THEY COULD HAVE called him Cliff; he was the rugged individualist of his day. He could have been known as plain Brown; most people remember him as an unsophisticated, straightforward man. Yet they called him Brownie, an affectionate name one might give to a treasured pet.
Much fantasy has been interjected into the facts that contribute to the legend of Clifford Brown. The unexpected tragedy that killed the young trumpeter as he was reaching what appeared to be a musical peak feeds the flames as dry straw, the wild fire. But one truth is unequivocal: in 1956, the 25-year-old Brown was the new trumpet man to be reckoned with. Musicians had been touting him since Dizzy Gillespie had encouraged the teenager in 1949. J. J. Johnson, Ernie Henry, and the ill-fated Fats Navarro were among the prominent jazz figures who invested time, counsel, faith, and confidence in Clifford before he was 20 years old.
The Brown home was a comfortable family dwelling in Wilmington, Del. On Oct. 10, 1930, Clifford was born. His father kept in the home several musical instruments, including a trumpet, violin, and piano. The father played all these instruments for his own amusement.
Almost as soon as Clifford was able to toddle, his eye caught the trumpet. As he grew, “it fascinated me,” Brownie once said. “When I was too small to reach it, I would climb up to where it was, and I kept on knocking it down. When I was 13, my father finally bought me one-and only because of the fascination for the horn itself. Otherwise, I had no noticeable interest in music at that time.”
Much of the credit for the later dedication to music that Brown was to develop must go to a neighborhood musician, Robert Lowery, who fought to stimulate interest in jazz in Wilmington by organizing small groups and big hands. He constantly stimulated Brown’s interest in, and curiosity about, music.
The story of the tardy sideman and the subsequent opportunity for the local boy to break through is a hackneyed one; yet, it can be repeated here in truth.
Dizzy Gillespie came to Wilmington. Section trumpeter Benny Harris was 45 minutes late. This was time enough for 19-year-old Clifford to sit in and flabbergast Gillespie, the band, and the listeners. Gillespie took the youngster aside and impressed him with the importance of continuing in jazz.
Brownie HAD both feet on the ground. He really knew how to take care of business. So said the jazzmen who knew him then. All research indicates that this evaluation was correct and that it arose from a long-established personal code of conduct. The acceptance of the Wilmington audiences, the encouragement from the jazz musicians, the well-wishers who urged the trumpeter to break for the big time all fell on mindful but unblandished ears. Brown remained in school.
After graduation from high school, he enrolled in Delaware State College and majored in mathematics. In 1949, he received a music scholarship to Maryland State College and transferred there, where he gained additional experience by writing and arranging for the school’s 15-piece band. But his first love was playing.
During his time at Maryland State, Clifford had the opportunity to meet and work in Philadelphia with such jazz musicians as Ernie Henry and J. J. Johnson, and the two most important musical influences of his life, Fats Navarro and Max Roach.
Navarro was seven years older than Brown, but to young Clifford, Fats was the ultimate trumpet player.
“Whenever we did radio shows or were interviewed and he was asked who was his favorite trumpet player,” Max Roach remembers, “Brownie always headed the list with Fats.”
This was a mutual relationship, friends have recalled. Navarro, regarded as one of the most gifted and original stylists of his day, heard in the youthful Brown the faint echo of his own then receding prowess. By the time Brown emerged as a voice in 1949, spiritual and physical deterioration had reduced the clear, pure tone that was Navarro’s to a winded whisper. In July, 1950, three days after Independence Day, Theodore (Fats) Navarro died, freed from the agonies of tuberculosis and narcotics addiction.
Brownie and Fats had much in common. They were both multi-instrumentalists; they both began the serious study of the trumpet at 13 with gifts of trumpets from their fathers; they showed a community of ideas as to musical direction. Believers in the stars might find some relation in the fact that the two men were Libras and that both met untimely deaths.
Brown had a brush with death in June, 1950. Returning from a dance, the car in which he was riding was demolished in a crash. Shortly after Clifford was hospitalized, Navarro died. For months Brown was in serious condition. It appeared that both the new hopes of jazz trumpet would be lost. But Clifford recovered slowly, and in May, 1951, he was released from the hospital.
