Clifford Brown |
Tragic Jazz Trumpeter

A supremely talented jazz trumpeter who died too soon. That is the common, one line description of the great Clifford Brown. But while his untimely death at 25 is certainly a tragedy, it should not overshadow his accomplishments. The warm personality, the mesmerising feeling he imparted with every note and the serious chops that he commanded his instrument with.

Clifford Brown was born in 1930 in Wilmington, Delaware. His exposure to music came early when his father created a vocal quartet with his four youngest sons. Brown sang and performed, but he was fascinated by the gleam and mechanics of his father’s trumpet. So at the age of 10, he began playing trumpet in the school band.

Three years later, Brown’s father enrolled him in private lessons. The young teenager was rapidly developing his skill. His trumpet teacher Robert Boysie Lowery was so impressed that he tapped Brown for a traveling band he organised, and this marked the beginning of trips to Philadelphia to play jazz that would be a formative education for Brown in the years to come.

Steps Forward, Steps Back

In college, Brown attended Delaware State to study math but soon switched to Maryland State to pursue the musical opportunities there — in retrospect, a good move.

The Maryland State Band was heavy on jazz and provided Brown structure & practice, but his trips to play in Philadelphia continued to be an important part of his musical development. Fats Navarro loved his playing so much that he personally encouraged the kid to keep up the good work.

When he was 19, Brown was seriously injured in a car accident on the drive home after a gig.

The wreck led to a year of recovery and relegated the young man to the piano for a few months. His shoulder would never be the same, frequently dislocating for the rest of his life. While in the hospital, Brown was visited by the great Dizzy Gillespie who urged him to continue in music. Brown listened.

On his return to the stage, Brown was a more mature player. He was both precise and strong, with the ability to thread the needle through even the fastest and most complex bebop. His strengths as a player brought him into the recording studio with the R&B group Chris Powell’s Blue Flames.

 

Soon he was playing with luminaries including J.J. Johnson and Art Blakely. With a growing resume and growing confidence, he started a quintet with drummer Max Roach.

Their new group, the Clifford Brown & Max Roach Quintet, was highly collaborative and soon was quintessential to hard bop, the blues and gospel influenced style gaining popularity at the time. The first line-up included Richie Powell on piano, George Morrow on bass and Harold Land on tenor sax. In 1955, Land was replaced by Sonny Rollins.

Tragedy Strikes Cifford Brown

The group recorded many, many sets for the EmArcy label. Their beautiful, creamy ballads and driving bop were, for a time, unparalleled.

Brown stood out in the jazz scene that he was now helping to shape and progress. He did not drink and abstained from heroin, two dangers rampant in the scene at the time. Bandmate Rollins recalls that his own recovery from heroin was made easier by the example of Brown.

On June 26, 1956, the Clifford Brown & Max Roach Quintet played a recorded jam session in Philadelphia. Brown’s playing was particularly good that night, representing an artist with rising powers at the centre of the creative pulse in jazz.

After playing, Powell and his wife took Brown on the long drive to Chicago for the next gig. The rain was heavy. The road, slick. When they lost control, the car careered off the road, killing all three.

Clifford Brown was buried at age 25, already a jazz trumpet legend. He left behind one of the major contributions to the music, as well as generations of fans wondering what he could have become and where he would have taken his playing, and the genre as a whole.