The Life & Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter
by Nick Catalano
reviewed by Tom Cunniffe
For jazz fans and musicians alike, there is little to compare with the magic of Clifford Brown. Brownie was legendary in every sense: his explosion onto the jazz scene in 1953 with a seemingly fully-formed style; the fat and sweet trumpet sound coupled with a remarkably fluid technique; his natural assumption of the trumpet lineage from Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Navarro (and the true modesty which prevented him from making the claim himself); his lifestyle, which was essentially free of substance abuse; and of course, the promise stolen away when he died in a 1956 car crash at the age of 25.
I count myself high on the list of his adulators. Clifford Brown continues to be my favorite jazz trumpeter and a personal hero. I've collected all of his issued recordings, and have copies of several unissued ones, as well as his only surviving television appearance. Clifford's widow is a personal friend, and in 1983, I spent three wonderful weeks as a guest in her home.
At last, a full-length biography of Clifford has been published. Written by Nick Catalano, a professor of music and literature at Pace University, "Clifford Brown: The Life & Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter" is a thoroughly researched exploration of this highly influential musician.
Catalano has found many heretofore unpublished details about Clifford's early life in Wilmington, Delaware. We learn about his large, talented family, discover his early development through the eyes of his teacher, Robert Lowery, and follow Clifford as his fame rises through jam session appearances in his teenage years. His near-fatal auto accident of 1950 is discussed in greater detail than ever before, not to mention Clifford's return to active playing after a year in a body cast. The brief section of photographs includes a remarkable shot of Clifford with his mentor and idol, Navarro.
Clifford's first commercial recordings took place in 1952, while he was a member of the R & B group, Chris Powell & The Blue Flames. After a fine chapter on Clifford's tenure with that group, the book begins to bog down. From here to the end of the book, Catalano attempts to discuss every published recording that Clifford made. As an author myself, I know that doing a tune-by-tune analysis can make for difficult reading, especially if you wish to make the book accessible to non-musicians.
Catalano runs into a familiar trap: he seems to run out of fresh things to say about Clifford's playing, so the discussions get shorter and shorter until they begin to look like a set of poorly-written liner notes. It isn't until the end of the book, where he discusses an unreleased tape of Clifford's quintet with Max Roach and Sonny Rollins that he seems excited by the music. What may have worked better would have been discussions and transcriptions of a selected group of solos.
Of course, Catalano does not abandon Clifford's life story when the recordings begin. The exploits of Clifford and his band mates during their European tour with Lionel Hampton are hilarious, and Clifford's stay in California, when he made plans for the quintet with Roach and met his future wife, LaRue, are lovingly detailed.
Perhaps Catalano's greatest discovery revolves around the famous jam session released on Columbia's "The Beginning & The End." Catalano argues convincingly that the music on that recording was not recorded the night Clifford died, but on May 31, 1955. Although the clipping is not reproduced in the book, Catalano says that Clifford's appearance had been reported in a newsletter, which included photos of the event. The date is also corroborated in an interview with one of the participants, tenor saxophonist Billy Root.
With this revelation, it's too bad that Catalano chose not to include a complete Brown discography in the book. Instead, he briefly discusses several of the current reissue packages. Unfortunately, this will make this section of the book obsolete once newer and better editions replace these reissues. Further, including the complete discography would have alerted Catalano to a few issued live recordings never mentioned in the text (i.e., the Elektra/Musician LP "Pure Genius," which documents a 1956 club date, and a pair of Philology CDs titled "Brownie's Eyes" which include another extended session with the Brown/Roach/Rollins band and a jam session with the then-unknown Eric Dolphy.)
Despite these and a few other quibbles, Catalano deserves a great deal of praise for this book. I'm sure that Clifford's many fans will learn lots from the biography, and hopefully, newcomers to the music will be inspired to seek out Clifford's recordings. Thankfully, the latter is already happening: in his final paragraph, Catalano describes a 1995 jam session at the Clifford Brown Memorial Jazz Festival. He says he could not hold back the tears when he heard a group of teenage musicians playing and enjoying the music of Clifford Brown. With the publication of this book, the availability of Clifford's recordings, and young musicians eager to take up his music, we may be on the verge of a Clifford Brown renaissance. No one deserves it more.