From The Archives: Clifford Brown

Clifford Brown died on this date in 1956. If he had lived, he would be 80. We will never know what glories he would have added to those he had achieved at the age of 26. Here is what I wrote on the 50th anniversary of his death.

Fifty years ago today at The Seattle Times, as I ripped copy from the wire machines my eye went to a story in the latest Associated Press national split. A young trumpeter named Clifford Brown had been killed early that morning in a car crash. My heart stopped for a beat or two. My stomach churned. I felt ill. I was attempting to master the trumpet and, like virtually all aspiring trumpet players, idolized Brown. The life of a majestically inventive musician had ended violently on a rainy highway in Pennsylvania. He was four months short of his twenty-sixth birthday. When I think about his loss, I still feel ill.

There has never been a jazz musician who worked harder, lived cleaner, and accomplished or promised more in so short a lifetime. His practice routine encompassed taping himself as he worked out on trumpet and piano. I have listened to some of those tapes. It is moving to hear Brown pursue–and achieve–perfection as he brings complex ideas to fruition through the persistent application of his technical mastery, to hear him sing a phrase and then play it repeatedly until he has polished it nearly to his satisfaction. Like most first-rank artists, he was never truly satisfied with his performance. To listeners, however, Brown’s solos are among the glories of twentieth century music. To trumpet players, his work remains an inspiration. His passion, power, lyricism and flaweless execution constitute a model whose pursuit is bound to bring improvement.

In Today’s Washington Post, Matt Schudel summarizes Brown’s life and contributions. For a fuller account, read Nick Catalano’s biography of Brown. Fortunately, Brown recorded copiously during his few years of playing. Most of his work remains in print. This album captures him at his peak with the group he and drummer Max Roach co-led. This box set covers highlights from his recordings for several labels. If you don’t know Clifford Brown’s work, I suggest that you move immediately toward the nearest CD shop or website.

For rare video of Brown playing, see this Rifftides archive post.

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  1. Rob D says

    While thankful for the contributions he made, its impossible not to wonder what other jewels of musical excellence he would have left in his considerable wake had he lived to a ripe old age. So many of his contemporaries were absolutely gutted by his tragic death.You can see it in their eyes when they talk about him in interviews.

  2. says

    Peter J. Levinson wrote about Harry James’s reaction when he learned about Clifford’s passing: ‘Harry James broke out in tears.’ (Since I have lent the book to someone, I can only quote from memory: Trumpet Blues).

    My special favorite among Clifford Brown’s recordings is Clifford Brown/Max Roach – Brown And Roach Incorporated (EmArcy MG 36008) from August 1954.

    “Ghost Of A Chance” disproves anyone who would claim Clifford couldn’t play ballads. This is a stunning interpretation, especially when he plays the last part high above the system. — Pure soul, no: It’s sheer love, pouring out of the trumpet.

    Tadd Dameron was saying with music how he felt about Clifford Brown: “Dial ‘B’ For Beauty”.

  3. says

    In a recent video piece, Sonny Rollins said he still thinks about Clifford every day, a sentiment shared by many Jazz folk. Yesterday Ken Wiley, about to celebrate his 30th year as the source of Jazz history, Sunday afternoons on radio station KPLU, devoted a goodly portion of his three hours to Brown; he told me it was the most time he’d ever devoted to a single figure on one program. Mr. Leicht’s sentence about “Dial ‘B’ for Beauty” is one of way too many things I didn’t (and don’t) know, about Dameron, Brown, and too many others. I suppose “Dial ‘B'” led the way for “I Remember Clifford” and “Brownie Eyes,” but the actual chronology is another thing I don’t know. Are there other tunes in tribute?

  4. says

    Hi Ed —

    There are two famous versions of “Dial ‘B’ For Beauty”: Both have been recorded under Tadd Dameron’s leadership, one is with “Tadd Dameron’s Big Ten”, featuring Clifford Brown, Idrees Sulieman (tp) Herb Mullins (tb) Gigi Gryce (as) Benny Golson (ts) Oscar Estell (bars) Tadd Dameron (p, arr) Percy Heath (b) Philly Joe Jones (d), NYC, June 11, 1953. That is the one Doug linked to in his reply to you.

    The other version is on Tadd’s very last recording The Magic Touch (1962), featuring Blue Mitchell, Clark Terry, and Joe Wilder on trumpets, Bill Evans, and Philly Joe on piano and drums. — So, “I Remember Clifford” – which was first introduced by Dizzy Gillespie, when Benny Golson, and Lee Morgan played in his band in 1957 – came of course after “Dial ‘B’ For Beauty”.