Few enthusiasts and scholars would argue the place trumpeter Clifford Brown holds in jazz history. His work, sadly cut short by his death in 1956, is dramatic, creative, revered. Until now, there has not been a body of work on his life to better acquaint us with his play, his life in and out of jazz, and his enthusiasm for life. Author Nick Catalano, whose love for Brownie had its beginnings at age 14 when he briefly shared a bandstand with him, has given us Clifford Brown : The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, a critically-acclaimed, newly released biography . He recently talked with Jerry Jazz Musician contributing writer Paul Morris in a conversation about Brown.
JJM: I thought you did a wonderful job in digging up information about Clifford Brown’s life and documenting his recordings. I hope your work will have the effect of spreading the word about his music.
NC: That’s why I wrote it. The whole idea is to spread the music around and get people to listen to this amazing musician.
JJM: He was born in Wilmington, Delaware. Can you start by describing the neighborhood where he grew up and what it offered a talented young person like him?
NC: It was an extraordinary neighborhood, a little ten- or fifteen-square block area on the east side of Wilmington. A black community with wonderful little row houses. They are still there and they still look beautiful. I refer to this community as a bit of a Camelot because it was very special in a very unique way. It had great educational facilities. The public schools there had enormously rigorous academic standards which prepared the students for their careers. There are professors, doctors, lawyers, musicians, poets coming from this little neighborhood. It had an extended family feel, where everybody looked out for everybody. There was a wonderful social climate. Based on what I know of the area, there should be a book written just about East Wilmington during the 20s and 30s. I dedicated the book to the East-siders of Wilmington because they were so special during my visits there.
JJM: You met a number of Clifford Brown’s family members. What were they like and what did they mean to him growing up?
NC: He was the youngest of eight children, and he had very dedicated parents. His dad was terribly interested in music, and had a million instruments in the house. His Uncle Arthur had a band in New York. Clifford’s sister Geneva was a pretty distinguished opera singer in Indiana. His brothers were well educated, one of whom became a pretty important educator in New York. All were very bright kids. Clifford went to college himself, studying music and math. The surviving siblings of Clifford Brown, this June, are coming to participate in the Clifford Brown Festival, which is held in Wilmington each year.
JJM: Could you talk about his high school training and what that gave him in preparation for being a professional musician?
NC: He had a very rich program in high school. He had a teacher, Harry Andrews, who became a legend in Delaware jazz training. He participated in concert band, and jazz band. His father took him to the legendary Boise Lowery to get private lessons. He was exposed to the very very best in classical training at Howard High, and also got some terrific jazz training from Lowery, who had actually played years before with Dizzy Gillespie. Brown was very well trained as a youngster.
JJM: This background contrasts so much with a more familiar jazz biography of a deprived and scuffling, difficult youth. That is one of the interesting themes of your book. What reception have you had from this portrait of a middle-class, stable youth for a jazz musician?
NC: Some surprises, and many many people who have commented and written about the book. They are very happy to read a story like this, because, in a sense, it is somewhat unique. What’s really important about the story is that it gives us insight into many of the vagaries of African-American experiences, and we are starting to recognize now that some of our reactions that we had, which were reinforced by many of the African-Americans who were into the drug scene during the halcyon days of jazz, those stereotypes are certainly not representative and do a great deal of injustice to jazz history, and certainly to African-American history.
JJM: You paint a portrait of Clifford Brown as a human being who is very positive. His friends don’t seem to have enough superlatives for him. For example, musician Henri Reneau described him as “all kindness, warmth and simplicity.”
NC: Yes, and Henri spent only a little bit of time with him during a Lionel Hampton tour in 1953. I would have to say it simpler. No one in jazz ever had a bad word to say about Clifford Brown. Art Farmer helped me in a wonderful interview. He was pitted against Clifford on the Hampton tour and he went out there every night, and Art told me he went crazy because he knew from the very get-go that Clifford was such a monster player and Art himself was a great jazz talent. But despite the fact that there were these trumpet duels that Hampton forced them into night after night, Art said that even though he was scuffling for his life, he could never think of anything but respect, admiration, and real love for Clifford because he was such a wonderful person. Brown had an enormous amount of dedication to his friends and to his fellow musicians. He exhibited it all the time.
JJM: You quote Lou Donaldson as saying the most notorious musicians often received the most attention. Could you talk about how this relates to Clifford Brown and his reputation?
NC: I think that quote you gave from the book is true, not just about musicians, but about a lot of things that are written in America these days. It seems that the people who have the wildest stories always get a majority of the press. Clifford died when he was very young. Because of that, not too many things were written about him. His story was not as appealing to some writers as those more infamous stories around people like Charlie Parker, and the guys who hung out with Bird. I think that simply follows a pattern in American journalism.
