Born in Delaware in 1930, Clifford Brown began exhibiting extraordinary expertise on the trumpet in his early teens. His rich tone, virtuoso technique and graceful style kept Brown continually working and growing in popularity. He was especially noted for his ability to improvise in long, melodic phrases. The jazz standard "Joy Spring" (1954) is one of his best-known songs. Tragically killed in a car accident in 1956, at age 25, Brown has been praised as the "greatest trumpeter that ever lived" by musicians such as Herb Alpert and Quincy Jones.
Born on October 30, 1930, in Wilmington, Delaware, Clifford Brown began playing the trumpet at the age of 13, after his father gave him the instrument as a gift upon entering Howard High School. Showing great skill as a musician early on, Brown played in his high school band and other musical groups, with band instructor Harry Andrews serving as a significant early influence. But it was his jazz instructor, Robert "Boysie" Lowery, who really made the trumpet "click" for "Brownie," as Brown came to be known; he credited the music teacher with giving him an integral understanding of jazz chord changes and improvisation.
Brown was so good, in fact, that he was awarded a music scholarship by the University of Delaware, despite the school not having a music department at the time. He dutifully studied mathematics there for a year before transferring to Maryland State College, where he would both play in and compose for the school's respected 16-piece jazz band.
Clifford Brown began making his mark professionally upon traveling to Philadelphia and sitting in with jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro and Charlie "Bird" Parker, who credited himself with discovering Brown. During this period, the young trumpeter grew to view Gillespie as a father figure and idolize Navarro.
The bebop sound that Charlie Parker created morphed with Clifford Brown's style of attacking every note, and came to be called "hard bop." What was equally noted, alongside Brown's virtuoso ability, was his nature—kind, hard-working, clean-living, committed to excellence and humble—a counterpoint to the stereotypical jazz musician's reputation.
But Brown's career would soon come to a halt: While returning from a gig in June 1950, the trumpeter was seriously injured in an auto accident, spending nearly a year afterward in the hospital.
Fortunately, Brown was able to resume his career. He began recording in March 1952, impressing his contemporaries with his extraordinary ability to synergistically blend his technical expertise with a full, rich and graceful tone. He was especially noted for his masterful improvisations in long, flowing, melodic phrases.
Brown soon left Philly for Atlantic City, joining Lionel Hampton's band to tour Europe in the company of some of the best musicians of the day. He returned to work with West Coast musicians in the Art Blakey Quintet, and then teamed up with powerhouse drummer Max Roach in 1954 to form the Brown-Roach Quintet, which was quickly in high demand.
Between gigs, Brown found time to get married. He met and wed LaRue Anderson in 1954; the couple had one child together, a son they named Clifford Brown Jr. "Music was his first love; I was his second, and math was his third," LaRue later said. "He was a wizard with figures and numbers." An avid chess player, Brown was also known for playing mathematical games.
Death and Legacy
When Clifford Brown was only 25 yeard old, he was in another car accident—sadly, this time it was fatal. On June 27, 1956—LaRue's 22nd birthday, as well as her and Clifford's second wedding anniversary—Brown-Roach Quintet pianist Richie Powell's wife, Nancy, was driving her husband and Brown to Chicago for a gig at The Blue Note, when they skidded off the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Brown and the Powells were killed in the crash. According to LaRue, the trip marked the first time that she and Clifford hadn't traveled together.
An early recording session was released in 1956 as Memorial (also known as the Clifford Brown Memorial Album). Saxophonist Benny Golson later composed a musical tribute, "I Remember Clifford," which has become a jazz standard. Among works exploring Brown's life and work are Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, a 2001 book by Nick Catalano, and a video documentary entitled Brownie Speaks.
Many of Brown's compositions, including "Daahoud" and "Joy Spring," went on to become jazz standards. Some consider the late trumpeter's solos on "Cherokee" and "Donna Lee" the definitive recorded versions of these works.
LaRue Brown (later LaRue Brown Watson) went on to establish the Clifford Brown Jazz Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to continuing "the work started by the late jazz trumpeter," among other charitable and music-focused work.
"All Brown is valuable ... because his brief four years of productivity influenced the development of modern trumpet more than any other of his contemporaries or successors," noted Downbeat magazine.
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