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Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter

Nick Catalano

Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter

Author:Nick Catalano
Publisher:Oxford University Press

By James D. Dilts | Posted 6/14/2000

One of the most poignant moments in Sideman, Warren Leight's very moving play about the jazz life, occurs when Gene, the trumpet-playing protagonist, and two of his section mates sit in their band uniforms after a society gig listening to a bootleg tape of Clifford Brown. As the cascade of golden notes, each perfectly selected and formed, flies past them in a magical, endless jet stream, they finger their imaginary horns and shush one another. "They say he played like that the night before he died--he knew something was going to happen," one of them says at last. Unfortunately, there are no such dramatic moments in this mostly pedestrian biography of the great trumpeter.

Clifford Brown was the Charlie Parker of the trumpet--the instrument's greatest exponent during his lifetime, and a legend after he died in a 1956 auto accident at the age of 25. (Here's Nicholas Payton--a young, extremely talented current trumpeter who has been compared to Louis Armstrong--on Brown, as quoted by Catalano: "I don't know if we'll ever hear the trumpet played like that again.") Brown's style emerged from the influence of trumpeter Fats Navarro, a consummate practitioner also died young (at 27) but far differently (of tuberculosis complicated by heroin addition).

At a time when it was almost a badge of honor among musicians to be addicted to something, Brown did not smoke, seldom drank, and never used drugs; he was also a devoted family man. And his trumpet tone was the wonder of the age. Fans at Pep's or the Showboat in Philadelphia, where he appeared often, told of sitting transfixed, just feet away, as these perfect notes flowed from the bell of his horn. Brown's virtuoso solos didn't begin, they erupted. His playing was warm, effervescent, joyful, an accurate reflection of his personality. He could render ballads as well as any man, but his real metier was the medium- or up-tempo piece in which he strung together lengthy strands of rapid-fire eighth notes, weaving in and out of the bridge and soaring over the bar lines in a true musical transport. He delivered his share of fluff pieces and unfinished thoughts, but generally his conception matched his execution, and he played with equal strength and facility in all registers of the horn.

Catalano's biography has its virtues, most of which occur in the first half of the book, in which he effectively evokes the supportive family members, teachers, and fellow musicians of the local community in Brown's native Wilmington, Del., who helped to form him as an individual and sustain him after an auto accident in 1950 left him in a body cast. And the tragicomic story of Brown's trip to Europe with the Lionel Hampton band--where he was forbidden to record on his own but did anyway--is revelatory. The trumpeter fell out with the bandleader over the recording issue but returned to the United States a star.

Considering his age when he died, Brown managed to record a great deal, which is fortunate for us. Less fortunate is the author's decision to devote much of the last half of his book to a numbing track-by-track recitation of these sessions. It's not that his descriptions are inept when compared with the actual recordings, but these endless sequences are clearly padding. (The Oxford editors must have taken an extended break.) This musical fountain who always ran full and clear deserves a richer treatment.

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