Clifford Brown, 1930-1956

Today is the 82nd anniversary of Clifford Brown’s birth. Here is what I wrote in Rifftides on June 26, 2006, half a century following 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.

The television comic Soupy Sales loved jazz, knew its history and many of its leading players. Early in his career, when he had a local show in Detroit, he frequently presented jazz stars as guests. After Sales died on October 22 at the age of 83, many obituaries mentioned that the only known video of Clifford Brown performing is from a kinescope recording of the Sales show. For decades, it was assumed lost, but Sales found the film in his garage in the mid-1990s. Here is the trumpeter in February, 1956, five months before that fatal auto crash, playing “Lady Be Good” and “Memories of You.”

Study in Brown, mentioned by Clifford in the interview, is one of the important albums by the quintet he led with drummer Max Roach. The Dinah Washington jam session with Brown, Roach, Maynard Ferguson, Clark Terry and Herb Geller–among others–is another basic repertoire item for serious jazz listeners.

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  1. Bill Benjamin says

    Thanks for putting this up, Doug. I seem to recall having seen this before but can’t say for sure. What I can say for sure is what a profound impact Clifford had on my when I first starting struggling with the trumpet at age 12. I heard his Emarcy recording with Max playing “Cherokee” and it killed me. I was hooked and remain so over a half-century later. Such a tragic end for a young musician who was playing so great and with a bright future ahead. I still think about him all the time and the even greater legacy he would have left had he lived on.

  2. says

    Thanks for sharing your personal memories of Clifford Brown, Doug. The accounts of someone who has lived when it happened are so valuable. You were around when Brownie summarized all in his playing what had been played before him on the most difficult of all wind instruments, on the trumpet.

    Even a tough guy like Harry James broke out in tears when he learned that Clifford Brown had died.

    Yeah, those rehearsal tapes; I got three of them, and will add them to my own Clifford Brown Birthday Post.

    His very first recorded sounds, and his very last recordings, taped only some hours before the fatal accident, can be found on LP (which I have), and of course also on CD. But as I saw it some minutes ago, is there a dispute if those are really Brownie’s last recordings. gives two different dates: June 25, 1956 or May 31, 1955.. — So what?

    All his solos on this disc, also the two early ones, are simply incredible. Like his great contemporaries Kenny Dorham and Lee Morgan, Clifford Brown never played it safe. He dared the impossible on that bloody horn.

    You could hear him struggle with the last high note at “A Night In Tunisia”, you want him to reach it, to get it, you want him to prevail over the plain physics of the bent tube of brass … “Go, Brownie, go!”

    No, this is no review, it’s an ovation. His last words at the “Music City Club” in Philadelphia, after a glorious, a victorious run through one of the fastest of all “Donna Lee’s”:

    “Thank you very much. You made me feel so wonderful. – It’s been a pleasure being here, I really must go now. It’s so hot.”

    Thanks to you Clifford Brown: It is *you* who still makes us feel wonderful.

    • says

      P.S. — I did a little research on “Donna Lee,” and found out the following:

      “Trumpeter Clifford Brown’s improvisation on “Donna Lee” is considered a stellar performance and can be heard on the Columbia release The Beginning and the End. The recording date, usually attributed to the day before Brown’s death, has been corrected to May, 1955, by Brown’s biographer Nick Catalano”…in the book to which you referred in your main article, above.

      By the way: There was an actress/singer named Donna Lee who played some minor roles in horror films of the mid-1940’s, Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi vehicles like The Body Snatcher (1945) and Bedlam (1946). The latter film inspired a Benny Goodman Sextet number with the same title, recorded in 1949.

  3. Bob Blumenthal says

    I just finished new liner notes for Mosaic’s LP-only reissue of the four EmArcy discs by the Brown-Roach Quintet, and I couldn’t agree with you more about Clifford Brown. In addition, listening again to these great performances convinced me that B-R was one of the great recording bands of all time, on a level with Armstrong’s and Parker’s best studio units; and that, at the time of his death, Richie Powell was also coming into his own as both pianist and composer/arranger.

    • Terence Smith says

      I get the impression that every time Bud Powell played Benny Golson’s beautiful “I Remember Clifford”, Bud is thinking of both Clifford Brown and Richie Powell, who of course was in the same car in 1956.

  4. Светлана says

    I willingly join Doug Ramsey’s recommendation to read Nick Catalano’s biography of Clifford Brown, a moving and well-written story of an outstanding musician and a beautiful person loved by everyone who knew him then and who know his music now, 56 years after his tragic death.

  5. says

    One of my “favorite things” is that I share the same birthdate as Clifford, just some years later. Yesterday, October 30, was my 70th birthday. To this day, my two “favorite” jazz trumpet players are Clifford Brown and Clark Terry. Clark has been my mentor for many years, and we are planning a 92nd birthday party for him in December. For those of you who don’t know, Clark has lost both of his legs to diabetes, but he remains ever the positive and upbeat person he has always been. I never got to hear Clifford live, but I’ve got pretty much everything he ever recorded. What an inspiration!

  6. Lee Schell says

    I read your post about the death of Clifford Brown. Ironically, I was in the same situation the day Wes Montgomery passed away. June 15h, 1968, I was working for WGL radio in Ft. Wayne…subbing for the Sunday morning rock and roll diskjocky when I noticed on the Indiana “split” on AP that Wes had died. I, as a young, jazz guitarist, was stunned that a man with so much talent had been taken from us so early in his life. I went back into the record library and pulled out five or six Montgomery albums. I opened the mic and told the audience of the death of this fine guitar player–told them that for the rest of my shift I would play only Wes’s stuff.

    The station manager called on the phone and threatened to fire me on the spot for changing the format…but I told him he would have to come down to the studio and pull me off the chair. Needless to say I kept my job and the audience feedback was entirely in my favor. I miss both Clifford & Wes, every day. Thanks for posting that rare video…and a great big “hi” to Mike Vax, who is helping keep the Kenton sound alive

    • Terence Smith says

      Lee, Is there anything better than Wes Montgomery’s version of Clifford Brown’s “Sandu”?

      Wes and others seemed to recognize that Clifford Brown was just as awesome as a composer as he was an endlessly creative interpreter. And the process continues. There was a You-Tube video (last year)of a 13-year old kid playing “Sandu”. He had transcribed and learned the Keith Jarrett version, but referenced it as he went into Clifford-like lines of great inspiration. I hope it’s still there! I’d like to hear it again…

      Joy Spring!