JJM: Could you recount the story of Clifford Brown proposing to LaRue Anderson in California?
NC: They met in springtime in 1954, when Clifford and drummer Max Roach were putting their quintet together. LaRue and Clifford spent a lot of time together. Rather precipitously, he proposed to her and said to her that if she were to marry him she would be marrying his music also. They were on a beach one night, and he wrote a song dedicated to her called “LaRue,” which he never recorded because it was so special for her. It was a whirlwind romance, and they had a brief but wonderful life together.
JJM: He very quickly established himself as a recorded musician, and you quote Jack Montrose, who recorded with Brown for the Pacific Jazz label, as comparing Clifford with Chet Baker.
NC: Jack, to this day, is really one of the more unsung people out on the West Coast-a brilliant composer, writer, arranger. He was the arranger for the Pacific Jazz stuff you alluded to that Clifford did with people like Zoot Sims, Shelly Manne, and other well-known West Coast musicians. In the interview that I had with Jack, he was careful about relating his relationship with Brownie and he said something that readers need to understand. He said that Brown never played a wrong note. That phrase has been used before, but what Jack was impressed about was the enormous depth and aesthetic power of Brownie’s improvisations. Many jazz listeners listen to Clifford Brown, and they hear a lot of notes and they hear beautiful intonation and great tone, but it takes a really devoted listener to pick out what Clifford was doing with his improvisations. Scholarship is now being done-people that are interested music students. Lots of analysis is going on now for real specialists, but that’s really where the real focus for people like Jack Montrose is. Very few trumpeters could play with all of the weapons Brown had.
JJM: The Clifford Brown-Max Roach group was known for its tight and imaginitive arrangements. Could you talk a little about this and compare their music with the typical group of the time?
NC: As I mentioned throughout the book, when Clifford and Max put the group together, what they were very interested in doing was a very economical kind of recording-recording that would be structured and symmetrical in ways that approached the standards of European music. Max Roach was a very unusual percussionist, who by the time he met Brownie, had set jazz drumming afire. Max was on every important recording from Charlie Parker’s “Koko” to “Birth of the Cool” with Miles Davis, the Massey Hall stuff They wanted solos to be very economical. They wanted to get away from the kind of blowing sessions that had invaded jazz in the context of some of the jam session kind of things, for example the Jazz at the Philharmonic things, where performers would go on and on and on, and trumpeters would screech and drummers would take ten chorus solos and so on They wanted to get away from that. They wanted to create a very ordered, artistic jazz statement, and that’s what they did.
JJM: How important was Clifford Brown as a composer?
NC: He did a dozen-odd compositions that are getting a great deal of attention. I am a jazz player, and was lucky enough to appear on a bandstand with Brownie when I was a youngster, which set the fire going for this book, I guess, when I was fourteen years old. If you analyze things like “Joy Spring,” you look at a wonderful eight-bar melody statement, and in the next eight bars there is this wonderful little modulation that would occur. “Dahoud” is a very intricate, well-thought-out composition. There is a jazz scholar living out in Colorado named Alan Hood, and Alan is one of a leading parade of scholars who brought my attention to some of the intricacies of Brown’s compositions. I think his importance as a composer will increase steadily, although he didn’t have the time to construct a huge opus, because he died so young.
JJM: I’d like to ask you about his influence on other performers. The most prominent trumpeter of the fifties, in hindsight now, was Miles Davis. Brown’s style was very different from Miles Davis.
NC: You’re asking the wrong critic to talk about influences. I hate that word. I hate it in lots of disciplines. I’m here at Pace University in New York. My principle area is in Shakespearean and Greek literature. I teach jazz, but that’s kind of because I’m a musician. I have gone through a lot of art history, and influence is very difficult to talk about. Sometimes, in a sense, it’s an overrated subject. Obviously, those who are in jazz recognize that Clifford was very interested in Fats Navarro’s middle-of-the-horn improvisational work. A very fat kind of sound that Fats had developed brilliantly in the forties When Clifford was asked in a Downbeat interview who his influences were, he named only one name, and that was Fats Navarro. Fats had a wonderful sound, pioneering what I like to call “understated trumpeting”. Everybody else in jazz during that time, and even to this day, were screamers. People take up the trumpet because they like to play loud, invariably. There are, of course, exceptions. Brown’s work, his fat tone, his articulation, that even today stands alone. Nicholas Payton, who is one of the great stars of the present-day trumpet, said “I doubt if we’ll ever see the trumpet played that way again.” A lot of notes, a lot of great improvisation, a lot of brilliant articulation, and that was bound to influence many trumpeters, and who tried to emulate that and still do.
