Updated June 7 to include details of Browne's memorial service on June 15.
One of Ottawa's most distinctive jazz voices, pianist Brian Browne, died Tuesday afternoon. He was 81 years old.
Browne's greatest joy was in playing jazz standards, songs he considered “basically masterpieces that have survived the test of time, and that's why they're still around. They'll be around forever.”. He would perform them both with sensitivity and with considerable relish and élan – and never the same way twice.
“I could play 'Autumn Leaves' every night of my life and it would be different every night. The only thing that's the same is the title and the framework, the actual skeleton of the actual piece of music. I could play it in different keys, for a different feeling once in a while,” he told OttawaJazzScene.ca in 2014.
“And that's the beauty of playing the standards because even if the title is the same and the framework is the same, it's like building a house. The frame is the same but every time you play you have different rooms, different walls, different pictures on the wall, different colour rugs. It's always different. And that's what's fresh about playing jazz!”
His definition of a standard, though, was wider than just the Great American Songbook. It reached from the 1920s into the 1970s and 80s, with songs by the Beatles, Leonard Cohen, and Billy Joel.
Browne had an bluesy piano style that swung strongly but could also slow down, for example in his rendition of Cohen's “Hallelujah”, to become powerfully emotional. His playing was in the tradition of Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson (with whom he studied), Errol Garner and Bill Evans, but was immediately identifiable as his own.
He played from memory, without sheet music, the songs flowing through his fingers. For his own concerts, he rarely made up formal set lists – he considered them boring – preferring to just jot down some song titles, which he might or might not play, on a sheet of paper. His trio members simply had to recognize the tunes as they started!
He was a man of strong opinions and stronger language. His quick wit often left his audiences laughing, and his musicianship frequently evoked standing ovations.
Browne released more than 13 CDs and DVDs of him playing solo and in trios, the most recent of which was Feelings . He was well-known for his shows each fall at the National Arts Centre Fourth Stage, usually with renowned Toronto musicians including Neil Swainson, Paul Novotny, and Terry Clarke. His NAC shows always sold out. One of these shows was released as a live recording; the last two shows were recorded, but never released on CD.
In 2011, he performed on a Saturday evening at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, and almost completely filled Confederation Park with eager and intent listeners. For many years, he was a regular Thursday night draw at Juniper Kitchen and Wine Bar in Westboro until that restaurant closed in 2014. More recently, his solo shows at GigSpace would always sell out quickly. He regularly played in duos at the Options Jazz Lounge at the Brookstreet Hotel, and in locations like Record Runner Rehearsal Studios, the Record Centre, and local churches.
In March, 2017, he celebrated his 80th birthday at The Record Centre in a show with saxophonist Peter Woods.
Montreal-born, Browne moved as a teenager to Ottawa. By the age of eighteen he was playing in local clubs in both Hull and Ottawa, and had his own CBC radio programme. He studied at Boston's Berklee School of Music and later won a scholarship to study with Oscar Peterson in Toronto. In 1969, he appeared on a CBC-TV special called Jazz Piano, profiled with well-known American jazz pianists Erroll Garner, Bill Evans, and Marian MacPartland.
In 1986 he opened Zoe’s Lounge in Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier Hotel and remained there for a year as musical director. He spent a decade in New York City, and then returned to Ottawa in 1999, where he established himself as the dean of local jazz pianists.
In recent years, Browne worked with several local musicians in acclaimed projects. Vocalist Elise Letourneau was a frequent collaborator; in 2015 they released a live recording they made at GigSpace called The Long and Winding Road.
Saxophonist and United Church minister Peter Woods toured and frequently played with Browne over decades. In 2013 they released a CD of jazz and gospel numbers called Honest Company, followed more recently by The Light of Common Day.
Clarinetist Dave Renaud recorded two CDs of heartfelt jazz and gospel with Browne: First Love and Encore, and their live performances together were well-received. Renaud told OttawaJazzScene.ca that he wanted Browne because “I liked the way he plays. I play better with him because I try to play up to his level. And that pushes me."
Vocalist Steve Berndt evoked the spirit of Tony Bennett and Bill Evans together with Browne in two CDs of jazz standards, Déjà Vu and All Over Again. They played together numerous times at the NAC, at festivals, and in smaller shows. Berndt said that when he was planning the first CD, “I decided to start at the top” and ask Browne, “and he said 'Yes'. So lucky me!”
Browne also taught several promising young pianists, including Clayton Connell, and was a regular faculty member at the Carleton University Jazz Camp.
For many years, he had serious problems with alcohol and drugs, which he had kicked by the time he returned here in 1999. He talked about them openly. In a masterclass at the first Carleton University Jazz Camp in 2010, he told the students there about his life and his struggles with addiction, urging them not to follow his example.
He told the students: “I think the real me is in there somewhere in the way I play. Because that's where I escape to.”
Browne had continued performing despite bouts of cancer starting in 2012, and had shows booked as recently as January. He entered hospice care in late May.
He is survived by his wife, Carol Banens. He has four children from a previous marriage.
There will be a memorial service for Browne at MacKay United Church, 39 Dufferin Road in New Edinburgh, on Friday, June 15, at 2 p.m. It is open to all.
While you’re here we’d like to ask for your help.
OttawaJazzScene.ca reported about Brian Browne’s jazz – in words, photos, and video – since we started in 2009, creating permanent stories about his unique musical contribution that inspire jazz fans after his passing.
Every week all year long, we report the inspiring, exciting, and sometimes challenging – but always engaging and very human – process of creating jazz, and the live performances themselves. We’ve informed the public about the accomplishments of a jazz hero to young jazz musicians, and about swinging vocals to the spectacular avant-garde. We’re thankful that there’s a vibrant scene - but it’s a lot to cover. We've informed listeners about more than 17,000 live Jazz events of all kinds in our live jazz guides.
It’s disappointing when we miss an important jazz story for lack of resources. Just last week a hard-working and talented young musician with an uncommon musical voice was the first jazz musician to receive the RBC Emerging Artist Award. Regrettably, we were unable to attend the awards ceremony and report from there, because we could not afford $7 in bus tickets after our bike developed a flat tire en route.
We’re doing our best to shine a spotlight on the scene with the $22 per day funding we’ve received from generous readers this season. We would greatly appreciate it if you are able to make a donation of any amount to help sustain our reporting.
Your donation will help us to inform the public about the new jazz that can be heard live and the people creating new jazz projects right now, and will help create a permanent legacy of it for the future. Thank you.
See all the Brian Browne shows OttawaJazzScene.ca has listed since 2014
Read a few of OttawaJazzScene.ca's many stories about Brian Browne and the musicians he's collaborated with:
- The unpredictable Brian Browne 
- The Brian Browne Trio shows why the jazz piano trio has enduring appeal (review of NAC Fourth Stage show) 
- Brian Browne is MJF's first and busy artist-in-residence this year 
- Merrickville's Jazz Fest Day 3: polished vocals and joyful instrumentals 
- Bass clarinet adds further depth to David Renaud and Brian Browne's attuned duo show 
- Brian Browne and Peter Woods fill the Record Centre with standards 
- David Renaud looks for grace and love in his new duo CD with Brian Browne 
- Steve Berndt and Brian Browne: live at the NAC, All Over Again (video) 
- It's Déjá Vu with Steve Berndt and Brian Browne (video)