Canadian jazz 'original' Brian Browne dies at 81

Canadian jazz pianist Brian Browne, whose career spanned half a century, is being remembered for his natural playing ability and his no-nonsense approach to his craft. Browne died Tuesday in Kanata at the age of 81.

Known for his bluesy, natural piano style, Browne delighted in grooming the next generation of jazz players

Jazz pianist Brian Browne's music career spanned half a century. Browne died Tuesday at 81. (brianbrowne.com)

Canadian jazz pianist Brian Browne, whose career spanned half a century, is being remembered for his natural playing ability and his no-nonsense approach to his craft.  

Browne died Tuesday at the age of 81 while residing at the Ruddy-Shenkman Hospice in Kanata. According to Browne's family, lung and tracheal cancer caused his death.

He was an ego-less player. He played from his heart.- Carol Banens, Browne's wife

His music career spanned half a century. Considered one of the hottest jazz pianists in Canada in the 1960s, Browne performed regularly in the CBC Radio's Adventures in Rhythm and on CBC TV's Jazz Piano.

Reached by phone in Toronto, bassist Paul Novotny recalled how he was just 19 when Browne asked him to join the Brian Browne Trio in 1979, beginning a relationship that would last until the pianist's death.

"He taught me how euphoric it can be to have an ensemble come together," Novotny said. "The wisdom that he imparted on me, it's with me for life. I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. It was the best education that I could have received."
Pianist Brian Browne performs Our Love Is Here To Stay in Ottawa in 1959 during a talent show hosted by singer George Murray. 2:07

Bluesy style

Known for his bluesy style of piano playing, Browne started out self-taught and almost never relied on sheet music.

"He never took a scholarly or academic approach to it. It had to come naturally. He was an original," said Novotny.

Browne seemed to genuinely enjoy cultivating a new generation of jazz musicians, Novotny said.

"He was very empathetic, but he was also strongly opinionated. He expected [bandmates] to have intuition. You always knew where he stood. He was really genuine."

Brian Browne at the keyboard in his Kanata home in March 2017. (Alan Neal/CBC)

'His music was transcendent'

Browne's wife Carol Banens described her husband as witty and funny — when he wanted to be. 

"He could come across as a bit of a curmudgeon, but actually he was a big marshmallow inside," Banens said. "He played with such sensitivity and beauty and space. 

"His music was transcendent. A big part of his music was space, not filling up every little bar to show off. He was an ego-less player. He played from his heart."

Born in Montreal in 1937, Browne's family moved to Ottawa when he was 16, and by the age of 18 he was playing professionally despite never having learned to read music.

During a 2017 interview at his Kanata home with Alan Neal of CBC Radio's All In A Day, Browne explained how he got hooked on jazz.

"I could never please my father. He wanted me to play Irish music," Browne said. "When I first heard Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, Art Tatum, guys like that — once I heard the jazz thing, that was it, I had no choice."

Jazz pianist Brian Browne rehearses in his Ottawa living room in March 2017, the day before a performance to mark the musician's 80th birthday. 1:32

Struggled with alcohol, drugs

Following his success in the 1960s, which included a scholarship to study under Peterson, alcohol and drug abuse slowed Browne's career.

His son, Sean Browne, said he and his father both struggled with addictions, and he credits his father with helping him clean up.

"I owe my life and my sobriety to him," Sean Browne said. "He wasn't just a father, he was also my best friend."

Brian Browne moved back to Ottawa in 1999, where he remained until his death. Up until 2016, he continued performing in numerous restaurants and clubs before winding down his professional career over the past two years.

His legacy will live on in the countless audiences he entertained, and the numerous musicians he led.

"There is a strong touch of Brian Browne's decision-making that goes into every musical decision that I make today," said Novotny. "It'll be that way until the day when I'm not here."

Browne is survived by his wife, his four children and his seven grandchildren.

​A memorial service will take place June 15 at 2 p.m. at MacKay United Church in Ottawa's New Edinburgh neighbourhood.