Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Patti Bown, Singer and Pianist. The Long-Form Interview

Patti Bown, Pianist and Singer, died in 2008 at 76.

Patti Bown was a native of Seattle and began playing the piano when she was two years old. Bown attended the University of Seattle on a music scholarship. She moved to New York in the mid-1950’s. In her distinguished career as a pianist and singer, she had played with many of the greats, from Dinah Washington to Quincy Jones. In 1958, Bown came out with her album “Patti Bown Plays Big Piano”(Columbia). The next year, she traveled through Europe, performing with Quincy Jones’ orchestra. She returned to the United States to work on the Sammy Davis Jr. musical “Free and Easy,” which failed to make it to Broadway.

In the early 1960s, Bown worked for the singer Sarah Vaughn as her musical arranger. She played piano in thr orchestra pits of Broadway musicals and wrote music for film and TV.  Bown moved into Westbeth, the artists’ colony in the West Village in 1973.

I interviewed Patti Bown in her apartment several years before she died. Ms. Bown had been crippled by several accidents and when I met her, she was bedridden and had a full-time home-care attendant who was coached to answer the phone, "Miss Bown's residence." The apartment was stuffed with boxes and Ms. Bown regaled me with a loop of stories from her bed, tooting her own achievements as a pianist and jazz singer and her battles with racism and sexism in the music world.

I met a second Patti Bown when I came back with the photographer to take her portrait for the exhibit. She was gleefully nasty, telling the same stories and keeping myself and the photographer hostage for three hours as she did her make up and moved at a glacial speed. She wanted the company.

Patti Bown died in March 2008, in a nursing home in Pennsylvania, far from her beloved Village. Here's an excerpt from our 2005 interview

My dream was to be here in New York. My mother didn’t want me to be in the nightclubs.                                                                                                    
I was the youngest of six girls.. We all had perfect pitch.  We could hear anything and play it. I made up my mind that I couldn’t do it in Seattle. I had to do it in New York.

I came here in 1954 or ’55. It takes a while for the union to let me play. I had these weird jobs. These old guys would book me into nightclubs where old businessmen would try to grab me, I’d slug them and be out of work.

Dinah Washington and I never had a rehearsal together. We went to Asbury Park. She called me. She used to call her Chrysler the Blue Beetle. “The Blue Beetle is coming to pick you up and we are going to Asbury Park.” She talked in the car. She sang and my perfect pitch told me what key she wanted. Quincy called her and told her I was in New York.

Quincy Jones grew up partially in Seattle. There’s a documentary called “In the Pocket.” I’m in there. Crazy things happen.

Patti Bown's record, 1958

Word spread fast. This very nice Jewish guy from the Bronx said that he was going to turn me on to Columbia Records. They had signed a lot of black artists, like Aretha Franklin, but didn’t promote any of them.

When I was with Quincy’s band in Europe, we had two hit records. I came back to New York to work at the Village Vanguard.

I played in Birdland. Steve Allen and all these famous people were there. I got a standing ovation. Word spread that there’s a gal from Seattle, Washington, who can play her butt off.

I got a call from Mary Lou Williams. You want a job?” she said. She called Joe Wells of the Wells Restaurant in Harlem and I got a job with Count Basie. He had a club uptown. I got a call one night. “This is Lil Armstrong. I understand you’re hot. I got Katherine Basie here with me. We’re taking a cab from St. Albans to Harlem. You better be hot tonight, sister.” I’ve never been scared. I started playing as a small child. You learn how to concentrate on what you are doing and not trying to impress the audience or having phony motivations. It comes from your heart.

It was hard for a woman to get a job. A lot of men wouldn’t hire a woman. That was a serious, hard thing for me. I knew I could play. They said Benny Goodman was looking for a pianist. I went down there. The people auditioning me clapped like crazy, but he wouldn’t hire me. He never gave me a reason. Goodman’s musical director called me and said, “You sure can play, but he won’t hire you. He has some complex about chicks. He thinks they draw too much attention.” Some more wicky wacky prejudice.

When I first moved here, my dream was to live uptown. My dream was to play jazz in Harlem.. I was grateful for the many jobs I was offered, which I couldn’t take., because I had a son who was ill. I came home one night and found him in a pool of blood.

Q. How old was your son when he passed away?

Why do you want to know? You’re an age freak. I don’t want to go into that..

Q. What was the jazz scene like in the 1950’s and ‘60’s?

It was popping. Everywhere you looked, there was someone. I walked into some place and there were so many outstanding people.

The word spread that I could play and I could sing , and that I was a nut and I entertained people. When Quincy Jones found out that I was in New York, he called and I went to his house for dinner. He said, “I’m forming a band and I want you to be the pianist. I want you.”

I left my job, thinking we would start in a week. It took a year.

His manager Rory Alexander offered me my own TV show on Channel 13. I was excited, but when I spoke to the sponsors, they wanted me to explain jazz in their context, not mine. I realized I couldn’t do that.  I knew the show was going to fail. They thought because they had the money, they could dictate the show. Another girl took it and it folded in a week.

I lived on Christopher Street. I met a lady in a nightclub. I rented space from her on Christopher Street. It was ’58 or ’59.

