Jack Brownlow has been dead nearly two years, but stories about him keep surfacing. Among his other attributes, the pianist was admired for his harmonic ingenuity, chord placement, taste and timing in accompanying instrumentalists and vocalists. At Brownlow’s memorial service in the fall of 2007, drummer Phil Snyder told several stories about his musical adventures with the man known to his friends as Bruno. He forgot to tell one, though, and sent it to share with Rifftides readers.
As you know, Bruno could play anything in any key. He knew the lyrics to almost every standard song. If they asked him, he also coached singers and advised them how to be better. That combination helped make him a singer’s dream piano player. But he hated to do it if they weren’t good.
One summer day in the ’70’s, he was in bassist Jim Anderson’s living room accompanying a singer who had stopped by to perform for Jack and consult with him about improving himself. When I walked in, Jack and the singer were in the middle of “On a Clear Day,” so I quietly sank into the beanbag chair in the corner facing the piano. The man singing was someone I had never heard or seen, a handsome guy with dark skin and curly hair nicely coifed. He had a Latin accent. He sang as if he were every woman’s desire, though there weren’t any women in the room, just Bruno and me. The singer used a lot of arm and hand gestures. He was facing the piano and couldn’t see me, but Bruno and I had eye contact.
This guy’s singing was terrible. Bruno was embarrassed and wouldn’t look at me. He turned his head to the left and faced the wall away from the singer. Bruno played no choruses. Finally, “On A Clear Day” was over. Bruno fiddled with the music on top of the piano. After uncomfortable silence, the singer asked him, “What do you think?” Bruno said nothing. “Let’s try something else,” the singer said.” “How about ‘Have You Met Miss Jones?”‘
Reluctantly, Bruno played an introduction and the singing began. It was a terrible rendition, with mispronunciations and scrambled phrasing. Finally, that was over, too. “Let’s do one more,” the singer pleaded. “Let’s do a ballad.” Bruno looked at me and rolled his eyes. With excitement, the singer said, “‘My Funny Valentine?’ Do you know that one Mr. Brownlow?” Bruno nodded. The singer launched into it and gave rubato a whole new meaning. Finally, “Valentine” was over. Bruno sighed and stood up.
“Well, Mr. Brownlow…what do you think?”
Bruno didn’t say anything. He briefly looked at me, and started to shuffle the music on the piano again.
“Mr. Brownlow? What do you think about my singing? “Do you think I have a great voice?”
Bruno had a difficult time telling an untruth about anything musical. At the same time, he didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. Finally, he looked at the man and said, “Great voice? No, I wouldn’t say you had a great voice. It needs some work.”
“How about my pitch?”
Still shuffling papers, Bruno stood up, then sat down again.
“Yes! My pitch. You know…am I singing in tune?”
Again an uncomfortable pause. “In tune? No, not exactly. You could
work on that, actually.”
The singer was getting disturbed.
“How about my, how do you musicians put it, my swinging? Am I swinging? I think I was swinging.”
I was sitting behind the piano trying to keep quiet and not break up. Bruno was starting to sweat, which I’d never seen him do before.
“Swinging?” he said.
“Yes, yes, yes. You must understand swinging. Was I swinging?”
Silence. Bruno looked again at me. Quietly, every quietly, Bruno said, “A little bit.” He paused. Actually, I wouldn’t say that. Not swinging…not exactly swinging. No. I’d have to say no on that.”
The singer was upset. Bruno was clutching a bunch of music in his arms as if to protect himself from blows. I was lying back on the beanbag chair, but not comfortably. The room was very tense. Finally, the singer, who at this point was pacing back and forth, mumbled forcefully.
“Now wait a minute. Let me get this straight. You said I don’t have a good voice. Isn’t that right?”
Bruno looked away. “Well, that might be overstat… ”
“And then you said that my pitch was wrong, that I was out of tune. Right?”
“Well, I didn’t put it quite that way, but yes…”
“Then Mr. Brownlow, you said that I am not swinging at all. Isn’t that also what you said?”
Bruno, now terrified about what this guy was going to do next, tried to ease his pain.
“Well, well, a little bit of swinging, I suppose…toward the end there…”
“STOP!” said the singer.
Again there was uncomfortable, really uncomfortable, silence in the room. Bruno didn’t move. I didn’t move. The singer quit pacing, looked at Bruno and said,
“I come here to sing for you and for you to judge my singing. You tell me that my voice is bad, my pitch is bad, and my rhythm is bad. What else is there?”
Again, there was a pause. Bruno was trying to find something positive to say. Finally, he blurted,
“Your posture is EXCELLENT!”
Bob Godfre says
Phil Snyder’s story is wonderful….sounds exactly like Jack.
(Mr. Godfrey played drums with Jack Brownlow over three decades. — DR)
Scott Faulkner says
I miss Bruno. Thanks a lot for sharing this story, Doug.
Along these lines, when Bruno and I played at the Canlis piano bar, he hated when people sang along. When Bruno wanted to ditch a singer, it wasn’t a fair fight…nobody ever even made it to the bridge. I wouldn’t have thought that a pianist could go through four completely unrelated keys within 16 bars and still make a song sound good. It was great ear training for me, although I must say I, too, ended up on the short end sometimes.
I have known very few people who have mastered music completely. Jack Brownlow is one of them.
(Mr. Faulkner, a bassist, is executive director of the Reno Chamber Orchestra.)
(I once offered to have engraved for Bruno a small brass plaque to place on the Canlis piano. It would have read “Thank You For Not Singing.” He laughed but declined, not wanting to offend anyone. The method Scott describes was more effective, and a lot more fun. — DR)
Dick Bank says
I laughed out loud –no, howled — throughout the Bruno story. A classic!
Of course, the way it was told was inspired.