When Brown returned to the active list, he spent 1952-53 touring with a rhythm-and-blues unit headed by Chris Powell. With this group, Brown played trumpet and piano.
Trumpet players and musicians to the man, respected the impeccable technique and richness of tone that were the primary distinguishing characteristics of the man from Delaware. When Art Blakey was going to work in Philadelphia in the early 1950s, Charlie Parker advised him:
“Don’t take a trumpet player, man. You won’t need one after you hear this young cat, Clifford Brown.”
It was Miles Davis who first brought the name before Art Farmer.
“I first met Clifford Brown in the spring of ’53 in Philly,” Farmer said. “He was working with Chris Powell, and I was with Lionel Hampton. When Miles was on the coast in ’51 or ’52, he had told me that I would like Brownie because he was so warm, so I expected him to be good. Well . . . he exceeded my expectations.”
Now one of the most acclaimed trumpeters in jazz, Farmer is the only musician who can disclose personal feelings about the competition Brown offered.
“I must admit I was more than a bit jealous of his ability to play so well,” Farmer admitted dryly. “However, he was such a Sweet and warm human being, I was forced to like him even though he made things very difficult for me as a trumpet player.”
Farmer was not the only trumpet player who must have felt that inner tingle of envy. Almost ignoring Miles Davis, the jazz press eulogized Brown as “The New Dizzy.” No one bothered for some time to remember that the “old” Dizzy was still very much there.
Many trumpet players felt the weight of Brown’s strength. Although he was, in many respects, his brother’s keeper, he never shrank from a good cutting session and always was willing to blow the house down whether on his regular gig or while jamming. Farmer perhaps looked into the bell of the Brown horn more often than any other rising trumpet player of the early 1950s.
“In the summer of ’53, he was in Atlantic City with Tadd Dameron,” Farmer recalled. “I was in Wudwood with Hamp, and one night Quincy Jones, Jimmy Cleveland, and some of the fellows from Hamp’s band drove over to Atlantic City after work. We ended up having a session at the Club Harlem which lasted until 9 or 10 in the morning. No one played but the rhythm section and I guess almost all the trumpet players in that area. There were at least six of us, and Brownie was really pushing. You can’t imagine what an experience that was.”
This was only the beginning of the Farmer vs. Brown relationship. Farmer remembers the fall of ’53 wryly:
“Brownie, along with Benny Golson, came into Hamp’s band. Hamp goes for battles so this was his chance for a never-ending trumpet battle between Brownie and me.
“Although I felt that Brownie was the better player, I couldn’t just he content to let him make a foil of me.”
Then Farmer added, with steely eye and a brief, reluctant smile, “So I think there were some very interesting nights. In fact, every night was very interesting.”
Lionel Hampton knew how to exact the most from each of the trumpet men. Farmer remembers that before Brown came into the band, Farmer had most of the jazz solos. Hamp did not take any of Farmer’s solos from him. He merely loosened up the arrangement and made room for Brownie.
“He would send Brownie out front after me and then we would play choruses, halves, eights, and fours. The pressure was something painful, but more often it was a pleasure for the give and take of the thing.”
Brown might have remained simply an excellent musician and fellow artist to Farmer except for a recording session when, for a brief moment, the latter glimpsed a bit of the divine in Brownie and never forgot the experience:
“One night we had a recording session after the concert in Gothenburg [Sweden]. Brownie and Bengt Hallberg played Yesterdaysas if the tune would become, by some way, forbidden to be played anymore.
“He was a sweet cat.”
That brief remark is the usual unconscious, off the cuff analysis one receives when asking another musician to describe what Brown was to him. He had managed to endear himself to the jazz populace without creating the saccharin flavor that embarrasses most men. Although he was himself quite young, he had a social responsibility toward younger musicians, as well as a sense of obligation toward those less fortunate than he.
“I used to go to Clifford Brown’s house in Philly every time he was in town,” trumpeter Lee Morgan remembers. “I was about 14 or 15 then, but I was very close to him. He showed me so many things that would help me on my horn.”
