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As originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly

December 1985

Melodic Trumpet


by Michael Ullman

SOMETIME in 1954, when he was twenty-four years old, the trumpeter Clifford Brown became one of the greatest jazz soloists. His playing, already celebrated for its fluency and imagination took on a rhythmic grace, an added ease at whatever tempo he was confronted with, and a variety that made his phrases billow and float as naturally as silk in a gentle wind. A brilliant melodist with a big, singing tone, Brown was playing with warmth, forthrightness, and a headlong swing reminiscent of the young Louis Armstrong. Two years later he was dead, a victim of a car crash that also killed the pianist Richie Powell and Powell's wife.

Brown's death affected musicians all over the country. The saxophonist Benny Golson, for example, wrote "I Remember Clifford" in tribute. The tragedy devastated Max Roach, the leader with Brown of the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet, which had begun in 1954. Only recently has Roach been able to play music associated with Brown, whom he has called "a sweet, beautiful individual." Brown made an impact with his personality as well as with his horn. At a time when jazz musicians were popularly associated with big egos, drugs, and alcohol, he was a clean-living, soft-spoken family man. The recent issue of his complete Blue Note recordings includes a picture of him holding his infant son; his widow, whose notes provide one of the real charms of the collection, remembers him explaining jazz to the infant. Sonny Rollins called Brown "perfect all around." and the drummer Alan Dawson, who roomed with Brown when they were both in the Lionel Hampton big band, recently described him as a "down-home guy, a quiet, country, slow-talking kind of guy." Few musicians have inspired the love that Brown seemed to attract. Thanks to a number of recent reissues, we can follow virtually all of Brown's short career.

His rise was swift. At his death he had played trumpet for only ten years. When he was fifteen, in 1945, his father gave him his first trumpet, but in 1950 he had an accident that kept him from his music for a year. By then he had already been working around Philadelphia. Back on the job in 1951. Brown was praised by Charlie Parker and hired by Chris Powell, the leader of a rhythm-and-blues band called Chris Powell and His Blue Flames.

The composer T. J. Anderson, who first saw Brown with the Blue Flames, recently said, "Clifford had this articulate type of playing where you separate each note clearly. Also he could play in between the beats real well. And he communicated."

In 1952 Brown made his first records, as a sideman with the Blue Flames. He took a warm, Dizzy Gillespie-ish solo on the novelty calypso "I Come From Jamaica" and a relatively sophisticated chorus on "Ida Red." (Both are available on The Beginning and the End. Columbia, KC 32284.) In June of 1953 he recorded with Lou Donaldson and then J. J. Johnson, and in August he was making his first recordings as a leader. "Brownie Speaks," from the Donaldson session, shows his fat tone and his cleanly articulated lines with their brilliant runs. Only when we compare these solos with later ones can we find flaws in them. At times he would seem almost driven at fast tempos; he might string together pairs of eighth notes in the first chorus, accenting the first note of each pair and varying the pell-mell action only with an occasional triplet. A year later he sounded effortless and expansive on even the fastest numbers.

Perhaps he hadn't yet found his perfect drummer. From the late summer of 1953 to the spring of 1954 Brown was a fan of the rough, bashing style of Art Blakey, with whom he had made several recordings. Later in 1954 he and Roach began the collaboration that made Brown famous. What Roach offered Brown was firm support and a clear, ringing sound in a relatively un-busy style. Roach is a melodic drummer. Where Blakey pounded and prodded, Roach let Brown's own melodies unravel. (We can hear Blakey pressing Brown on the Blue Note recordings made live at Birdland in February of 1954. The Blakey, Donaldson, J. J. Johnson, and early Clifford Brown sessions, including several previously unreleased takes, have been issued on The Complete Blue Note and Pacific Jazz Recordings of Clifford Brown by Mosaic Records, 197 Strawberry Hill Avenue, Stamford, Conn. 06092. This five-disc set is available only through the mail, for $42.50 plus $3.00 for postage.) Blakey is the quintessential hard-bop drummer, and Roach is a cooler technician. Brown, given his own virtuosity, didn't need to be pushed. He had something in common with the cooler "West Coast" sound: a love of uncluttered melody. Just before the first session, in August of 1954, of the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet, he recorded such tunes as "Blueberry Hill" and Gone With the Wind and his own "Joy Spring" and "Daahoud" with a group of West Coast musicians. On "Blueberry Hill," then an easygoing hit for the blithely rocking Fats Domino, and on "Joy Spring," a gentle, bouncing number, Brown seems to be discovering the value of disengagement, of one step taken backward. He sounds as poised as a boxer dancing confidently on the balls of his feet.

It is that poise and the incomparable appeal of his improvised melodies that make Brown's playing with Roach so bewitching. In the less than two years they had as a team, Brown and Roach went into the studios together fifteen times, once to make Clifford Brown With Strings (EmArcy EXPR1011), a favorite album of virtually every modern trumpeter, twice in jam sessions, and the rest of the times with the quintet. Brown also accompanied the singers Sarah Vaughan and Helen Merrill. All these recordings are being made available in new pressings by Polygram, among them two albums of material that was either never before released or released only in edited form (More Study in Brown, EmArcy 195JI and Jams2, EmArcy 195J2). They are also being issued as compact discs that largely eliminate the distortion of Max Roach's cymbals heard on some of the original recordings.

The quintet remade tunes that Brown had recorded earlier (such as "Daahoud" and "Cherokee"), and without exception Brown sounds better, more richly inventive, on the later versions. If he sputtered a little on the "Cherokee" recorded with Blakey in 1953, his 1955 version is played with warmhearted panache. He begins his solo on the walking blues "Sandu" with a laid-back phrase so captivating that it makes what comes afterward almost unnecessary. He developed an uncanny ability to invent short, unexpected phrases that tell whole stories. At the beginning of his second chorus of "Pent-Up House" (on the Sonny Rollins album Three Giants!, Prestige 7821), he plays an almost childlike six-note melody, varies it in a repetition, and then gradually walks away from it. But the melody stays with you.

On the night before he was killed, Brown was playing with a pickup group in a session that was recorded informally. Three of the numbers were issued by Columbia, on The Beginning and the End. They find Brown in an exuberant mood, playing Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee" at an impossibly fast tempo, and sounding bumptious on the Miles Davis hit "Walkin.'" When he plays "Night in Tunisia," he seems to be inviting comparison to the two giants of the modern jazz trumpet, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. Thoroughly original, he was at the time their only competition. "Night in Tunisia" leaves a space for a solo break that boppers from Gillespie on have used to show their agility. Brown modestly avoids the typical bravura display with a slow, relaxed descending phrase, and then proceeds with a genial, consequential solo that becomes more exciting with every note. The fire seems to come from deep within him--and that's the way it should be in jazz.


Copyright © 1985 by Michael Ullman. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1985; "Melodic Trumpet"; Volume 256, No. 6; pages 93-94.

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