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Fond memories of blind piano virtuoso Townsend

I remember it was a cold evening on March 6, 1999, and I was terribly happy to be inside with other folks where it was warm. And not just for the fact that the old mighty hawk was whistling by and banging on the door.

No it was not just your ordinary toasty comfortable bone warming one experiences from being in a room heated by a furnace or fire place. I was being embraced by the sizzling kind of warmth one experiences in a cozy performance space that’s not too large, that’s acoustically friendly, that happens to be filled to the gills with all sorts of people both standing and seated and who are deep in the moment as a great jazz quartet reminds them that life is good.

The place was the main floor of Flushing Town Hall. That night was especially memorable because the blind piano virtuoso Bros Townsend was providing the quintessential musical backdrop for the very demanding and legendary jazz diva Dakota Staton. I knew by the end of the evening, that I had witnessed genuine greatness on the keyboard.

Townsend died on May 12, 2003, after an extended illness.

Accompanied by George Coleman Jr. on drums, and Ed Fuqua on bass, Townsend demonstrated that night that he was truly as versatile and talented as he was later described by the many friends, aficionados, and colleagues who spoke affectionately of him at a May 17 memorial service.

Pastor Dale Lind, the spiritual leader of the jazz community, from St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan, officiated at the, “Home Going Celebration” for Townsend in the Elcock Funeral Home of Richmond Hill. He told a story of “how Bros was able to play any tune another artist might ask of him, because he was so capable and able to take a risk in his music.” This fact was echoed again and again by other speakers and colleagues of Townsend.

Too many musicians to count, such as the renowned alto sax legend Lou Donaldson, long-time personal friend and bassist Bob Cunningham, drummers Walter Perkins and Bernard Purdy, vocalists Carrie Smith and Yvette Glover paid tribute to his memory either by telling short stories about their work and experiences together or by playing songs that they felt were reminiscent of the piano legend.

Some tunes that were sung or played were, “His Eyes On the Sparrow,” “In a Sentimental Mood’ (played by Masa, one of his students and extended family, a young Japanese female alto saxophonist) and “Lush Life,” to name just as few.

Townsend’s initiation into his music career began with the study of classical piano at the age of 7.

Briefly, Townsend was not just a jazz pianist from Queens, but an in-demand multitalented artist who promoted and continued the great tradition of the art form as he played such notable venues as Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and the Smithsonian Institute, and toured Europe with the great jazz impresario, George Wein. Later on he worked in the New York JVC Jazz Festival.

Townsend recorded or played with giants in the entertainment industry such as Benny Waters, John Coltrane, Jonah Jones, Jon Faddis, Jimmy Witherspoon, Freddy Cole, Melvin Van Peebles, Milt “Bags” Jackson, Dinah Washington, Diana Ross, Erskine Hawkins, Gene Ammons, Clark Terry, Sonny Stitt, Charles Mingus, Gloria Lynne, Dianne Schur, and Arvell Shaw to name just a few.

Townsend, one of the music industries consummate jazz pianists, who had appeared on stage and screen, lectured at institutes of higher learning such as NYU, Vassar, Brooklyn College and the Smithsonian Institute, had been honored on May 25, 1996, by being presented the Flo-Bert Award, and having that day proclaimed by the City of New York as “Bros Townsend Day.”

Townsend, the great gentleman of jazz from Queens, was not only a kind human being and a hero of sorts to his colleagues, his students and extended family members, but as one of his children put it so eloquently, “he was a wonderful father, and grandfather, and a person who was never too busy for his family and friends. Though he was driven and demanding, as anyone who knew him was aware, he was also never one to let his vast accomplishments take away from him being a great dad and a great friend”.

Bros Townsend, is survived by his wife Hope, his son Bros Townsend III, his daughter Mona Rosuzu Ando, his daughter Susie from Japan, grandchildren Crystal, Kelvin, Ambrosia, Brianna, and Ayesha — and of course all of his other family members, and a multitude of friends and fans all over the world.

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