Brown didn’t know that he was painstakingly training the youngster who would, within the decade, be dubbed an enfant terrible and perhaps the most promising trumpet soloist since Clifford Brown.
Instances of Brownie’s helpfulness and kindness abound in the music business. Farmer remembers the personal Clifford, not for a major deed, but rather for a small act of kindness he performed.
“Once we met in Chicago,” Farmer said. “He had just closed the Bee Hive, and I was just opening. The night we opened I discovered at work that I didn’t have any valve oil, and I called him up and asked him to bring me some. He didn’t hesitate a minute. He just came right over with some of his own. That’s the kind of fellow he was.”
He was also the kind of fellow who never had to meet face to face those whom he helped. When a prominent tenor saxophonist ran afoul of the law, Brownie’s immediate reaction was to help the family. In spite of the moral and physical decay of the saxophonist, he always had given his best to music. Now, Brownie reasoned, let music help him. Brown organized a benefit. He didn’t raise a lot of money; yet to the disillusioned, pregnant wife of the tenor man, that $350 was a windfall, contributed, not as charity, but as a small expression of the esteem held for her husband, the musician. Clifford never met the wife.
MAX ROACH was working in California in 1954. After playing briefly with bassist Howard Rumsey and his group at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, Roach returned to New York to hand-pick his own unit to return to Los Angeles.
“I had been aware of Brownie for some time,” Roach said. “1 had first become aware of his work on records. He had done some things in the Birdland series, and I heard his work with J. J. I was always impressed with his work, and when I began thinking shout forming my own group, he was the first trumpet player I thought of. I didn’t know him that well personally at first-I just felt that musically we had a spiritual bond.”
This was the beginning of a musical-personal partnership that was to blossom into one of the most renowned unions in jazz. They worked together some 27 months, no record by any means. Yet in this short time they cemented their relationship to such an extent that the death of Brownie affected Roach perhaps more than any other person outside Brown’s family. Today, Roach does not welcome expressions of sympathy or even acknowledge that there might be a basis for such.
“The feeling I have for Brownie has nothing to do with sadness,” he said. “When I think of Brownie, it is with love and appreciation for all the happiness he brought me, both musically and personally. He was a sweet, beautiful individual.”
When Brown joined Roach in March, 1954, the two Set about the risky business of holding a combo together. The two had many opportunities to work as singles but stuck together.
“One thing which has hurt small jazz units is the fact that bookers often haven’t been sure they’d get the same personnel the next time they hired a unit,” Brown told a writer in 1955. “They never were sure of the personnel or the sound. In a small band, if you stay together at all, you have a responsibility to maintain your identity. Max and I have had offers to headline as singles. But unless they hire the whole unit as it is, we won’t take the job. That’s the only way we’re going to keep together. We’ve got to work together all the time.”
“Brownie was so aware of all his responsibilities,” Roach has noted. “Not even I, as close as we were, knew just how much aware he was at the time.” Roach thought a moment and said, “You know, he was so stable and together that he had had the foresight to insure himself to the hilt. When he died, the policy covered the entire balance due on the mortgage on his home.”
Although indications are that Brown was innately reliable, it is Roach’s opinion that marriage was the clincher.
“Sometimes, in a relationship such as ours was in the beginning, a chick can hang the thing up by getting the fellow so involved he doesn’t take care of business,” Roach said. “But Clifford came out to California and fell madly in love. While he was courting, it sometimes got a little shaky, but as soon as he married the girl, he settled right down and really became stabilized.”
Roach remembers his friend as an inquisitive individual, a tinkerer who felt an insatiable desire to know all there was to know about music.
“Oh, he was always, always learning something,” the drummer remembered fondly. “Out in California, we had a house, and we had a piano and vibes as well as trumpet and drums. Brownie could play all these instruments, you know. I would go out of the house and come back, and he would be practicing on anything, drums, vibes, anything. He loved music.”
But music was his business as well as his pleasure, and he went outside of music to find two unrelated favorite hobbies, according to Roach.
