Clifford Brown's quintet was the best early hard bop combo and he might be the best trumpet virtuoso ever.
Clifford Brown was born on October 30, 1930 in Wilmington Delaware. He grew up in a solidly middle-class neighborhood in a family with traditional middle-class values. His small neighborhood of origin and his own family produced well-respected professionals in several areas.
As a youngster he was trained by the very best in Delaware jazz training and he was also exposed to excellent classical training in high school. He attended college for two years at Delaware State University and at Maryland State College. His college education ended when he was badly injured in an automobile accident which broke both of his legs and resulted in his being a full body cast. After he recovered from his accident, he began to play trumpet professionally on a full-time basis.
He played with Chris Powell and Thadd Dameron early on and in 1953 he went to tour Europe in a band led by Lionel Hampton. This Hampton band had several great jazz players in it, including Art Farmer. Hampton forced Art Farmer and Brownie to try to cut each other every night. Art Farmer was himself a great jazz talent but nevertheless found himself a little overmatched against Brownie whom he described as a “monster player”. But even though he was forced to duel with Brown every night, Art Farmer said the same thing about him that every other musician who played with him said. They all said that he was a great human being just as he was a great musician.
Hampton forbade the musicians playing with him from recording for others while they were employed by Hampton. The most talented members of his band, including Brown, ignored that rule. When they returned to the United States from the European tour, these talented ,, including Brown were therefore fired from the band. It was around this time that Brownie made a remarkable recording with Art Blakey. that pre-dated Blakey's Jazz Messenger series. He also played with some leading West Coast musicians including Zoot Sims.
In 1954 Brown formed his own group, a quintet with Max Roach. The Clifford Brown and Max Roach Quintet had Richie Powell on piano and Harold Land on tenor saxophone. They played a more tightly disciplined style than the “blowing sessions" that were becoming prevalent at the time. They also played with more of a blues feeling and data quintet could easily be considered the leading group in the development of “hard bop". The great Sonny Rollins replaced Harold land in the Brown Roach quintet and his early development was therefore heavily influenced by Brownie.
His trumpet playing was greatly influenced by Fats Navarro . Like Navarro, Brown had a fat, warm tone in the middle and lower registers. The fatness of Brown's tone even stretched into the upper registers of the horn. Several jazz critics suggest that Fats Navarro influenced later generations of trumpet players through Clifford Brown and that Navarro's playing was even a little better than the playing of Brown. While I agree that Navarro's influence spread through Brown, my ears find Brown to be the better musician. Navarro’s trumpet solos are well thought out, well formed and beautiful. Brown's solos have all of that and more. In Brownies' case every note not only fits within the form but seems to have its own meaning. His solos are extremely melodic and flowing even when they are executed at rapid pace. His ballad solos sometimes make me want to smile and cry at the same time.
When playing music, sometimes something magical happens and everything just falls into place. When this happens, the whole is indeed greater than the sum of the parts. Miles Davis’ fantastic album, Kind of Blue, was made in virtually a first take and that was a magical happening.
In team sports I think certain individuals are magic. A magical player [for example retired football quarterback, Ken Stabler] makes everyone on his team play better just by his presence on the field. Similarly in jazz I think certain individuals have a magical impact on the quality of other players’ playing and on the totality of the music. Clifford Brown was magical.
In his short time recording, he backed up three great female jazz singers of greatly differing styles on albums which are arguably the best album each of them recorded. Sarah Vaughan’s album originally entitled Sarah Vaughan and later retitled Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown is wonderful for everyone’s musicianship. Likewise Dinah Jams by Dinah Washington is one of her very best albums. And Helen Merrill’s classic Helen Merrill with Clifford Brown is another gorgeous jazz offering.
In 1956, Clifford Brown played a late gig in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and then left in a car driven by his piano player Richie Powell's wife. She lost control of the car on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the trumpet player, piano player and his wife were all killed.
Unlike many early bop legends, he did not use
drugs or alcohol. But like too many others he died young and
tragically. He recorded for only a very short time and many wonder
what might have been? But in that short time he recorded wondrous and
beautiful music and we are privileged to hear what was.
Brownie: The Complete EmArcy Recordings of Clifford Brown - This wonderful set includes all 3 female vocalist albums and his great work with Max Roach. Every cut is worthwile.
Complete Blue Note-Pacific Jazz - This set picks up before and after the Emarcy set.