By LEONARD FEATHER
Jazz Times, June 1980
Many years ago, Alfred Lion of Blue Note Records called on me to annotate a Clifford Brown memorial album. This was not long alter Brownie's death, anti history would show that it was to be the first of many albums dedicated to his memory.
I began my tribute with this comment: It seems that in jazz the good, especially if they play trumpet, die young Lost in their twenties or early thirties were Bix Beiderbecke, Bunny Berigan, Freddy Webster; Sonny Berman, Fats Navarro. When Clifford Brown's automobile skidded off the highway early one morning in the summer of 1956, he was just four months short of his twenty-sixth birthday. The man most musicians considered the greatest trumpet talent of the new generation was killed outright.
The tragedy took place only three years after Blue Note had given Brownie his initial glimpse of rate by recording his first session; in an ironic coincidence, it was en route to another Blue Note, a Chicago night club by the same name, that his career was cut short. The accident also cost the lives of pianist Richie Powell and his wife. Powell, like Clifford, was a member of the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet.
Musicians around the world mourned a loss that was all the more tragic in that it had robbed us of a man who, unlike many artists of popular fiction and social fact, had lived cleanly and honorably remained studious and ambitious, and had never done anything physically to destroy himself. Jazz had lost one of its most exciting talents: the hard bop trumpeter whose unmistakable sound-bright, lyrical, vivacious-has become a legend.
Brownie was born October 30,1930 in Wilmington, Delaware. He received his first trumpet from his father on entering senior high school in 1945, and joined the school band shortly afterward, It was not until a year or so later that the world of jazz chord changes and improvisation, until then a mystery began to unveil itself to him. A talented musician and jazz enthusiast named Robert Lowery was credited by Brownie for the revelation.
The teenaged trumpeter began playing gigs in Philadelphia after graduating in 1948. That same year he entered Delaware State College on a music scholarship, but there was a slight snag; the college happened to be momentarily short of a music department. Brownie remained there a year anyway majoring in mathematics, and in his spare time played Philadelphia gigs with such preeminent bop figures as Kenny Dorham, Max Roach, Fats Navarro and J.J. Johnson.
Brownie soon had a chance, after the year at Delaware State, to enter a college that did boast a good music department, Maryland State. There he found a commendable 16-piece band in which he learned a lot about both playing and arranging, until one evening in June 1950 when, on the way home from a gig, he was in involved in the first of three automobile accidents, the last of which was to prove fatal.
For an entire year; until May 1951, Brownie had plenty of opportunity for contemplation, but precious little for improving his lip. During that period he gained moral support from the encouragement of Dizzy Gillespie, and by the end of 1951 was back on the path from which he had been so rudely sideswiped.
For awhile he led his own combo in Philadelphia. The he joined the Chris Powell group and was working with them at Cafe Society when he made his first Blue Note date as a sideman with Lou Donaldson. A stint with Tadd Dameron in Atlantic City followed, after which he joined Lionel Hampton and toured Europe in the fall of 1953. While in Europe, he and Gigi Gryce, a colleague in the Hampton band, recorded a series of sessions.
In 1954 Brownie won the Downbeat Critics' Poll as the New Star of the Year There seemed to be little doubt that within a few years he would be the major new trumpet force in jazz.
Recently when an assignment came from Inner City Records to write liner notes for a reissue involving some of the 1953 Paris sessions with Gryce. the idea occurred to me that a logical source of information could be found right here in Los Angeles -- his widow.
My wife already knew LaRue Brown Watson because both were active members of Musician's Wives, Inc., a West Coast organization that has staged benefits for ailing musicians or their bereaved families. In the course of a phone conversation, Ms. Watson mentioned that she was working on a book, "Brownie's Eyes."
We met soon afterward for the interview that follows, parts of which were excerpted for the liner notes. LaRue Brown Watson is a tall, strikingly attractive woman for whom the memory of Clifford remains vivid.
The following is virtually a complete transcript of our conversation.
-- Leonard Feather
LaRue Brown Watson: I was born in Louisiana; however, I was reared in Los Angeles. I've been here since I was two years old. I attended school here, a music major. My background was in classical music. It was kind of funny because I met Clifford when I was doing my thesis. trying to disprove jazz as an art form -can you believe that?
Feather: Trying to disprove it?
You got it.. The title of my thesis was "Jazz versus the Classics" and I got to meet Charlie Parker and Max Roach when I was working on it. And for some reason they took a liking to me, and they kept telling me there was this youngster they wanted me to meet. When Clifford arrived, we met him at the airport, Max introduced me to him and that was that. Clifford and I were off and running from that time on. But I still didn't think he could play. I had to be reeducated, really.
