Unsung Women of Jazz #2 – Patti Bown

 Patti Bown (1931 – 2008)

 “When I walked home from school, I passed the pool parlor and the Mardi Gras and they always had jazz playing.  My mother was saying ‘No!’, but the music was sensuous and it said, ‘Yes!'” – Patti Bown

Pianist Patti Bown was a childhood friend and musical partner of the great Quincy Jones, a longtime member of Gene Ammons’ band and the composer of a minor jazz classic. Yet more often than not, writers and even venerable jazz anthologists can’t even spell her name right. I can’t tell you how many times she is listed as Patti Brown, by those who are apparently slaves to their spell check.

Patti Bown [pronounced “bone”] was born in Seattle in 1931, one of seven children.  She was raised in a home that was filled with music and the arts. She stunned her family at three by sitting down at the family piano and playing a Duke Ellington tune that she had just heard on the radio.  Her sister, Edith Mary Valentine, became a classical concert pianist. Patti however, went in a different direction; playing jazz.  One of her childhood playmates also loved that music: Quincy Delight Jones (reportedly, they used to play “house” together as kids).  Ms. Bown learned how to accompany a soloist from another pianist friend of “Q”; Ray Charles. 

Her musical skills won Patti a scholarship to Seattle University, then to University of Washington and finally to the Big Apple, which became her home for the rest of her life.  Patti quickly earned a rep as a good sight-reader and improviser, which made in great demand in the studio.

[Patti Bown, with Clark Terry, Phil Woods and Sahib Shihab – “Ornithology”]

In 1958, she recorded her only album, a trio date for Columbia: Patti Bown plays Big Piano; with Ellingtonian Joe Benjamin on bass and Ed Shaughnessy (who would soon achieve fame on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show) as the drummer. To these ears, Ms. Bown was an excellent technical pianist, rooted in bop but with a strong dose of gospel-soul in her left hand.  For comparison, think Bobby Timmons or the pre-fusion Ramsey Lewis. Perhaps her similarity in style to those gentlemen, who were her contemporaries, contributed to her dearth of recordings as a leader.

[Patti Bown w/ Terry, Woods, Shihab, et al – “Straight No Chaser”]

However, Ms. Bown was still very busy. The next year, old playmate Quincy called her for his 1959-60 European tour and for his classic album The Quintessence.  She also did some writing, as Q added her soulful shuffle “G’won Train” to his book. It became a Jones staple and it can be heard on several of his recordings of that era.

[Quincy Jones’ Big Band (1960) w/ Patti Bown on piano – “Birth of a Band”]

Other artists also dug “G’won Train” too, especially Jimmy Smith, who recorded a hard swinging version of it on Any Number Can Win.  It was a minor chart hit for J.O.S. [UMG would not permit me to embed a clip of this track in my post. Click here to view/hear it on YouTube]. She also found regular work with Gene Ammons, Oliver Nelson and Cal Tjader during this period.

Patti Bown with Gene Ammons “The Party’s Over” from Late Hour Special

As the tide turned away from jazz in the ‘70’s, Patti Bown faded from the scene. She supported herself by working as a pianist in the pit orchestras of Broadway shows. But she could still be counted on to occasionally drop in and thrill an audience at the Village Gate or at various jazz festivals. Famed jazz critic Whitney Balliett was a big fan, describing her performance at a Newport ’75 Jam Session as “a mischievous wonder. She is an intense performer…Her own improvisations are hard-swinging précis of longer, more elaborate statements that she edits in her head.”

By the time Patti Bown died in 2008, she had become a beloved figure among the NYC jazz crowd.  The memorial tribute for Patti at New York’s St. Peter’s church drew many jazz luminaries, past and present that were anxious to share their fond memories of the “pianist/singer/actress/diva/child prodigy/mad woman”. [ Click here to see a great clip of Annie Ross singing/reminiscing at the tribute]

Patti Bown, remember her name…and make sure that you spell it correctly!

Recommended Recordings:

  • Patti Bown Plays Big Piano (Columbia) – [LP only] OOP.  But it can be had for a reasonable price if you search online or at larger used record shops.
  • Late Hour Special [Gene Ammons] (Original Jazz Classics) – CD in print; mp3 available
  • Fantabulous [Oliver Nelson] (Verve) – CD in print; mp3 available
  • I Dig Dancers [Quincy Jones] (Mercury – Import) – CD in print

2 Responses to “Unsung Women of Jazz #2 – Patti Bown”

  1. OK, so I listened to most of what you offered up here as I read through other blogs who failed to give me one jazz tune. Have a great weekend.

  2. Fascinating read, Curt…I must also read about the St. Peter’s Church history – I know Monk’s fumeral service was there, and I have seen jazz artists there, such as John Proulx.

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