne Trio contracted by the CBC to record a transcription with The Douglas Randle Orchestra for their new LM series. This time around, Brian only had one original composition on the album; The languid “Blues Before Bedtime.” With the same business model as the CTL in the sense that there would be no commercial release, this meant that 1967 would be a light year of music recording for “The Trio.” However, this is where their T.V. appearances and behind the scenes work for the CBC and CTV really began. This year saw them on Nightcap, Adventures In Rhythm and Jazz Canada.
Capitol Records came knocking in September of 1967, signing Brian and his band to a deal. This would see the release of “Ode To Billy Joe/Blueberry Hill” in October, to minor success. Brian would record an album for the label in 1969 under his own name (sans Trio).
The next few years would see the T.V. and radio performances increase in lieu of actual live dates. In 1968, the CTV would hire the trio as the house band for the musical variety show “The River Inn.” Around this time, Alex Lazaroff would depart the group and would be quickly replaced by Bruce Philip; an unknown Canadian drummer who had previously played with Catherine McKinnon.
Brian’s shining moment came in 1969 when on a CBC-TV special simply titled Jazz Piano. Browne was featured with U.S. piano greats Erroll Garner, Bill Evans and Marian MacPartland. During the show, Browne quipped: “If you play music for people drinking cocktails, it’s called cocktail music. If you play for people who can’t afford cocktails, that’s jazz.”
Sensing the hype surrounding his performance on Jazz Piano, Capitol Records sent Brian into the studio to record an album under his own name. This album was a moderate success upon its release in 1969. It featured two original songs in “The Bread Song” and “Morning, Moon And Night-Time-Too” the latter of which would become a surprise hit five years later with the reissue of the album, even being awarded BMI Song of the Year.
In 1971, he recorded with Canadian singer Anne Murray on two of her albums; This Way is My Way and Honey, Wheat and Laughter. He’d also appear with her on her subsequent CBC television special that year.
As the 1970’s wore on, Brian would begin to grow unhappy with his direction and the general grind of the business. He’d begin to cope with alcohol and drugs and immediately it would affect his home life and slow his career trajectory. He’d stop drinking by the end of the 1970’s but would continue to use drugs. The music stopped for a bit while Brian sunk deeper into his own pit of despair. The latter half of the 70’s and early 1980’s were relatively uneventful. He did manage to get a trio together and record a live album in Toronto, titled “Live At The Park Plaza” between 1976-1979. This concert featured a new, short-lived trio; including drummer Terry Clarke and bassist Doug Johnston.
1986 would see things start to look up for Brian. After a few years wandering aimlessly, he got back to the piano. Browne returned to Ottawa, where he opened Zoe’s Lounge in the Fairmont Château Laurier and worked there for a year. He was contacted by the CBC in the summer of ’86 to record an album of Beatles covers. He’d recruit drummer Barry Elmes, bassist Paul Novotny, percussionist Jim Payetta and synth player Ray Parker. The album was a minor success; rekindling Brian’s passion slightly, but it wasn’t to last. Near the end of the year he’d record a solo piano concert for the CBC which remained unreleased until the 2010’s.
In 1989, he moved to New York City where he cut back on playing piano and managed a pool hall briefly. Many would argue this wasn’t a good move as his pool hall attracted some really rough types. On more than one occasion, Brian had to break up fights, go to the ER to have glass removed; but surprisingly, he seemed to love this change of pace. The city helped him rediscover his love of jazz over time. As the 90’s began he’d get a group together and perform throughout the city. Near the end of his time in the city, Brian would finally kick drugs.
In 1999, he’d return to Ottawa after a roughly ten year stay in NYC, to take care of his parents who were in bad health and were getting quite old. Soon after, the two would pass away. Brian ultimately decided to stay in Ottawa. After a few months getting settled, he wasted little time getting a new group together. Then in his mid-60’s, Brian re-established himself on Ottawa’s jazz scene, toting a keyboard to restaurant gigs, teaching novices from his apartment and recording CDs.
The struggle of the musician lifestyle is not for everyone. Brian fought tooth and nail to make it his own. He was a fabulous natural musician, who for decades inspired peers and fans with his personal and artistic honesty. Brian Brown had a unique sense of humour and quick wit. He’d pour his life out through his fingertips every time he sat at the piano; bringing intimate and joyous moments to his audiences. May he rest in peace and may his memory live on forever.
WRITTEN & RESEARCHED BY: AARON LUSCH