Clifford Brown; A Truly Decent Jazz Genius

By Robin Brace

Clifford Brown (1930-1956) was a truly influential and rightly highly rated American jazz trumpet star. Despite only enjoying a very short recording career of less than 5 years duration because of his very early and sad death, he has had a huge influence on later jazz trumpet players, including people like Donald Byrd, Lee Morgan, Booker Little, Freddie Hubbard and Arturo Sandoval.

Clifford Brown

Neil Tesser was in no sense exaggerrating when he wrote of Brown:

"Clifford Brown could play with a speed and precision that challenged, and at time eclipsed even the virtuosity of his own idols ... But even more than that, Clifford became known for a brain-boggling capacity to improvise long, complex and stunningly well-constructed solos."

Clifford Brown was a son of Wilmington, Delaware. After briefly attending the University of Delaware and Maryland State College, he quickly starting playing music professionally, and, without question, became one of the most highly regarded trumpeters on the modern jazz scene. Maryland State College had a good music department as well as a 16-17 piece band. So Brown was able to learn a lot both about playing and arranging. However, this came to an abrupt end in June 1950 when, on his way home from a gig, he was involved in the first of the three automobile accidents which he experienced (the last of which was to prove so tragically fatal).

For a whole year in 1950-51, Clifford Brown had plenty of opportunity for contemplation but precious little for improving and developing his playing. It took some encouragement from Dizzy Gillespie to finally set him firmly back on the path of jazz.

Joy Spring

'Joy Spring' is surely the tune which is most associated with Clifford Brown. Just click on the small manuscript to see a bigger version of it.

Style-wise it is probably true to say that Clifford Brown was most influenced by the great Fats Navarro. Brown certainly enjoyed a dazzling brilliance of technique which had also distinguished Fats. But Clifford's tone was more warm and quite amazingly consistent right across the full range of the trumpet. This was something of a rarity in the bebop trumpeters of the period. They mostly possessed dazzling technical abilities but were sometimes a little deficient and inconsistent tonally and intonationally. But Clifford always appeared able to clearly articulate every single note, even at some of the high tempos which were frequently employed. On trumpet technique alone, Brown always deserves to be mentioned alongside Fats and, of course, the great Dizzy Gillespie - especially in view of that exceptional tone, articulation and clarity.

But Clifford Brown was much more than this: His sense of harmony was acutely and highly developed, enabling him to deliver eloquent statements through complex harmonic progressions, such 'changes' presenting no problem for this highly intelligent young man. As well as being a superb up-tempo improviser, he could also express himself very deeply and movingly when performing ballads.

Among others, Clifford performed with Chris Powell, Tadd Dameron, Lionel Hampton, and Art Blakey and later shared the leadership of a group with Max Roach. The Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet has been described as a high water mark of the hard bop style. The group's pianist, Richie Powell (younger brother of Bud), contributed several new compositions, as did Brown himself. Without any question, the partnership of Brown's trumpet with Harold Land's fine tenor saxophone playing made for one of the very finest modern jazz combos of all time, ranking right up there with the early Dizzy/Yardbird partnership. Teddy Edwards briefly replaced Land before Sonny Rollins took over for the remainder of the group's existence. In their hands, the art of bebop was taken forward with great creativity, and with a certain warmth and musical sincerity added which might otherwise have been lacking.

The Clifford Brown - Max Roach Quintet

Here, in a rare photograph, is the legendary and much-admired Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet, with Sonny Rollins on tenor saxophone, Clifford on trumpet, Richie Powell on piano, Max Roach on drums, and bassist George Morrow. In June 1956 pianist Richie Powell and his wife died with Brown in a tragic car accident.

Unlike so many jazz stars of the period Clifford Brown was also a very decent and clean-living young man and some say that he should be credited with breaking the influence of heroin on the jazz world, a model sadly established by Charlie Parker. Clifford was not even too fond of alcohol; his only vice being chess, which he loved to play. Sonny Rollins said of him:

"Clifford was a profound influence on my personal life. He showed me that it was possible to live a good, clean life and still be a good jazz musician."

Max Roach described him as,

"One of the rare complete individuals ever born ... a sweet, beautiful [person]."

In June, 1956, Brown and Powell were being driven from Philadelphia to Chicago by Powell's wife Nancy, for the band's next appearance. While driving at night on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a few miles west of Bedford, she lost control of the car on a wet stretch of the road, and all three were killed.

The sound quality is not too great, but you can hear some Clifford on the YouTube video below.

The loss of Brown to the jazz world at such an early age and after such a brief recording career is surely one of the greatest tragedies in jazz. The only consolation is that this outstanding young man has left us some outstanding recordings, many now also becoming available on CD. Yes, it was a brief recording career, but one of exceptional quality - just as though the Lord made a certain compensation so that many thousands of us could later take real joy in hearing "Brownie" at his best.
Robin A. Brace, 2007.

You can also hear a few bars of the great man playing here.

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