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Clifford Brown: A Short Life Well-Lived

The legacy of the noted jazz trumpeter by Howard Gillis, Ph.D. and Alan Hood

Clifford Brown stands among the best jazz trumpeters in history. As a musician, his self-discipline and devotion to his art, his technical expertise, as well as his beautifully constructed solos all mark his exceptionality. As he lived his life, his fierce determination, his welcoming spirit, and the strength of his character all serve as examples for us all.

We are all tested at certain points in our lives. Clifford Brown’s test came in the summer of 1950 when he was 19 years old, and already a relatively accomplished musician. Clifford had finished playing a gig at a party, and while riding in a car with three friends, a deer suddenly appeared in the road. The car swerved, overturned and crashed. The accident killed the driver and his girlfriend. Clifford and the other passenger were critically injured. Clifford’s injuries were so extensive that his life was threatened. Bones were broken in his torso and both legs. He subsequently wore a full body cast for months. He had skin grafts that reached from his ankle to his armpits. Difficulties with his shoulder socket would make supporting his trumpet initially impossible and then very painful for months to come.

As if this weren’t enough for Clifford to deal with, about a month after the accident Clifford’s mentor, friend and source of deep musical inspiration, the great trumpet player Fats Navarro, died at the age of 26. Clifford heard the news while in the hospital. Later, when asked in a questionnaire by Leonard Feather to name his favorite trumpet players, Clifford wrote just one name, Fats Navarro. And Larue Brown Watson, Clifford’s widow, in a 1980 interview with Feather said, “(Clifford) idolized Fats Navarro. That was his heart.” Navarro’s death was an immense loss for Brown amidst the others that he was experiencing.

The young Clifford was confronted with numerous losses: the sudden and violent deaths of friends, the loss of his mobility, the loss of his good health, the loss of his ability to play his trumpet and the halting of his musical career, the loss of a beloved mentor. His academic career was also halted, as he was a student at what was then called Maryland State College. How could one not experience a sense of anger, despair and hopelessness? His convalescence was long and difficult. Several months after the accident while recuperating at his parents’ home, though he was in substantial pain, he picked up his horn and attempted to practice throughout the day. He had to stop, however, as the healing process of his shoulder did not progress and the pain was intolerable. Yet he gradually found his way back to music – first via the piano during the time when he could not hold up his trumpet, and eventually, he began playing his trumpet again.


Before the accident, even given his relatively young age, Brown had been making a name for himself on the jazz scene. His kind-heartedness and welcoming spirit earned him many friends who provided encouragement during his rough times-most notably from Dizzy Gillespie who paid him a visit in the hospital and told him that he had to keep going. This no doubt made a huge impression on the young and developing musician. How important for him to be acknowledged and encouraged in this way.

Yet Clifford Brown also possessed an uncommon inner strength to move beyond these traumatic events and in fact to use this experience to fuel his musical and personal development, an inner strength and determination that was evident even as a young boy. It was an inner strength also that was rooted in his family and the community in which he was raised.

As a junior high school student, Clifford Brown was brought for trumpet lessons to Robert Lowery a noted teacher and performer with the Aces of Rhythm. In an interview with Nick Catalano, author of, Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, Mr. Lowery was asked to evaluate Clifford Brown as a student. Lowery showed no hesitation in his response. Clifford Brown was not the most talented of those students whom Lowery was teaching. And Ben Cashman, the manager of the Aces of Rhythm, a trumpet player himself, upon hearing Clifford play at the time at which he began to study with Mr. Lowery said, as quoted in Nick Catalano’s book, “I never thought he would amount to anything to tell you the truth. He had such poor tone and he was so sloppy.” Yet when Cashman heard Clifford play two years later, he said, “I never heard anything like it in my life…How could a guy get that kind of technique in that short a time? I’ll never forget it!” So when Catalano asked Lowery to account for what made Clifford so accomplished, Lowery responded, “Because he was determined to succeed,” and Lowery slapped his hand down hard for emphasis on the arm of the sofa on which he was sitting as he said the word “determined.”


