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Jazz Corner: The Legacy of Clifford Brown

It is fascinating to conjecture where Brownie would have reached as a jazz musician

Sunil Sampat Sep 14, 2017

Album cover from Clifford Brown's 1956 record 'Memorial Album.'

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Clifford Brown is arguably one of the greatest of all jazz trumpet players. Tragically, a car crash ended his life at the age of 25. We have a fair body of his work from his short career but there is no telling how high this jazz prodigy would have risen. Brown (Brownie) created a link between ‘bebop’ to ‘hardbop’ sound. He was co-leader of the Clifford Brown – Max Roach Quintet.

It is fascinating to conjecture where Brownie would have reached as a jazz musician. His son, Clifford Brown Jr., who was just a baby when his father died, had put together a show, “Through My Eyes” a few years ago, where he pieced together the views and opinions of jazz musicians who had worked with his dad and had been part of his growing up. Brown Jr. has been a jazz trombonist, trained by the great J.J.Johnson; he gave up playing to pursue his passion for the radio.

I caught up with Brown Jr. in his native San Francisco and spoke to him at length about his father, his show, “Through My Eyes” and his fascinating encounters with the giants of the jazz community throughout his life. We spoke of this show as well as his life surrounded by jazz musicians throughout. Here are some excerpts of our conversation:

What was it like growing up?
The jazz community at large was very supportive and we always had musicians dropping in. My mother, who was very fond of the music would always arrange jam sessions at home. I grew up with these musicians around me.

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What are your memories of these times and who were the musicians who came around?Donald Byrd was often at our place as was Harold Land, who was a close friend of dad. Max Roach would come by often as did Dizzy Gillespie. Diz would take me out shopping for toys. Art Blakey was another one who was in our home a lot. Quincy Jones was another.

If your dad had lived, do you think Miles Davis would have been overshadowed as a musician?                                                                                                                                                        Miles himself has said that he would have been seen differently had dad lived. However, Miles was always innovating and coming up with new sounds so that would not have changed a lot.

Did you like Miles’ foray into electronics and fusion?
I still can’t get into Bitches Brew after several attempts to understand it. It did change the sound of jazz for a while until Wynton Marsalis brought back the classical sound of jazz.

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Of the trumpet players, who sounded to you most like Clifford Brown?
Lee Morgan had the tone but his playing was influenced by R&B and contemporary sounds. The one who came closest to dad’s sound was Kenny Dorham.

Did you spend time with these guys?
Morgan had taken a few lessons from dad when he was growing up and always spoke of it. I learnt some life philosophy from him. “It’s not important in the cosmic scheme of things,” he would say when I mentioned a problem I had.

Any other lasting memories?
I went on tour with the Blakey’s Jazz Messenger band (where Brownie once played) just to get a feel of a jazz musician. The other memory is of Rahsaan Roland Kirk who said my dad’s music influenced his a lot. There is Wynton Marsalis who has often called me to speak at Lincoln Center. Arturo Sandoval is a good friend who talks of my dad’s influence.

Did you ever meet Louis Armstrong?
Several times. He felt let down and not truly appreciated by this country (U.S.) in the Thirties and Forties he was largely ignored. In the Sixties when the Civil Rights movement was on, he was perceived as an ‘Uncle Tom,’ appeasing the white folks. But he was one of the truly great trumpet players ever.

Sunil Sampat is a jazz critic and contributing Editor of Rolling Stone India. Write to Sunil at [email protected]

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