How did that happen? By just listening to the group?
No, by taking him over to my music teacher and when we walked in, instead of the man saying "Hello" and letting me introduce him to Clifford, he said "My God, is this who I think it is?" And he pulled Clifford inside the house and left me standing on the porch. So I finally asked him could Clifford play and he said 'Are you kidding? The man's a genius!" So I said "Well, why have you been telling me all these years there's nothing to this jazz?"
So then I really started listening to Clifford. I still didn't understand all those runs and things; it made absolutely no kind of sense to me at all. And the discords they would play in jazz just made no kind of sense either. But I thought he was very beautiful when he played ballads - I could understand that.
Then I started listening more and more to people like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and others, and I realized, hey there's something to it, it's a beautiful music, and I started liking it. It kind of grew on me.
Did he take you to hear a lot of people?
Oh, yes, everywhere we went we would always find somebody to listen to. And when we were at home in Philly the fellas would always come over and jam at our house.
When you met him was he already working with Max?
He came out here to start a partnership with Max.
So the whole time you knew him he was with Max?
When did you get married?
June 26, 1954, in Los Angeles. He had to work that night. We had to wait two months before we could have a honeymoon, because he was working all the time. Max and Clifford made a great team.
Who did he listen to in his spare time, either on records or in person?
He idolized Fats Navarro. that was' his heart. And Dizzy was like a father to him, and Harry James. It tickled me when I read that Blindfold Test Clifford did with you back then and he didn't even recognize Harry James. He also liked Rafael Mendez; during those days Rafael had a music book out, and Clifford would practice by the hour with that. And he liked 'Trane and Miles...
That was very early for him to be listening to 'Trane... he was only just starting.
Yes, he was. But 'Trane was four years older than Clifford. And Lee Morgan was, well, he was so young, he must have been about 14, 15 when we first met him and even then he was really playing. Clifford spent a lot of time with him. Whenever we went to the Heritage House, he would always help the kids, and Lee would come over to our house and they would sit down and do things together.
He liked Eric Dolphy,' Eric was a good friend of ours. Louis Armstrong too. He was so well rounded where music was concerned. He could always find something good about people's music, no matter how bad I thought it was. He loved Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan; he thought they were so beautiful.
What else was he interested in besides music?
Well. music was his first love, I was his second love and math was his third.' he used to play all kinds of mathematical games.
He was a wizard with figures and numbers. He played chess well and he played pool like he was going insane. But his family had always been very competitive with pool at home, so he played pool all of the time. And he liked doughnuts. He used to tell me that as a child there was never enough money to have more than one doughnut per person, because he came from a large family and when we would go anywhere near a doughnut shop, he would buy dozens. And they would get stale before he could eat them all. But he would insist on having these doughnuts.
Did you travel with him much after you got married?
Yes. there was only one time when I didn't travel with him. I had asked his permission to bring the baby home, because our child had been born by then, and I had not been home; our friends and relatives had not seen our kid.
Clifford told me okay because there were going to go to West Virginia and then Chicago. So he put us on a plane and, of course, that's when he got killed.
In fact, I was here with Harold Land and his wife Lydia on my birthday again, June 26; they were giving me a birthday party I had had a strange feeling, so I went over to my Mom's house, to check on the baby and while I was there the telephone rang: they thought it was my mother, and they told her that Cliff, the baby and I had all been killed in an accident. Of course, it wasn't that way at all, it was Richard Powell and his wife who were in the car.
But everybody assumed it was us because we were always together.
We even planned the baby's birth around when he wouldn't be at work, you know? We always traveled with the baby even though he was so young, because Clifford insisted that we be a family all the time.
What's your son's name?
Clifford Jr. He's in school now in Hayward, Calif., working on his master's at U.C.A. He's into telecommunications, but he's also a disc jockey up there on the commercial radio station. He has a four-hour jazz show. In fact, the last two ratings that came out he was number one in the whole Bay area, so I'm quite proud of him. He is so much like his lather-he looks like him, acts like him, his temperament is the same. It's like Clifford reincarnated, without the musical talent.
What did you do immediately after Clifford died?
I was just 22 years old and had really never dealt with death before. I didn't even know how to go about reservations or any-thing. Harold Land, bless his, heart, took care of everything for me. He actually had to come and Sit me on the plane. And I went back east, was with his relatives. Everybody was very supportive and very kind.
I didn't realize for several weeks afterwards that he would never come back again. I kept looking for him.
How long was it before you began to realize that there was a whole sort of cult that had grown up around Brownie after he died?
