Jack Brownlow made a mark as jazz pianist

Jack Brownlow learned to play the piano by ear at age 12. By his late teens, he was an accomplished professional. Although he never sought a national stage, he made a stir here as a musician's musician, a quiet pianist known best for his harmonic sophistication and his encyclopedic knowledge of songs.

When he first heard Mr. Brownlow play, Paul Desmond, the alto saxophonist and lead soloist in the Dave Brubeck Quartet, reportedly remarked: "If I played piano, that's how I'd want to play it."

Mr. Brownlow died Saturday (Oct. 27) of kidney failure. He was 84.

Mr. Brownlow was born in Spokane, and his family moved to Wenatchee when he was 10. He took some piano lessons, but mainly he learned by listening to the radio and recordings.

He became known as "Bruno" after a young neighbor called him that because she couldn't pronounce Brownlow, said his longtime friend, journalist and jazz writer Doug Ramsey. The nickname stuck.

During World War II, Mr. Brownlow enlisted and played in a Navy band in Idaho, Ramsey said. After the war, he played in the Kansas City area, and then in Los Angeles, at the time when jazz was the popular music. Mr. Brownlow played with big names such as Lester Young and Boyd Raeburn.

"Those early days in L.A., that was the time that if he was going to launch a major national career, he would have," Ramsey said.

Instead, Mr. Brownlow decided to return to Wenatchee to work with his father in the family printing business.

He didn't return to playing music full time until the mid-1960s, but he made a stir when he did, said Jay Thomas, a Seattle trumpet player and saxophonist.

His style was similar to that of Bill Evans, Thomas said, referring to the jazz pianist who played with Miles Davis on one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time, "Kind of Blue."

In the Seattle area in the 1960s, everyone who was in jazz was into Bill Evans and Miles Davis, Thomas said. "And here's this guy from Wenatchee ... and he's got a lot of the same kinds of harmonies and voicings that Bill Evans played."

Mr. Brownlow eventually moved to Seattle and played all over the city.

"He wasn't demanding of people's attention," Thomas said. "It was kind of subtle and seditious in a way. You could sit there, and all of a sudden be taken away, like, 'Geez, that's really good.' "

Mr. Brownlow was a quiet man, funny, and private, Ramsey said.

He didn't make his first CD, "Dark Dance," until he was 72.

He was generous with his knowledge, skills and his vast collection of songs.

"He knew any tune in any key, he knew the verse, he knew who wrote it and, more often than not, everyone who had recorded it," said Greta Matassa, a Seattle jazz vocalist.

He often invited musicians to his home, where they would play for the joy of it.

"Just listening to him was an education," said Andy Zadrozny, a bassist who visited Mr. Brownlow weekly for the past several years.

Mr. Brownlow never seemed to regret that he hadn't sought a national career, Ramsey said.

"He knew how good he was. He knew that if he had pursued that, he would have been successful."

Mr. Brownlow is survived by a daughter, Nancy. His other daughter, Chris, preceded him in death as well as his former wife, Lela. Services have not yet been set.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com