“He was an excellent chess player, and he could shoot pool like, Wow! Of course, he was also a whiz at mathematics. He liked to fool around with numbers a lot.
“He was just too much. He was one of the rare complete individuals ever born.
“He was warm and polite to everybody. It didn’t make any difference who it was. But make no mistake-he was strong. He knew how to take care of himself. He even knew how to take care of me sometimes. Don’t forget, I saw Brownie in many, many circumstances, and he really didn’t take no b.s. from nobody. He dealt with club operators and owners, agents and these people in no uncertain terms.” Here Roach adds a point which seems almost unbelievable in light of the firm, outspoken drummer of today:
“When we had our group, I was the brunt of these people’s oppression; and Brownie would often straighten them right away.
His fellow musicians perhaps never realized the extreme pressure Brown was under much of the time. Accepting him as the new champion, musicians assumed the position of challengers. The competition was constantly climbing into the ring in the form of contemporary artists. The jazz “oldtimers” such as Art Blakey, who was 11 years older, or Roach, who was an innovator at Minton’s before Clifford had even begun to study the horn, these giants, accepted the youngster as an equal and reflected little consideration for his youth. After a particularly burning session in Chicago’s Bee Hive, Clifford quietly walked out of the club and stood sucking in the cool night air. He confided in a friend:
“I feel as though I have just had acid thrown in my face. My lips are on fire. Sometimes. I wonder if I can keep up with Max when he really gets that cymbal going.”
This is perhaps the first Roach will know of young Clifford’s inner fear.
Brown convinced more than the musicians that he was aware of what he was about and of where he was headed. Jazz writers and critics praised the trumpeter as combining the best qualities of Miles Davis and Fats Navarro. He was charged with the mighty responsibility of attempting a true synthesis of modern jazz. His firm, definite, almost percussive attack separated his sound from that of Davis, who was playing in the same detached style. His phrasing adhered fairly close to the frame of the bar and the beat. Brown was an improvisational teaser in that the mobility of his style permitted him to roam at will, creating melodic lines that followed the basic harmony while all the time pricking the imagination with the possibilities of extension.
He was recognized as a brilliant technician, and the purity of his tone complemented the precision of his execution. Art Farmer recognizes Brown thusly:
“Brownie and I received our primary inspiration from the same source, and I think at one time we sounded somewhat similar; but he was always the more capable for being able to really move around the horn.”
In most critiques or evaluation of Brown, little mention is made of his limitations, which were real and obvious. He occasionally would go in over his head rhythmically; the originality and maturity of his solos were sometimes questionable.
Roach, while not acknowledging these specific areas of weaknesses, alludes to them in his praise of Brown:
“He was an individualist, like Bird. I don’t mean he sounded like Bird or tried to play that way. I just mean he played Brownie all the time. He was so much of an individualist that you had to rate him over several other prominent trumpeters, although what Brownie was doing was not always as acceptable as what they did.”
ON A RAIN-SWEPT, early morning in June, 1956, on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Clifford Brown, along with pianist Richie Powell, and Richie’s wife, Nancy, who was driving, was killed when their automobile hurtled over an embankment.
Various persons close to Brown can think of reasons why the accident never should have happened. Like most tragedies, this one is encased in “if’s.” Roach recalls vividly the minute details of incidents leading up to the accident-and away from it.
“The whole thing just never should have happened,” Roach said.
“Instrument manufacturers had been after us for some time to use their instruments. We never consented before. Every once in a while, Brownie would bring a new horn on the job, but he always went back to his old one. Well, this time, we had three days off between jobs, and Clifford and Richie went home to Philly, and I came to New York. We were supposed to open in Chicago’s Blue Note that following Wednesday. I called Brownie from New York to tell him what time and where to meet me on the turnpike, and we could come on into Chicago together. He said no, he had decided to go get a new horn.”
