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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 then Brown, who grew up in Wilmington, had been playing the trumpet for five years. From the start, he was drawn to the exuberance and structure of jazz, and his model was Theodore "Fats" Navarro, who would die at 26 from tuberculosis and heroin addiction. From Navarro, Brown developed a full, or "fat," trumpet tone and learned to explore the expressive depth of the instrument's middle and lower registers.

After two years in college -- including one at what is now the University of Maryland Eastern Shore -- Brown was critically injured in a car wreck in 1950 that eerily foretold his later fate. He broke both legs, was in a full-body cast for months and underwent skin and bone grafts. When shoulder pain temporarily forced him to give up the trumpet during his long convalescence, he turned to the piano and was good enough to take a few jobs playing in lounges.

After regaining his trumpet chops, Brown was quickly recognized as a rising talent, and by 1953 he was making records in New York with top-tier jazzmen.

"When Brownie stood up and took his first solo," writer and record executive Ira Gitler once said, "I nearly fell off my seat in the control room. The power, range and brilliance together with the warmth and invention was something that I hadn't heard since Fats Navarro."

During the summer of '53, Brown was in an Atlantic City show band with saxophonist Benny Golson. "He was not a likable guy -- he was a lovable guy," Golson recalls. "I never heard him raise his voice in anger, I never heard him swear or tell a dirty joke."

About the worst that could be said of him was that he had a weak spot for doughnuts.

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In the fall of 1953, Brown was touring Europe and North Africa with bandleader Lionel Hampton, who forbade anyone in his group to make records on the side. Despite the prohibition, Brown and other band members -- including future music mogul Quincy Jones -- sneaked away for several remarkable sessions at Paris studios. Hampton's manager reportedly threatened Brown with a knife, but the surreptitious Parisian recordings put Brown's picture on the cover of magazines and helped make him the biggest new star in jazz. He was better known (and considered a better trumpeter) than Miles Davis.

Brown made one of the first live jazz recordings, "A Night at Birdland," with drummer Art Blakey, then went to California, where he formed the two most important partnerships of his life. The first was with drummer Max Roach, and the other was with a University of Southern California music student named LaRue Anderson, who was writing a thesis on why jazz was not serious music. After meeting Brown, she changed her mind. They were married within a few months, on LaRue's 21st birthday.

Brown and Roach formed a quintet with tenor saxophonist Harold Land, bassist George Morrow and pianist Richie Powell (younger brother of piano giant Bud Powell), which quickly emerged as one of the most important groups of its time. The group helped forge a distinctive new style called "hard bop" -- refined, fiery and hard-hitting -- that sounds as exhilarating now as it did then.

"Hard bop is the predominant style of jazz played today," notes historian Phil Schaap, curator for Jazz at Lincoln Center. "The bar was set very, very high, and it certainly has not been eclipsed."

During his remarkable three-year run, Brown made more than a dozen albums -- among them "Study in Brown," "Brown & Roach Inc.," "Clifford Brown With Strings" and "At Basin Street" -- that are, quite simply, unsurpassed models of the art of jazz trumpet.

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