Father, son struggle with addiction: 'a jazz musician's curse'

Brian and Sean Browne are playing the first Steel City Jazz Fest in Hamilton this week

Brian and Sean Browne are playing the first Steel City Jazz Fest in Hamilton this week

Both Brian Browne and his son Sean have wrestled with demons so often associated with jazz music.

"I was smoking weed at eight years old," the younger Browne told CBC Hamilton. "I was driving my dad down the Don Valley Parkway when I was 11 and he was pissed drunk."

Both father and son endured years of addiction, some decades apart. Brian was one of Canada's hottest jazz pianists in the early 60s. Back then, he starred in weekly CBC radio and TV shows like Adventures in Rhythm and was profiled with American jazz pianists Erroll Garner, Bill Evans and Marian MacPartland for a CBC TV show called Jazz Piano.

But booze, pot and a host of other drugs slowed his career. By the late 80s, Browne was managing a pool hall in New York City — reportedly one of the biggest in the country at that time. He also wasn't playing piano professionally anymore.

"He told me when he quit, he hated music," Sean said. "He couldn't look at a piano."

Sean also struggled with addiction. It's a jazz musician's curse, he says. "When you're high, you can play the s--t out of it," the younger Browne said. "When you're straight, you just don't feel it the same."

"You know every jazz musician struggles with drugs and alcoholism."

Both Brownes have now been sober for years. Brian stopped drinking in 1979 and got off drugs by 1991. His son has been clean for years, too. Now they enjoy sometimes playing together — and they'll be doing just that this Friday at The Pearl Company as part of the first Steel City Jazz Fest.

Trying to keep up

Sean is a self-taught upright bass player, and has lived in Hamilton for the better part of 15 years. He's played with his father before — most recently at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

When asked how he feels about playing with his father this week, Sean answers simply, "Scared s---less."

"Sometimes I'm a little bit intimidated because I'm hanging on by a hair trying to keep up with him," he said.

"He's a professional, and I'm not. He turned pro at 17."

But if Sean is worried onstage, his father hasn't noticed. "He has heard me play since the time he was born," the elder Browne told CBC Hamilton from Ottawa, where he lives. "He has this instinctive feel that no one else has."

"It's wonderful."

Highlighting Hamilton

Steel City Jazz organizer Chris Ferguson first heard Sean play at Humble Pie on James Street North during an Art Crawl. The Brownes contacted him about finding a spot in the festival, and he was thrilled.

So thrilled, in fact, that they're shipping in a grand piano from Oakville just for use during the performance. "I'm just really excited to have them involved," Ferguson said.

Compared to other jazz festivals in Ottawa and Montreal, Hamilton's version is smaller. That's because larger festivals tend to branch out of jazz music and bring in out of town acts, Ferguson says. "We wanted to highlight Hamilton."

The festival starts on Thursday, and plays out on four stages in the city until Sunday. Aside from The Pearl Company, there are also stages at Baltimore House, the Waterfront and Homegrown Hamilton.

Ferguson says the jazz genre lends itself to a festival atmosphere because it can be an intimidating type of music to get into because of its technicality and cache. "A festival gives you a new way to enjoy the music," he said. "It becomes more of an event and helps to break down barriers."

It's been a few years since Hamilton has had a festival that is heavily jazz focused, he says — but he thinks it's about time. "There's certainly an appetite here," he said.

"Everyone I've talked to has seemed interested and supportive."

Tickets to all Steel City Jazz Festival performances can be purchased at the door of the performance. The cost per ticket varies depending on the venue and performer, but all tickets are $10 or less.

Brian and Sean Browne play at The Pearl Company on Friday night at 10 p.m. For more information on the festival, visit