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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)

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Brown was not a big man. At 5 feet 9, he had a quiet, guileless demeanor and, as a result of the car accident, walked with a limp -- yet something about him commanded respect. When Sonny Rollins joined the Brown-Roach Quintet in 1955, the tenor saxman was kicking a heroin habit, but Brown never lectured Rollins about drugs, never acted superior.

"Clifford was a clean-living person," says Rollins, who at 75 is the same age Brown would be today. "That was a tremendous influence on me, to see that a guy who could play at that high level was clean of drugs."

He was, in other words, mature beyond his years -- and his character and musicianship were beginning to shape the future of jazz, supplanting the drug-fueled model of Charlie Parker, who died the year before. As Roach once said: "He was capable of -- well, not to use an overworked word, but he was capable of great profundity."

That unrealized potential lies at the center of a persistent mystery about Clifford Brown. On Monday, June 25, 1956, after visiting his parents in Wilmington, he drove to Philadelphia and stopped at Music City, a jazz club where he often sat in on jam sessions. For years, jazz fans have been abuzz about an amateur recording that purported to capture his final performance.

A recording does exist of Brown playing three tunes, and he is astonishing. Critics have called those performances "a defining moment in trumpet history."

But Nick Catalano, author of "Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter," says the legend of Brownie's Last Jam in Philly is just too good to be true. Citing a musician named Billy Root, a regular at Music City, Catalano unequivocally says the jam session took place a year earlier, on May 31, 1955.

But Schaap, a jazz historian who has studied Brown's career as closely as anyone, says there is nothing -- aside from Root's statement -- to prove that the bootleg tape was made in 1955.

Whenever the tape was made, Brown was clearly in a buoyant mood at Music City that night and reaching for new musical heights. On the recording, he speaks from time to time and at one point complains about the heat.

If nothing else can be proved, this much can be said: On May 31, 1955, Philadelphia had a high temperature of 71 degrees; on June 25, 1956, it was 86.

Brown packed up his horn and left Philadelphia with pianist Richie Powell and Powell's wife, Nancy. They were headed for Chicago, where the quintet was to perform the following night.

Sometime after midnight, they pulled off the Pennsylvania Turnpike to buy gas in Bedford, Pa., about 120 miles east of Pittsburgh. It was raining. Soon afterward, with Nancy Powell at the wheel of Brown's 1955 Buick, the car missed a curve, smashed through a guardrail and hurtled down a 75-foot embankment. All three occupants were killed.

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