Q. What were the important jazz clubs?

The Blue Note was on West 3rd. I met Thelonius Monk and Charlie Rouse. Sometimes when they would finish work, they would pop in on me. Thelonius said that he was going to try to get me work at the Five Spot, but they didn’t hire you unless you had a record. I didn’t have a record. It was very hard to get work as a female. Most men didn’t trust that a woman could play strong.

I did some record work. It wasn’t the greatest. I went to one place and the guy said, “I thought you were Patrick Bown.” “Well, I am Patti Bown. You are losing hundreds of dollars a minute. Give me a shot.” When I played, he said, “I’ve been looking for you. I’ve got a lot of work for you.” It was hard for the average woman to get decent work. I got really frustrated at one point. When Quincy said that he was forming his band, I thought, “Something’s going to pop with this.”

Q. How long did you play with Quincy Jones?

I worked with Quincy from 1959 to ’60. We were living in Paris. We came back because we were doing a show with Sammy Davis, “Free and Easy,” that was supposed to go to Broadway. We nicknamed it “Freaking Greasy.” Crazy musicians. The guy who was the producer never collected the money. He announced one day that the tour was over.

We got into Europe. We did a few interesting things. We toured with Nat King Cole. He was very arrogant. One night I played with the band and got a standing ovation. I told Quincy one night that some of the guys in the band started to hate me because you gave me these piano solos.” Quincy told me, “Don’t tell me how to run my band. Do you know what you do? You’re a female and when you go out and start to platy, you cook, so those guys have to play.”

Q. How did you make ends meet?

 I was freelancing. I never knew what was coming up. Sometimes the word would spread that I could play and I’d get a gig someplace. I felt bad because I really wanted things to happen. Many of these people you’d see in little places wouldn’t help you.

There was Thad Jones, the trumpet player. I sat in with him . He dropped out.  It was only me and Sonny Payne.

Dizzy Gilespie gave me a few gigs in New York.

I had an apartment further down in the Village, when I came home from Europe with Quincy’s band. I was living on Morton Street. I lucked out on the apartment. Some places down here wouldn’t rent to me because I am black. There was a coterie of people who wanted to keep the Village Italian. I met a super sweeping in front of a building. I asked if there were any apartments available. He said there was one, but I probably wouldn’t like it. “The woman who had the apartment was over 100 when she died.  The walls were painted black.” I said, “I’m black. I can handle it.” He laughed.

The apartment had a fireplace and shutters. I had a friend build up the fireplace so I could look into it. A lot of people came to my funky apartment—Sarah Vaughn, Tennessee Williams. I had a big thick carpet on the floor. I spackled the ceiling and spray painted it. It looked like a cafe. The rent was $75 a moth. There was a tub in the kitchen and no heat.

I came to Westbeth in 1972. I was invited by the board of directors to live here.

Westbeth had a lot of problems in the beginning. They used unlicensed labor. I had an architect friend of mine come by. He told me the wiring was messed up in the basement. He told me all the problems. Do you still want to live here? he asked. I said yes, it was the right place. I trusted my instinct. When I heard all the artists were going to be here, I got really excited.

Q. How has the Village changed in your time here?

Commercially, the Village is trying to aim to the people with the big bucks. It doesn’t have much love for us artists. Many of us don’t have millions of dollars. In the beginning, the management was crooked. Many of the people who live here are not artists. Some people who got in here have no artistic talent whatsoever—they can’t paint, they can’t play piano, but they paid off somebody. Some people rent their studios out to other people.

I wrote a song for this building when it opened. I had a 10-piece band. I believed in this place. It went askew. I felt so bad. I used to participate in the community, but it killed my spirit.

Q. When did the Village stop being hospitable to artists?

They commercialized the Village. It became a lot of hippes and freaks and the whole character of the place changed. The artists still wanted to live here.  I always wanted to live in the Village.

If you notice, wherever the artists go, other people want to come. The artists take a bad neighborhood and bring it up. The next moment, the rents go up.

Q. Financially, could you have stayed in the West Village without Westbeth?

 I think I would have been able to get by. I was born with my million dollars. When I discovered music, my whole body lit up. I found something in my life. I used to see people in Seattle, going to jobs they hated because they had to pay the rent. I felt so fortunate. 

One of my mother’s best friends was Marion Anderson. She’d call up and go, “Green, what’s in the pot?” She knew that blacks couldn’t stay at the hotels in Seattle. She would come and my mother and her would pig out. My mother would send us upstairs. Me and my sister would watch these women eat all this food with their fingers. I was about four years old.  I asked, “Why is it that Marion Anderson can eat chicken with her fingers and I can’t?” My mother said, “Because she’s Marion Anderson and I’m your mother. Go upstairs.” On Saturday nights, my mother cooked up a lot of food. My father made dandelion wine. One room would be the dancers. Another room would be the painters. Another room would be the musicians. Everybody just kind of took over the house. We had a party that lasted. They knew this was really the only place where they could get down with people in their profession.

Now, with myself not being able to walk. I had three different car accidents. I was playing a private Japanese club, a geisha girls club. I fell off a moveable stair. I liked to wear a gown. I had people in my band. I used to bow, then gracefully walked down the stairs. This night, the stairs weren’t there. I fell about 35 feet. I really hurt everything. Sometimes you can’t prophesize how things are going to go.

I still believe in this building. I just hope it doesn’t go down.

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