Baron Browne, a bassist who was an important figure in the jazz world, died early on the morning of September 2 at his home in Randolph, Massachusetts after a long and courageous battle with cancer. He was 61.
Browne was profoundly accomplished in a variety of styles, enabling him to work with a diverse cast of musicians, from Tom Jones to Brian McKnight to Andrea Bocelli. However, he made his most indelible mark in the realm of jazz-rock-fusion. Over a four-decade career, he built a resume that included recording and touring work with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, drummer Billy Cobham, vibraphonist Mike Mainieri and saxophonist Walter Beasley. He was also a frequent collaborator with drummer Steve Smith, a member of three of Smith’s bands, including his acclaimed fusion band Vital Information.
“Baron’s extreme versatility and seasoned professionalism made him my first call bass player since 1998,” Smith said in a statement. “When I knew Baron was on the gig, I could relax and knew he would take care of business…. Each night he would spontaneously create new bass parts that were compositionally correct and funky as hell.
“His personality was dynamic, his sense of humor infectious, and everyone that knew him loved him.”
Browne’s easy sense of humor was something of a calling card for the musician. “Always had me cracking up,” said Boston-based vocalist Lydia Harrell. “He made wedding reception gigs so much fun….I still to this day remember all of the quotes he would play within other songs and the silliness he would bring.”
While his prowess kept him in high demand for touring projects, Browne also maintained a lower-key local presence, working with a band called Night Shift on wedding gigs in the greater Boston area.
When his death was made public, tributes to Browne poured in across social media. “We lost a great musician and one of our best friends,” wrote Ponty on his Facebook page.
“The most underrated bassist in history,” wrote guitarist Dean Brown, a bandmate of Browne’s with Billy Cobham. “A brilliant musician and a dear friend.”
Baron LeRonn Browne was born and raised in Brunswick, Georgia. His interest in music began as a child, when at age seven he began learning to play his uncle’s drum kit. He also took piano and guitar lessons, but by 13 had discovered that his real love was the bass guitar.
In 1978, Browne matriculated at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, where he spent a year before beginning a full-time career as a professional musician with then-Boston-based guitarists Bill Frisell, Mike Stern and future Tonight Show bandleader Kevin Eubanks. In 1982, he made his first recording, Mudd Cake, as a member of trumpeter Tiger Okoshi’s band Tiger’s Baku.
Then, in 1983, he was hired into Jean-Luc Ponty’s band. He toured the world with Ponty several times, making five albums with the violinist (1985’s Fables, 1987’s The Gift of Time, 1989’s Storytelling , 1996’s Live at Chene Park and 2015’s Better Late Than Never with Ponty and Yes lead vocalist Jon Anderson). At the same time, he was working with the legendary drummer Billy Cobham, with whom he recorded twice (1985’s Warning and 1986’s Powerplay).
In the 1990s, Browne entered perhaps his most diverse period, during which he toured with Tom Jones, Brian McKnight and the R&B band Exposé as well as with Ponty and Beasley. He joined the fusion ensemble Steps Ahead, a loose collective of “all-star” fusion players centered around vibraphonist Mike Mainieri, in 1992. As the decade progressed, he also worked with another vibraphonist, Gary Burton, in his touring band; and, beginning in 1998, with drummer Steve Smith in his band Vital Information. Smith was so impressed with Browne’s abilities that he would also employ the bassist in his acoustic ensembles Buddy’s Buddies and Jazz Legacy —putting Browne into three very different musical contexts. He excelled in all three.
“Baron impacted the sound and direction of all of my groups and played on twelve of my albums” Smith affirmed, adding that Browne was his favorite bass player. “Baron had a wide-ranging musical scope. He was deeply funky, adept at straight-ahead swing, R&B, rock and roll and Latin music.”
Although he had a strong charisma to go with his formidable musical ability, Browne preferred to work as a freelancer and a sideman, both on records and in touring bands. Offstage, Browne was a very private person who preferred to spend his time between gigs quietly at home with his wife of 20 years, saxophonist Gail McArthur-Browne, a teacher at Berklee College of Music in Boston. An avid golfer, he and Gail regularly played with musical friends Ray Greene, vocalist for the band Santana, and Cape Cod Jazz Festival director Bobby Talallah.
In addition to his wife, Browne is survived by his mother, Beverly Maddox, and her husband James; his father, Donald Browne, and his wife Carolyn; a sister, Daun Brown and her husband Landis Brown; half-brother, Brandon Browne and his wife Brittney; a nephew and three nieces. On his wife’s side, Browne is survived by his sister-in-law, Lynn Brown, and her husband Gerry; three nieces and a grandniece.
He is also survived by legions of colleagues, friends and admirers of his superlative musical legacy.