Clifford Brown: October 30, 1930-June 26, 1956. It has been said that a person’s life is the dash between their birth and death. Clifford Brown’s dash was way too short-but what a dash it was!
He was arguably the greatest trumpet player of his time (maybe of all time) who was known for his phrasing, clear tone and graceful technique. “He had it all,” says the great saxophonist Sonny Rollins. “He was just like a shooting star-he’s there, and then he’s gone.”
In 1948, Philadelphia saxophonist Jimmy Heath took his band to Wilmington, Delaware (Brown’s birth place), to play at a club called the Two Spot, where he met Clifford for the first time.
“This young guy came up, head bowed, a very humble person, and asked if he could sit in. At age 17, he was outstanding.”
By then Brown had been playing the trumpet for five years-only five years! Bebop grabbed his attention from the beginning and his model was trumpeter Theodore “Fats” Navarro, who would die at 26 from tuberculosis and a heroin addiction. Brown developed a full tone and learned to explore the expressive depth of the instrument’s middle and lower registers. The clarity, range, power and graceful technique of Clifford Brown are displayed in full bloom in his performance in the classic tune “Summertime”:
After two years in college-including one at what is now the University of Maryland Eastern Shore-Brown was critically injured in a car crash in 1950 that eerily foretold his later fate. He broke both legs, was in a full body cast for months and underwent skin and bone grafts. When shoulder pain forced him to abandon the trumpet during his lengthy recovery, he turned to piano and was good enough to get a few gigs playing in lounges.
(How awesome is that!) After regaining his trumpet chops, Brown was quickly recognized as a rising talent, and by 1953 he was making records in New York with top-tier jazz musicians. On Brown, the late Miles Davis offered “I was the first one to tell Art Farmer about Clifford Brown, who I had heard somewhere. I thought he was good and that Art would like hearing him. (Art was a great trumpet and flugelhorn player himself) Clifford wasn’t famous yet, but a lot of musicians from around Philly were already talking about him.”
Brown made one of the first live jazz recordings, “A Night at Birdland” with drummer Art Blakey, then went to California, where he formed the two most important partnerships of his life. The first was with Drummer Max Roach, and the other was with a University of Southern California music student named LaRue Anderson, who was writing a thesis on why jazz was not serious music. After meeting Mr. Brown, she changed her mind. They were married within a few months on LaRue’s 21st birthday.
In an amazing three years, Brown made more that a dozen albums-among them “Study in Brown,” “Brown & Roach Inc,” “Clifford Brown with Strings,” and “At Basin Street”. One of my favorite Clifford Brown compositions is “Joy Spring”.
“When Brownie (which he became affectionately known as) stood up and took his first solo,” writer and record executive Ira Gitler once said, “I nearly fell off my seat in the control room. The power, range and brilliance together with the warmth and invention were something that I hadn’t heard since Fats Navarro.”
However, in my mind, not only did Clifford’s musicianship distinguish him from his peers; how he lived his short life did so even more. Brown, unlike many of his famous contemporaries, refused to use drugs and his quiet example had begun to change the “druggie” image of musicians, for whom alcohol and heroin were a way of life in jazz. During the summer of 1953, Brown was in an Atlantic City show band with saxophonist Benny Golson. “He was not a likable guy-he was a loveable guy,” Golson recalls. “I never heard him raise his voice in anger, I never heard him swear or tell a dirty joke.”
Clifford stood 5 feet 9, had a quiet demeanor and, as a result of the car accident, walked with a limp-yet something about him commanded respect. When Sonny Rollins joined the Brown-Roach Quintet in 1955, the tenor sax master was kicking a heroin habit, but Brown never lectured Rollins about drugs and never acted superior. “Clifford was a clean-living person,” says Rollins. “That was a tremendous influence on me, to see a guy who could play at a high level was clean of drugs.”
It was clear that Clifford Brown was mature beyond his years-and his character and musicianship were beginning to shape the future of jazz, eroding the drug-fueled model of Charley Parker, who died the year before.