I guess that was a couple of months afterwards, when all the publications started coming Out. People saying certain things about him, who I had no idea were even interested or even concerned about him. I remember Duke Ellington holding me by the hand and telling me how much he loved him, and all the beautiful things about his personality in music.
Then, all at once, I'd hear some youngster playing, and I'd say 'That's Clifford," and they'd say "No, it's so-and-so." So I started realizing at that time that he had influenced people, and even now I hear it. Youngsters come up to me and say "I wasn't even born when he was playing, but I have lived with his music and he's been a great influence on me."
For instance, when I met Valery [Ponomarev, the trumpet player with Art Blakey he was playing and Art said something about me, and somebody else said "That's Clifford's widow'.' Valery got off the stand, shook my hand and said "I loved him; I wish I could have known him:'
There's another young trumpeter; Mark Lewis, who has taken some of Clifford's solos, transcribed them and made a book, and collects everything that Clifford has ever done. It's amazing to me that his music has still lived on and that people are still appreciating it.
Do you have control over all these reissues that are coming out?
Not absolute control. With some of them, there's nothing I can do. I do get some money through publishing companies, record companies and BMI.
Which is his biggest song?
I think maybe "Jordu:" Of the ones he wrote-I want to call it "Little Miss Meow"' because that's what the original title was, and they changed it to "Joy Spring," that's the biggest one. "Jordu" was written by Duke Jordan, but it was Clifford's most popular recording.
Where did he usually write? On planes, in cars...?
Anywhere, any time, day or night. He'd get an idea, and he always carried a little pad around and he'd jot it down. He played several instruments. I don't know whether that's known or not. He played piano, vibes and drums very well, and bass adequately so that really he could have gone into them.
Did he ever fill in for somebody in an emergency?
No, but he used to jam a lot on piano and he and Milt Jackson would change up a lot when they were jamming. Or he would tell Art Blakey "Hey let me play for awhile," and he'd go get on the drums.
During rehearsals, he would play piano or bass to show the guys the feel that he wanted in something.
What kind of a leader was he with Max? Did he leave most of the business end to Max, or did they share it?
It definitely was not left all to Max; it was shared. And I think it was a very interesting partnership. because Max was a very aggressive, domineering person and Clifford was a very strong, silent, warm person. so they really offset each other. If Max got to ranting and made somebody angry. Clifford could go in and smooth it over. Or if Clifford's sell was too soft, then Max could go in and pull it together. They were really good for each other.
Max and I had a very good understanding. I didn't interfere in their business in front of him, much...I always stayed in the back-ground, because after all it was his thing. If Cliff had been a ditch digger or an office worker; I wouldn't have been down there telling him what to do. So I always felt this was the same respect I should give him as a musician. But sometimes things would get a little hairy because I would say something when I knew Clifford wouldn't.
Did you know that Cliff used to be called Pogo? You remember the comic-strip character? Well, Quincy Jones, Art Farmer and Benny Golson named him that and it stuck. And in talking about him now, they'll still refer to him as Pogo.
You didn't know him when he was with Lionel Hampton on that European trip?
No, I met him when he got back. But it was a fine time for him; he had many beautiful memories of that time. He told me about it, about how they would all have to march up and down the aisle through the auditoriums where they were playing, wearing Bermuda shorts and trying to get away from Gladys and Hamp long enough to do a little recording on the side. In fact, the whole Paris series was kinda hush-hush for awhile.
Was Clifford very friendly with Gigi Gryce?
Oh yes; as a matter of fact, Gigi is one of Clifford Jr.'s godfathers. The last we heard of Gigi he was teaching in New York. He went through some personal problems and got very disillusioned and kind of withdrew That was really a loss because he's a very talented person.
This [referring to current reissues] must be some of the dates. I have the Japanese edition, four records. I have two tapes that I'm sending to Bruce Lundvall at CBS of things that have not been released yet. Sonny Rollins is on one of them. The sound of one of them is not good, but everything else is pretty well recorded-at a jam session in Chicago.
About your book; have you actually written it?
Yes, it's written; and I'm shaking now because I can think of so many things I should have done, or done differently. It's being published by Hewlett.
Obviously since I had such a short time with Clifford, I had to involve lots of people in this to get information. I was very fortunate, because his family and I are very close. They supplied a lot of information, as did some of his childhood friends, his music teacher. his minister and different people he had worked with. I bring it all the way up until he died, and some of the things that have happened since his death.
Leonard Feather, author of the Encyclopedia of Jazz series, is an internationally recognized jazz critic and historian.
NOTE - There are several other Clifford Brown articles available here.
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