50 Years Later, Unmuted Awe for Clifford Brown

Clifford Brown died in a car crash on June 26, 1956.
Clifford Brown died in a car crash on June 26, 1956. (By Francis Wolff -- Mosaic Images)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 26, 2006

There may be no sadder tale in modern music than that of Clifford Brown. All but forgotten today outside a coterie of jazz buffs, he remains a heart-tugging example of what-might-have-been, as musicians and critics continue to debate the wonders he could have achieved, if only he had lived.

He was the most brilliant trumpet player of his generation, an original and memorable composer, a dynamic stage presence and, as everyone who knew him will tell you, a sweet and gentle soul.

"He had it all," says saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who spent seven formative months working alongside Brown.

Listen to any of his recordings -- fortunately, there are dozens, and they're all worth hearing -- and the liquid excitement of his trumpet leaps from the speakers, by turns bold and bright, tender and graceful.

But it was more than Brown's music that impressed those around him. Brown refused to use drugs, and his quiet example had begun to change the reprobate image of musicians, for whom booze and heroin were part of the jazz life.

For all these reasons, it was nothing less than an American tragedy when Clifford Brown was killed in an after-midnight car accident in Pennsylvania 50 years ago today. He was 25 years old.

Any number of rock musicians, from Buddy Holly to Jimi Hendrix to Kurt Cobain, have died young, and classical fans have long speculated on the extinguished gifts of pianist William Kapell, who was killed in an airplane crash in 1953 at age 31. Jazz musician Charlie Parker was 34 when he died in 1955 after years of drug abuse, but by then he'd already made his lasting contribution, creating (with Dizzy Gillespie) the intricate musical language of bebop.

Still, there remains something tantalizingly poignant about Clifford Brown and his unfulfilled future. Decades later, the echoes of his barely tapped talent leave you longing for more.

"He was just like a shooting star," says Rollins. "He's there, and he's gone."

* * *

In 1948, Philadelphia saxophonist Jimmy Heath took his group to Wilmington, Del., to play at a club called the Two Spot. It was the first time he met Clifford Brown.

"This young guy came up, head bowed, a very humble person, and asked if he could sit in," Heath recalls today. "At the age of 17, he was outstanding."

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