JJM: I was interested that you wrote that famous live recording that included his fabulous improvisation on “Donna Lee” (released by Columbia as “The Beginning and the End”) occurred in May 1955, and not in June 1956, just before his death.
NC: You know, Paul, this book has gotten at least a dozen and a half reviews, and all of them have been very positive, and I’m very thrilled and very flattered, and so on, but you are the first person that has picked that up, and boy I am amazed, because that’s really one of the mistakes or corrections that we were able to pick up and show with this book. That’s right! Wonderful documentation and several sources that show that wonderful jam session, that historic jam session that supposedly took place the night before Clifford died, did not in fact take place then, it took place about a year earlier, and certainly for all time doesn’t change the nature of its greatness, but that it didn’t take place then. I’m surprised that other people didn’t pick that up who know a lot about jazz, including the critics who wrote about the book.
JJM: In a way, it’s too bad. It’s a poignant thing. It’s like the story of Bessie Smith being refused admission to the hospital. It makes artistic sense.
NC: Yes. I think what’s important also to recognize is that if people are insistent on talking about the last moments, there is a certain inherent melodrama because of the tragedy of Clifford’s life. But what should now be given attention is a recording that was done in May of 1956, just before Clifford died, at a restaurant in Virginia called The Continental. I don’t know if you know about that
JJM: Just from your book, and I am intrigued.
NC: It has never been released commercially. I keep trying to make suggestions to the powers that be to get this thing done because it’s so, truly, unbelievable. What Clifford and Max and Sonny and Richie and George were doing that afternoon was something that more people have to hear because it’s almost an unbelievable recording. That, it turns out, was really the last recording thus far that we have from the group. In a sense, it needs to be studied for a lot of reasons, because it represents some new direction that the group was going into, and they were starting to do that very quickly. Think about who you have on the bandstand. You have people whose cumulative jazz talent is Titanic. The rapidity with which they moved together I know Sonny said to me many times that they were playing as if they were one horn, they were improvising, they were thinking exactly the same way. In many ways, this kind of explosive, new dimension really comes alive on this Continental Restaurant recording.
JJM: You saw this as an advance from the level of play when they recorded at Basin Street?
NC: Sure. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? I still have that original Basin Street album, in fact, I was there the week they recorded that. I had been with Brownie on the bandstand down in lower New York and took all my high school classmates to see the Quintet. I know a lot of people who have the original Max Roach and Clifford Brown at Basin Street because it’s such an unbelievable recording.
JJM: Clifford Brown died at the age of 25 in an auto accident. I can’t resist asking you the question: What if he had lived? What would he have accomplished?
NC: My response is “if” is the biggest little word in the English language. But, to be honest, I really shy away from preoccupying too much time with that, because I am drawing on my work in classical music and literature and whatever much in terms of true greatness has been achieved very very early. There are so many great artists who really created what they going to create and early on. I can go from a Mozart to a Wordsworth to a Christopher Marlowe. Jazz, the same thing happens. It’s very difficult to say. My strong feeling is that Clifford, because he was such a musical intellectual, would have been very much drawn to more composing, and perhaps might have even begun developing his musicianship. He was a pianist, he played gigs on the piano. He played the vibes, he played the drums, he played the bass. That’s an area where speculation is sometimes fun, because he was such a creative force. As far as trumpet playing is concerned, I kind of go along with Nicholas Payton, who says, “I don’t know how much more he could have done.” I have been waiting for over forty years for somebody to come along who would move me personally, and that has not happened, and I don’t know if it’s going to happen anytime soon. Clifford Brown as a trumpeter, stands alone.
JJM: If I were new to jazz, where would I start my listening to Clifford Brown?
NC: That’s a good question. I did something in this book that I always wanted to see in books. I wrote an annotated bibliography which is that the readers can just go and take a look in the back of the book and get a description of what they should hear. It’s not an exhaustive one-there are many exhaustive discographies-but the essential Clifford Brown is contained in that annotated Clifford Brown bibliography, and of course it includes the four or five dates that he did with Max Roach and Harold Land, and Sonny Rollins later on. Particular interest should be given to “A Night at Birdland” with Lou Donaldson, the early recordings that he did in the summer of 1953 with Donaldson and with J.J. Johnson, and with Tadd Dameron. When people get the book, the annotated discography is what they should take a look at in terms of recommendations.
JJM: Is there anything else you would like to tell us about your book?
NC: No, other than I am real happy with it so far. It’s only been out three weeks and it’s already in its second printing. I attribute that to the fact that there are people all over the world to whom the name Clifford Brown has a very special meaning. I just hope that in some way we have focused some attention on him the way it should have been. It’s the first biography of Clifford Brown and I hope there will be more because I think it’s that important in jazz history.
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If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview about Miles Davis with cultural critic Gerald Early.