Clifford Bown, jazz trumpet player, would have been 80 today: b, October 30, 1930 – d, June 26, 1956).
The history of jazz is full of brilliant young things who would, no doubt, have gone on to create wonderful music, apart from the fact that they died prematurely. Many of them (notably Bix Beiderbecke, Bunny Berigan and Charlie Parker) died as a result of drink or drugs. But a self-inflicted death is not necessary for cult status. Even the world of classical music has its “what if” heroes and heroines, entirely innocent of booze or narcotics: pianist William Kappell (killed in an airplane crash in 1953, aged 31), and violinist Ginette Neveue (also killed in a ‘plane crash in 1949, aged 30). Buddy Holly in the world of rock, died an uncannily similar (‘plane crash) death: Jimmy Hendrix and Kurt Cobain belong more to the Beiderbecke / Parker school of self-inflicted early destruction.
The most important point about Cifford Brown was he was an absolutely brilliant trumpet player. He had a ‘fat’ tone, virtually unknown then, in jazz, except for his immediate inspiration Theodore “Fats” Navarro. Brown’s phrasing was immaculate, even at ultra-fast tempos. By the early 1950′s he was as well-known in jazz circles as Miles Davis. But Clifford was a much better player than Davis would ever be. And, whereas Davis was an asshole of a human being, Brownie was – by every single account – a loveable, delightful and modest character. Years later, Sonny Rollins (attempting to break with heroin addiction when he met Clifford), would say: “Clifford was a clean-living person. That was a tremendous influence on me, to see that a guy who could play at that level was clean of drugs”.
By the late 1940′s, Brownie had established himself as a force to be reckoned with on trumpet, around the Philadelphia jazz scene. In 1948 the Philadelphia bandleader Jimmy Heath was playing at a club when …
“This young guy came up, head bowed, a very humble person, and asked if he could sit in”…of course, Brownie (aged 17) blew them away.
In 1950 Brownie was seriously injured in a car crash and was very lucky to survive at all. It was – looking back – a co-incidental, but nonetheless eerie, foretaste of his fate six years later.
By 1953 Brownie had recovered from the car wreck and was making records with top modern jazz players in New York, and touring Europe with Lionel Hampton’s band. While in Paris with Hampton, he sneaked away to to make several remarkable records with local musicians and fellow-American Gigi Grice (alto sax); Hampton’s manager (allegedly) threatened Brownie with a knife over this breach of contract, but the records put Brownie on the jazz ‘map’ in Europe.
Back in the US, Brownie formed a a quintet with tenorist Harold Land, bassist Paul Morrow, pianist Richie Powell (brother of the more famous pianist Bud Powell) and drummer
Max Roach. This group pioneered the style of jazz that would become known as ‘hard bop’: Phil Schaap of the Lincoln Centre says “Hard bop is the predominant style of jazz played today… the bar was set very, very high (by Clifford Brown’s group -JD), and it certainly has not been eclipsed”.
Happily, during the early 1950′s. Brownie made a large number of albums, including “Study in Brown”, “Clifford Brown with Strings”, “Brown & Roach Inc” and “At Basin Street”: all of which are, quite simply, masterpieces of the jazz trumpet to set alongside Louis’ Hot Fives and Sevens, the best of Bix, Red Allen, Roy Eldridge and anything by Dizzy Gillespie. You may notice that I have not included Miles Davis in that roll-call of the greatest jazz trumpeters. The reason is simply that Miles is not in the same league as Louis, Roy, Dizzy or Brownie. Miles was a superficial, limited and rather pretentious trumpet player (and human being): Brownie could blow him off the stand.
So why, you may ask, is Miles Davis a household name, whereas Clifford Brown is all but unheard of? The answer is that Clifford died over fifty years ago, before his work was done. The story isn’t quite clear, but it culminates on a night (Monday, June 25 1956), when Brownie ‘sat in’ at a Philadelphia jam session, ‘en route’ to a proper gig in Chicago the next night. There is even a bootleg recording, perporting to be from that night, ending with Brownie saying to the audience: “You’ve made me feel wonderful, but I have to go now”. Those of us, listening, who know what happened next, can hardly keep from blubbing. Never mind that jazz scholars have spoiled that moment by revealing that it was, in all probability, recorded a year earlier in May 1955.
Let the late Dick Sudhalter take up the story, in the kind of nightmare-cum- fantasy that we all indulge in, in these situations, imagining that we are there:
“…And you also know that sometime between now and dawn , Brown’s new Buick, with Nancy (Richie Powell’s wife) at the wheel, will go off the Pennsylvania Turnpike at speed and plunge down an eighteen-foot (actually, seventy five foot – JD) embankment, killing all three occupants (Brownie, Nancy and Richie Powell) instantly…
“What will it take to keep him -keep them all – from leaving? Steal the car’s distributor cap? Slash the tires? Beard the young man in a corner and tell him – what? That you’re an emissary from the future, and that his life depends on staying in Philly tonight, at least till daylight? That however exhausted he and Richie might be, they’re under no circumstances to let Nancy, a novice driver with poor vision, barely able to negotiate a U-turn, behind the wheel?”
Sudhalter spoke to Brownie’s widow, LaRue Brown Wilson in March 1995 (Brownie died on her birthday and their wedding anniversary; she died in 2007, aged 72); she said:
“He and his friend Quincy Jones would sit around for hours…talking about the business end of music. At that time, don’t forget, there were very few black people on the production side of things. They, both of them, had a vision that one day they would do all that.
“As you know, Quincy was able to go ahead and realise those dreams. By then Clifford had been dead many, many years; but who knows -everything Quincy achieved might as easily have been open to Clifford”.
When news of Brownie’s (and Richie’s) death reached Max Roach in Chicago the next day, he locked himself in his hotel room with two bottles of cognac.
Sonny Rollins said “I just picked up my horn and played all night”.
(hat-tip: Matt Schudel, Washington Post)