On Monday, June 25, 1956, after visiting his parents in Wilmington, Clifford drove to Philadelphia and stopped at Music City, a jazz club where he often sat in on jam sessions. For years, jazz fans have been excited about an amateur recording that allegedly captured his final performance. A recording does exist of Brown playing three tunes and critics have called those performances “ a defining moment in trumpet history.” There is some controversy, however. Nick Catalano, author of “Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of
The Legendary Trumpeter,” says the legend of Brownie’s Last Jam in Philly is too good to be true. Citing a musician named Billy Root, a regular at Music City, Catalano unequivocally says the jam session took place a year earlier, on May 31, 1955. But Phil Schaap, a jazz historian and curator for Jazz at Lincoln Center, who studied Brown’s career as thoroughly as anyone, says there is nothing-aside from Root’s statement-to prove that the bootleg tape was made in 1955.
Whenever the tape was made, Brown was in a good mood at Music City that night and setting the bar high for jazz trumpeters for years to come.
Clifford Brown packed up his horn and left Philadelphia with pianist Richie Powell and Powell’s wife, Nancy. They were headed to Chicago, where the quintet was to perform the following night.
Sometime after midnight, as it rained, they pulled off the Pennsylvania Turnpike to buy gas in Bedford, Pa., about 120 miles east of Pittsburg. Soon afterward, with Nancy Powell behind the wheel of Brown’s car, the car missed a curve. It smashed through a guardrail and plunged down a 75-foot embankment. All three occupants were killed.
It was Brown’s second wedding anniversary-and his wife LaRue’s birthday.
The news of Clifford Brown’s death, as well Richie and Nancy Powell, was devastating.
“I just picked up my horn and played all night.” said Rollins. The band wasn’t the same without Brown. “When Clifford left, the front line was broken. Other players came to replace him, but they just couldn’t do it.” Even though Rollins struggled for years when performing, Brown, even in death, came to the rescue. “When I wasn’t playing too well, I would channel Clifford. That would focus my thoughts and my playing.”
According to Miles, “Brownie and Richie (Bud Powell’s younger brother) dying like that, and they were so young. Brownie wasn’t even twenty-six yet. Everyone had been raving about this young trumpet player who was playing in and around Philly, who could play his behind off. I think the first time I heard him was when he was in Lionel Hampton’s band, and I knew then he was going to be outstanding. He had his own way of playing and if he had lived he would have been something else.” On the issue of whether he and Clifford did not get along because of competition between them, Miles countered, “Not true. We were both trumpet players and we were trying to play the best we could. Brownie was a beautiful, sweet, hip guy who you couldn’t help but like to be around. He was a clean-living guy who didn’t hang out much. He and I got along real good when we saw each other.”
Miles also revealed the affect that Brown’s death on Max Roach. “Brownie’s death really messed up Max Roach because him and Brownie had a great group together and with Richie and Brownie dead, Max broke up the group. It really tore Max’s head up and I don’t think he played the same since. Him and Brownie were meant for each other because of the way they both played: real fast, so they could feed off each other. I have always felt that great trumpet players need great drummers in order to get off. I know it has always been that way for me. Max used to tell me all the time how he loved playing with Brownie. His death really got to Max and he didn’t pull out of it for a long time.”
A few months after Brown’s death, Benny Golson, who had known him in Philadelphia, paid tribute by writing the sad and beautiful “I Remember Clifford,” one of the most haunting jazz ballads.
Yes, Clifford Brown’s life came to a sad and tragic end, but his legacy and his music, never will. To paraphrase a line from the movie Highlander, “Clifford Brown…..there can only be one.”
Brownie! Celebrating the Life of Legendary Jazz Trumpeter Clifford Brown
African American Registry (www.aaregistry.org)
Miles-The Autobiography of Miles Davis (An excellent read, but as Mr. Spock
would say “full of colorful metaphors”)