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Originally published March 21, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 24, 2008 at 4:12 PM

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Patti Bown, 76, lit up Seattle's early jazz scene

Patti Bown, an idiosyncratic, outspoken, versatile pianist who came up with Quincy Jones on Seattle's Jackson Street jazz scene in the late...

Seattle Times jazz critic

Patti Bown, an idiosyncratic, outspoken, versatile pianist who came up with Quincy Jones on Seattle's Jackson Street jazz scene in the late '40s and became nationally famous, died Sunday from complications from diabetes and kidney failure.

She was 76 years old.

Ironically, Miss Bown died in Pennsylvania the same day Jones was in Seattle, eulogizing two other musicians of his generation — Charlie Taylor and Floyd Standifer — at the Northwest African American Museum opening concert.

A characteristic quote from Miss Bown is displayed at the museum: "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!' "

Born Patricia Anne Bown in Seattle in 1931, Bown was one of five daughters and two sons raised in the Central District by Augustus and Edith Bown, who moved to Seattle in 1921.

Music and culture were central to her upbringing. Her mother took her see Marian Anderson, Katherine Dunham and Arthur Rubenstein, and the Bown household was known for its weekend "at-homes," where people played music, and discussed books and politics.

Miss Bown's sister, Edith Mary Valentine, became a concert pianist in an era when it was difficult, if not impossible, for African Americans to enter the classical field. Millie Russell, another sister, recalled Patti at 3 years old astonishing their parents by copying on the piano what she heard Duke Ellington play on the radio.

"I was the only one of the five girls who didn't have perfect pitch," said Russell.

Miss Bown's sister Augie Walker recalled Edith Mary and Patti fighting over who would get to practice at the family piano.

"They'd be pushing on each other, both sitting on the stool and pretty soon the stool would break," she said. "My mother bought three stools in one year."

Though Mrs. Bown played blues piano herself, she forbade Patti from patronizing jazz clubs.

"She'd tell Mama she was going to visit our neighbor, then go out play in those places," recalled Walker. "Sometimes, if Mama found out, she'd lock the door and leave Patti out there for half an hour."

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One of Miss Bown's informal jazz tutors was Ray Charles, whom she credited with teaching her how to accompany soloists.

In 1949, Miss Bown won a music scholarship to Seattle University, and in 1952 she performed with the Seattle Symphony. She later transferred to the University of Washington, then moved to New York in 1955. Because of her excellent sight-reading and improvising skills, she was soon in demand in recording studios, which led to her extensive discography (sessions with Dinah Washington, Billy Eckstine, Gene Ammons, Oscar Brown Jr., Jimmy Rushing and Jones himself).

Miss Bown recorded an album as a leader in 1958, "Patti Bown Plays Big Piano" (Columbia), and the following year formed a trio that included drummer Ed Shaughnessy, of Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" band fame. She later toured Europe for eight months with Jones' big band.

A flamboyant, opinionated woman who wore outrageous hats and brooked no contradiction, Miss Bown often found herself at odds with others — though she could be charming and funny, as well.

"She was overbearing and spoiled," recalled her sister Russell, "but she was brilliant."

Miss Bown lived the last 37 years at the Westbeth Artist Housing complex in Greenwich Village, and for many years was a fixture at the Village Gate nightclub. She played in an unpredictable, virtuosic and eclectic style that stretched from Fats Waller stride to avant-garde abstraction.

The late Whitney Balliett, jazz critic for The New Yorker, once described a Miss Bown solo as "an eight-minute lesson in how to make a piece of improvisation so tight and complex it would supply a dozen soloists for a week."

Miss Bown occasionally returned to Seattle to perform, notably at Jazz Alley, the New Orleans Creole Restaurant and at the Museum of History & Industry, in 1993.

According to Pawnee Sills, a close friend who lived in her building, Miss Bown had been "homebound," the last seven or eight years, unable to walk because of her weight and poor circulation. Still, in 2006 she received the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival Award, and last year the Jazz Foundation of America, which assisted Miss Bown the last years of her life, presented her at its annual gala at the Apollo Theatre, where she received a standing ovation.

She moved to a New York nursing home last November, then to one in Media, Pa., where she died.

Miss Bown never married but had one son, the late Tony Bown. She is survived by sisters Edith Mary Valentine, Augie Walker and Millie Russell, and brother David Bown.

Funeral services have not yet been arranged.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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