Patti Bown died last Friday in a Pennsylvania nursing home, little known not only to the general public but also to many jazz listeners. Despite her talent as a pianist, Miss Bown never became celebrated to the degree that she might have. That was for reasons at least partly to do with her uncompromising individualism.
Good breaks, good management and good advice–if she had been willing to take it–could have made a difference. There is strong evidence of her talent on recordings she made as a member of the remarkable Quincy Jones big band and with Gene Ammons, Jimmy Rushing, Illinois Jacquet, Dinah Washington and Oliver Nelson, among others.
In Patti’s obituary in Monday’s Seattle Times, Paul de Barros described her as “idiosyncratic, outspoken, versatile.” He might have added brilliant, well-read and argumentative. I knew her for a time in Seattle before she moved to New York. One night we were at a small party in honor of Dave Brubeck following a concert by his quartet. It was shortly after Brubeck was the subject of a TIME magazine cover story and was becoming famous. Brubeck, Patti and I sat talking at length about the part of the article that dealt with his forthright attitude on racial matters as expressed in a verse sung years later by Louis Armstrong in Brubeck’s musical The Real Ambassadors.
‘They say I look like God,
Could God be black my God!
If both are made in the image of thee,
Could thou perchance a zebra be?’
How I wish that I had a recording of that conversation, which I remember only as alternating between intensity and laughter.
Patti was a vital and unfailingly interesting part of a Seattle jazz community that also included trumpeter Floyd Standifer and bassist Buddy Catlett. They were all childhood friends of Jones. When he formed the big band he took to Europe in 1959, they were in it, along with others including Phil Woods, Quentin Jackson, Budd Johnson, Melba Liston, Clark Terry and Joe Harris–a cross-section of veterans and emerging stars. Patti is in the rhythm section of that remarkable band on the Quincy Jones DVD in the Jazz Icons series.
Recently, from Holland emerged video clips of a small unit from the Jones band in which Patti was the pianist. The others are Woods, Jackson, Harris (misidentified on the videos as Joe Morris), Catlett and Sahib Shihab. Each of the musicians solos on all three tunes. Patti’s chorus on “Straight No Chaser” comes closest to what I remember of the daring, even quirky, aspects of her improvisational style, but she is also eloquent on “Undecided” and “Ornithology.” No one takes more than one solo chorus in these clips that run in the neighborhood of three minutes apiece. It is striking how expressive the players are in the forced economy of the time limit. In the post-Coltrane era, that kind of self-editing is all but a lost art.
You may also hear Patti Bown on these CDs:
Quincy Jones: Pure Delight
Oliver Nelson: Afro/American Sketches
Oliver Nelson Verve Jazz Masters (on four tracks)
Gene Ammons: Late Hour Special
Patti Bown, whom I wish I had known longer and better; gone at seventy-six.