Max paused a second. Then he said, “If he hadn’t decided to get that horn . . . Anyway, we agreed to meet in Chicago. I was going to go on so I could get some sleep before working, so I left in time to arrive in Chicago around 3 in the morning. Brownie left Philadelphia in time to get to Elkhart, Ind., around 9 to get the horn and come on in to Chicago. The girl was driving. It was raining, and they were killed.”
The news of the tragedy spread quickly, and both Roach and Art Farmer remember that it was not a personal friend or relative who broke the news, but rather, businessmen.
“Joe Glaser called me in the afternoon,” Roach said. “I had been asleep and hadn’t heard anything about it. I went right back to New York. We canceled the date, of course. They had mass funeral services for the three of them that Saturday in Philly.”
Farmer remembered: “I was in a recording session with Helen Merrill. Gil Evans had written the arrangements and was conducting. Max Zeppo, the contractor of the date, came out of the control booth and said something about Clifford Brown being killed. We made two or three false starts on the tune we were trying to record, packed up, and went home.”
So ended a fleeting career. After the shock, there came the sobering realization that the productivity and vitality of Clifford Brown were lost. Then, through interchange of memories. it was clear that Brownie had left a precious legacy of good deeds and friends. Respect and admiration bordered on reverence.
Benny Golson penned a moving ballad, and Jon Hendricks set the lyrics to I Remember Clifford. The tune is one of the most recorded of the Golson originals. Each musician attempts to put into it some of his own affection for its inspiration.
The Philadelphia musicians’ local Set up a memorial scholarship fund in memory of the artist.
Though Max Roach never has published or recorded a tune overtly suggesting a connection with his former partner, “I try to memorialize him in other ways,” he said. “I have written two things, however, with Brownie in mind. I did a thing called Tender Warriors,in which I tried to tell how I felt about both Brownie and Richie. Then I have a new thing which I call Praise for a Martyr, which is really for Brownie.”
Out of the wreckage of the automobile tragedy has come a persistent trade rumor. In recent years, Roach has taken a more vocal stand on his rights as an individual and as a human being. His tactics are not always gentle or genteel. Quite often, he can become frightening in his rage. To many people, this behavior seems strange. Often one hears whispered authoritatively:
“You know Clifford Brown’s death really affected Max. He has never been the same.”
Roach does not deny the obvious personal sense of loss he feels when he remembers the days of companionship and musical compatibility he felt with Brownie. He categorically denies, however, that the trumpeter’s death has more than that to do with his present disgruntlement.
“I was not affected by Brownie’s death in that way at all,” Roach said. “What is affecting me now, and what has been affecting me more and more all the time, is the entire social atmosphere which breeds conditions such as I am forced to live in. Brownie’s death is a part of the whole mess. If conditions had been more just and equitable in this country, we wouldn’t have had to be jumping all over the country in cars, trying to make a living. We would have been able to work and be paid according to our contribution. We were doing it our way simply because we couldn’t afford to travel any other way.
Apparently, Brown shared some of this feeling with Roach.
“Are you kidding?” Roach shot back. “Of course, Brownie realized what was going on, and, in his way, he resented it. He was aware of Chet Baker. for instance, and the reception and the money he was making. We had been together for two years and were just beginning to make a little money when Brownie was killed. He never lived to really get any compensation for all that he did.”
Perhaps money eluded him, but Brown did live to receive international respect and recognition. He was awarded the Down BeatInternational Critics Poll new-star award in 1954. He enjoyed genuine affection among his fellow artists, and he lived to see his son, who was not yet a year old when Brown died.
TWENTY-FIVE YEARS is no long time. Many young men are still floundering at this age. Brown had developed into a real and permanent contributor, not only as a musician. Many artists have developed and some have burned out before 25. But Brown was a responsible social being.
No one can know how that first accident, in 1950, affected the trumpeter emotionally. It may be significant, however, that he made no attempt to return to school to prepare for a long-range career. He plunged headlong into the exercise of his best-known craft, assumed a co-leadership with Roach, married, and secured the future of his loved ones by heavily insuring his own life. And he lived an exemplary life.
There is little wailing and weeping over the death of Brownie, there is just recognition of a dull void for his absence and thanksgiving that he passed this way at all.