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50 Years Later, Unmuted Awe for Clifford Brown

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."

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

It was Brown's second wedding anniversary -- and his wife's birthday. (LaRue Brown died last year at 72.)

In Chicago, when word arrived that Brown and Powell were dead, Roach locked himself in a hotel room with two bottles of cognac.

As for Rollins, "I just picked up my horn and played all night."

They tried to keep the band going, but it wasn't the same.

"When Clifford left, the front line was broken," says Rollins. "Other players came to replace Clifford, but they couldn't do it."

For years, when Rollins was struggling during a performance, he knew a sure way to get through his problems. "When I wasn't playing too well," he says, "I would channel Clifford. That would focus my thoughts and my playing."

A few months after Brown's death, Benny Golson, who had known him in Philadelphia, paid tribute by writing the darkly beautiful "I Remember Clifford," one of the most haunting ballads of jazz.

The life of Clifford Brown may have ended in sadness, but his music endures, full of joy.

For samples of Brown's music -- "Joy Spring," "Sandu" and "What's New" -- go tohttp://www.washingtonpost.com/music.

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