The Smooth, Silky Sounds of Clifford Brown.
September 15, 2013
While I was rambling through past blog posts of “The Head Butler” the other day, I bit on one with the byline: Odds are you never heard of him… Well the Butler was right, I hadn’t heard of Clifford Brown, even though he was born just down the pike from me in Wilmington, Delaware. So I took the Butler up on his challenge that were I to listen to this unknown jazz musician, I’d have the edges knocked off of me and a world saturated with bad news and less hope removed from my psyche. I’m here to tell, that old Butler didn’t lie. As I clicked on the youtube video, the silky smooth sounds of the jazz of my early days poured over me like honey glazing fruit. I wouldn’t have even cared about the flies.
Clifford was a talent in a time of great talent, welcomed into the worlds of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis and Quincy Jones to name a few, all of whom spoke of him as a titan among them. And here’s the kicker. The words these men used to describe “Brownie” himself were ones like gentle, humble, sweet, lovable. And it wasn’t drugs or alcohol that him down for he didn’t indulge in either in an era rife with intoxication. It was just bad luck. He was different. He was disciplined. He was jazz itself.
So what happened as I sat there listening? I floated back to my tender youth, when I was finally permitted to dance check-to-check and remembered the first boy of my heart, what his soft face felt like against mine, how the heat of him amazed, as we danced in the gym to the tunes Clifford Brown gave new life to. Then my mind flashed to our family living room where that jazz played often, and every time it did, I’d giggle in delight as my mother, a Ginger Rogers dance alike, would grab my father, no slouch in the dance business either, and the two of them would whirl about the room, while caught in the sweetness of those old melodies, remembering what their days of early love felt like—or at least that was the expression on their faces. And finally, my thoughts reminded me of the awe that filled me as that sleek soft sound drew the midshipman of the Naval Academy, smart beyond words in their dress uniforms, onto the dance floor with their sweethearts in their long gowns and gloves almost to their shoulders, and we again let the sense of romance that permeated those times—tender and trusting—to allow us to believe that life was going to be bright and kind.
It was bright for Clifford Brown for he was a talent extraordinaire, but it was not especially kind. In his twenty-fifth year, while travelling on the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a gig in Chicago, riding with fellow musicians Richie Powell and Richie’s wife, Clifford Brown, along with his two friends, lost their lives as the car skidded off the wet blacktop.
Thank goodness, Clifford was prolific in the few short years of his career, for the patina of that era glowed with a sense of adoring love that I fear we might not see again. But Clifford and his ilk captured it such that we can still let the strains of Clifford Brown help us slip back to some sweeter memories for those of us who lived them. And for those younger who didn’t, let the music help you imagine an era that sang and played to each other like this: