You’re in your early 20s, you’re being nationally hailed as the most important new trumpeter since Dizzy Gillespie, you’re working on an equal level with the best musicians in the business, and record producers in both America and Europe are scrabbling to sign you up. How do you react? Do you grab the fast bucks and buy all of the high-priced cars, designer clothes and jewelry you can? Do you cop lavish quantities of the hippest drugs on the market? Do you party every night with the hottest chicks in town? Or do you, like Clifford Brown, maintain a level head, live a straight, dope-free life, remain faithful to your wife, practice your horn every chance you get, take a responsible interest in the business end of your career-and yet die at the height of your powers, through agencies beyond your control?
The fact that Brownie, the straight-living kid, was only 25 when he was killed is one of the most tragic ironies of all, for in no way did either his age or behavior contribute to his death. Charlie Parker’s death in 1955, for example, came as no surprise to those on the scene, for he had been his own walking obituary for years. But when the news spread of Brown’s death, even hardened veterans of the road were shaken to the core.
In his 168-page account of Brownie’s life, Nick Catalano provides the basic facts of this important jazzman’s career, but omitting for the most part any discussion of the specific reasons why his subject’s artistry surpassed, in many people’s minds, the achievements of such other popular trumpeters of the time as Miles Davis and Chet Baker. On the plus side, he does give us much information about Brown’s family background, his coming-up years in Wilmington and Philadelphia and his early gigs with Chris Powell’s Blue Flames and Lionel Hampton’s big band. Also covered, of course, are his turns with Art Blakey and the group he was co-leading with Max Roach at the time of the fatal accident. But these, like the West Coast date with Zoot Sims, the sessions with Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and Helen Merrill, and the Brown-with-strings dates are more or less treated as extended record reviews.
In short, we get very little, if any, analysis of why the trumpeter’s gifts were so special, or, for that matter, what it was about them that proved the inspiration for such disciples as Donald Byrd, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Bill Hardman, Randy Brecker, Woody Shaw, Wynton Marsalis and others of the present generation. Considering that Brown confined his improvisational range to the middle of his instrument and eschewed the excesses of the altissimo, it is all the more remarkable that he accomplished as much as he did. Blessed with perfect pitch, an unbridled sense of swing, rhythmically crisp articulation, an endlessly inventive mind, a fluid command of the harmonic flow and cross-cadential phrasing, a near flawless embouchure and enviable physical endurance, Brownie early on set these gems on a field of sound so rich and full that one would have to reach far back in time to find comparable models.