Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Clifford Brown, A Life in Jazz (Black History Month - Part 2)

Life is odd. Horrible things can happen (like my ancestors owning human beings as slaves, see previous VWP post), but from such horrible things sometimes quite different states of being emerge. Unambiguously good things.

Like jazz.

If African-Americans had never been loaded aboard slave ships and brought to a distant land, if they had remained just what they were, Africans, who would have invented this most American of music?

And without jazz I wouldn't be telling the story of quite likely the greatest and least known trumpeter of all time.

Clifford Brown.

Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Tchaikovsky. This was the music I grew up with. My father wanted his sons to be exposed to the best of culture, and in the Western world, European classical music was considered to be at the pinnacle of the human effort to turn instruments and notes into compelling sounds.

My first musical love...classical music.
Our father purchased stacks of RCA and Columbia Masterwork records at what happened to be a propititious moment. He could still get his boys' attention by dropping the needle on, say, a Rachmaninoff piano concerto.

A few years later, though, the British Invasion of rock 'n' roll roared ashore in America. Our ears tuned into a new sound. Goodbye, Ludwig. Roll over, Beethoven!

Oh, I still liked, even loved, classical music, but it took a backseat in my musical interests. Rock music was so much more dashboard and steering wheel direct. For starters it was louder and the singers sang words about what was on their minds.

Classical music, on the other hand, was more of an extended impression of a feeling, that gradually unfolded and shaped the listener's soul over time. Why a symphony might require an entire forty minutes of listening! Rock music tended to serve up three-minutes doses of sound that gouged, carved, and stomped the psyche in satisfying ways.

If classical music was courtship and seduction and love letters written back and forth, rock music was a vivid one-night stand, a sudden jolt of a drug to the head...

But where was jazz in those days? Actually, we were living in the golden age of it, the late 1950s and early 1960s, but I had no idea. I heard jazz, in a degraded or altered form, and no one told me that was what it was.

Call it jazz...because it sorta is.
Jazz was in Henry Mancini's "Pink Panther Theme". It was in every other note of the elevator music of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. It was even in the only instrumental The Beatles ever wrote, the blues inflected "Flying" on their Magical Mystery Tour album, and in the lonely saxophone wail of "Us and Them" on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.

And why was it I loved the massed brass, and most of all the horn solos, when I sat down and listened to the Blood, Sweat and Tears album or one of those classic numbered double albums by Chicago--I, II and III?

I was starting to hear the music I was destined to fall in love with.

Decades later I probably listen to more jazz on a daily basis than any other kind of music. I'm no jazz expert, but I like how jazz shares with classical music the idea of being a musical impression of an emotion. I like too how, unlike classical, the musicians have the freedom to solo and display their technical virtuosity as well as express how they're feeling while the tune progresses.

I'm still making discoveries in jazz. Like the trumpeter Clifford Brown aka "Brownie."

For me it's like finding out that between Ludwig van Beethoven and Johannes Brahms there was another equally great composer, but somehow I never heard of him until now.

Of course, anyone who is very conversant in jazz will have heard of Brownie, but the casual jazz listener not so much. In fact, no one even assayed a book-length biography of the man until 2001.

It's not that Clifford Brown didn't have the chops to match Miles Davis. He did and then some. It's not that he didn't play with the greats of his time like Art Blakey, Max Roach, and Sonny Rollins, He did. It's that he died young. Way too young.

Brownie was just getting started.

It is the summer of '56 and it is Clifford Brown's wedding anniversary. Normally he and his wife LaRue travel from gig to gig together. They have a baby this year and they would even bring the baby along.

In those days the jazz musician typically traveled by car. It's a hard way to make a living even if you're 25-year-old Clifford Brown who is seen by critics as the next great jazz star. He already has an album whose title sum up the possibilities:

New Star on the Horizon.

Brownie doesn't take wife LaRue and baby Clifford, Jr. on the trip on June 25, 1956. LaRue goes to her mother's house because she had never met her grandson. And it is her birthday. Yes, she and Clifford had married on her birthday two years earlier.

The birthday party is being held at the home of saxophonist Harold Land and his wife. Land isn't in the current incarnation of the Clifford Brown quartet, but he remains a close friend. Someone comes over and says there's a call for LaRue at her mother's house down the street.

Brownie has been playing at Music City, a jazz club in Philadelphia. After the show the band packs up, drummer Max Roach and Sonny "Newk" Rollins, the saxophonist in one car. Brownie travels with his pianist Richie Powell (younger brother of the great pianist Bud Powell) and Richie's wife in the other car. They hit the road, caravan style, Roach and Rollins in the lead car.

The band is headed to Chicago for more music making. Brownie and the Powells are riding in Brownie's 1955 Buick.

It is raining as June 25 heads toward June 26, 1956.

After midnight, Brownie's car stops off on the Pennsylvania Turnpike near Bedford, PA to buy gas. It's the last time Brownie and the Powells are seen alive.

Nancy Powell, who is now driving, misses a curve, smashes through a guardrail, and the car falls down a 75-foot embankment.

The rain continues to fall.

"...BROWN IS BEAUTIFUL." - Kalamu ya Saaam, poet/author
If Clifford Brown had lived, then what? For one thing, I wouldn't be writing a blog post about him in 2011 anymore than there's a need for someone to post about Miles Davis and what a great jazz musician he was. Everyone with even passing familiarity with jazz would know the name.

Brownie's solo for "Daahoud"
Brownie only had five years in which he recorded and played and positioned himself in the forefront of the future of jazz. It is an amazing accomplishment that is validated by the recordings. Sometimes Brownie's playing is, no other way to put it, jaw dropping the way you listen to a Charlie Parker sax solo and wonder how any human can have the breath and finger speed to produce such sounds. Other times, with the riotous bebop pushed to the background and replaced by a ballad, Brownie is simply moving and soulful.

He could do it all. Always his horn playing is impeccable and intelligent and commands my attention.

But there's one more thing that's always mentioned about Brownie. In an age when many jazz musicians followed the Charlie Parker model of dissipation--burn bright and burn out young--Brownie was a clean living family man. He didn't touch drugs. He was gentle and kindly. This is not myth making. It's what all those who knew him said upon learning of his death. The world had lost a great jazz musician and a great human being.

There were tapes in the trunk of the 1955 Buick that took Brownie to his death. He liked to record his rehearsals and gigs on his own reel to reel machine. Only one of the tapes was labeled, which means that as the tapes have finally come out on CDs in recent years people are left to guess where and when Brownie is playing. But what really matters is that he is playing. He will keep on playing. That's my definition of classical. - V.W.


1 comment:

  1. All I can say is you picked quite a year to take a nap. You will never catch up. You will be reading books about this year not just newspapers.

    Heckling from the stands,