The roots of Clifford’s sense of determination run deep to his upbringing, to his family and also to the community within which he was raised. Clifford’s father had clear expectations for his children and did not shy from making it known to them with a firm hand as needed. He was a loving father, and when it came to conveying the importance of work and responsibility, he was forthright in his discipline. Clifford’s father himself, with persistence, drive and a firm hand worked hard to instill a serious approach to music and education in his children. All of his eight children were involved in music either vocally or instrumentally. Mr. Brown appears to have been quite a determined man on his own account. It is reported by his son Leon that he played the same tune over and over for twenty years -one doesn’t get much more determined than that.

Clifford in many ways was quite fortunate to have been raised in the familial and social context that he was raised in. He lived in a close-knit community that very much valued close social relationship, as well as educational achievement and accomplishment. As he was growing up in East Wilmington, he experienced a community that valued and exhibited pride and self-respect. Importantly, against an historical and social backdrop of oppression and disadvantage, this was a community and a family within a community that developed an inner strength and sense of purpose and resolve in the face of tough times, in response to and as an outgrowth of this historical backdrop. This was Clifford Brown’s inheritance, and he took it in for himself and used it well.

Brown’s shoulder would continue to periodically become dislocated throughout the rest of his life, and he was left with a limp after the accident. His life threatening accident at nineteen shows us something of his underlying capacity to deal with adversity, and the character that he brought to it, in moving beyond it and undertaking the arduous process of getting his chops back – this trauma did not crush him. As Brown got stronger, he felt the lure of Philadelphia clubs once again. In the spring of 1951, at 20 years of age, he played with Charlie Parker. In a 1954 Downbeat interview with Nat Hentoff, Brown acknowledged that Parker helped his morale greatly during his extended recovery period. As Catalano notes, importantly, both Parker and Gillespie were key figures in helping Brown decide to solely focus on playing and leave his academic career behind. Indeed, their support was a testament to the promise that this young trumpet player held.


Yet Brown’s life threatening accident itself was a pivotal moment for him psychologically. Here was a situation where he nearly lost his life. He lost friends, lost his ability to play, and lost an important mentor. Is there a more powerful set of circumstances to show us just how short and precious life is? If this experience wouldn’t lead to a sense of urgency and a re-examination of purpose in one’s life, what would? In this context we can’t help but think of the many comments from those who have heard him play that describe him as “playing like there’s no tomorrow.” This period of crisis in his life likely facilitated his truly finding himself, and affirming with particular force that which he was most passionate about – his playing – and propelled him to devote himself even more fully and single-mindedly to it. Indeed he did not return to school after his recuperation. Perhaps he would not have become the musician he was without this year of trial. How fitting that he found his way to develop as fully as he could as a musician and as a person; how tragic that he died six years later, also in an automobile accident.

There has been much speculation as to how Clifford Brown would have continued to develop as a musician had he lived and what would have come to jazz as a result. Who knows? Many musicians reach their peak in their mid 20’s. It’s an important and compelling and sad question, but ultimately a futile exercise and of course a question that’s impossible to answer. Nevertheless, we would have to be encouraged about the likelihood of Clifford Brown continuing to be a positive force in the jazz world. In 1953, during the tour with Hampton’s band, when Clifford was nearly 23, Quincy Jones was interviewed about Brown. He said (as quoted in Catalano’s Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Trumpeter),

“About Clifford Brown, I’ll put it like this. If any musician of the present day can be compared to Parker, it’s Clifford. I can honestly say that he is the most unblossomed talent of this generation. He should not only be judged by his present talent (which is still of superior quality) but by its potentialities. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and all the other influences were not judged until they reached maturity. It takes a young musician many years to rid the mind of clichés and to unscramble the millions of young ideas into what it takes to make a mature and original musical influence. By knowing Clifford very well, I’m aware of his sensitivity and superior taste; he will never lower his standards and play without sincere feeling, whatever the mood. He is a young musician in age but already a comparatively mature one in ideas. When he matures in his own standards, I do believe he will be a major jazz influence. He is the kind of person who would excel at anything attempted.”


Thankfully and happily the power of Clifford Brown’s example as a life lived is timeless. This life example can’t help but inspire to bring out the best in us all.

Originally Published