Jazzed in Cleveland

Part Thirty-Seven
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Story filed May 12, 1998


The discovery of trumpeter Clifford Brown was a very important event in jazz history.
It was 1953. Cleveland pianist, arranger, composer and bandleader Tadd Dameron was preparing for a recording session with his small group. Dameronís regular trumpet player, Fats Navarro, had died and Tadd was looking for someone to replace him. He decided to hire a relative unknown.

Dameron later remembered, "I want to use a fellow named Brownie from Wilmington, Delaware. Heís another Fats Navarro. Heís a little smoother than Fats was, I think, and has a lot of drive."

On June 11, 1953, they went into a recording studio in New York City -- Dameron, saxophonist Benny Golson, bassist Percy Heath, drummer Philly Jo Jones, and that 23 year old unknown trumpet player from Wilmington, Delaware.

Brownís trumpet soared brilliantly above the chanting nine-piece ensemble. Ira Gitler, who was supervising the recording session, said when he first heard Brownís trumpet solo, "I nearly fell off my seat in the control room. The power, range, and brilliance, together with the warmth and invention was something I hadnít heard since Fats Navarro."

Dameron had been toying with the idea of recording with another trumpet player, a man who had been playing with him on club dates. The leader said, "I have a trumpet player, Johnny Coles, but for recording, I think I need a little more power."

On that day, Dameron got all the power anyone could ever want from a trumpet.

Brown did not begin playing until he was 15 years old, when his father, an amateur musician, gave him a trumpet. But, the Howard High School student learned quickly. When he went to Delaware State College, he frequently drove to Philadelphia to listen to such bebopers as Max Roach, J.J. Johnson and Fats Navarro. Occasionally, they let him sit in and Miles Davis remembered that jazz musicians all round Philadelphia were talking about Brownie.

After transferring to Maryland State College, where they had a music department, and very nearly losing his life in a traffic accident, Brown returned to the jazz clubs of Philadelphia. One night, he sat in with Charlie Parker and Bird said, "I hear what youíre saying, but I donít believe it."

After Dameron introduced Brown to the jazz world during that historic recording session in 1953, Clifford spent the summer playing with Dameronís group in Atlantic City and then toured Europe with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. In Stockholm, Brown, Art Farmer, Quincy Jones and Jimmy Cleveland violated Hamptonís rules by sneaking out to make a record of their own.

When Hampton heard about the recording session, he fired the ambitious young musicians. But, when Brown got back to the United States, he joined Art Blakeyís new group. Later in 1954, Brown formed a group with Max Roach.

Miles Davis, who had idolized Cleveland trumpeter Freddie Webster, said Brownie was head and shoulders above all the other young jazz trumpet players.

Brown even crossed over into the popular field in 1955 when he made a record arranged and conducted by former Count Basie arranger Neal Hefti. Clifford Brown With Strings became one of the few successful jazz records with strings.

By 1956, almost three years after Dameron had introduced him on record, Brown had become one of the most respected trumpeters in jazz. He played at the Loop Lounge on Prospect Avenue in downtown Cleveland. Contrary to some published reports, that was not his last performance. On Monday night, June 25, 1956, he played an informal gig at a Philadelphia store called Music City. After the gig, Brown, pianist Richie Powell (the brother of Bud Powell) and Richieís wife Nancy began driving from Philadelphia to Chicago for a weekend gig at the Blue Note.

Nancy Powell, an inexperienced driver, was at the wheel in the early hours of June 26. They raced along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, heading for Cleveland. She lost control of the car. It skidded off a wet stretch of the road and careened down an 18-foot embankment. Nancy and Richie Powell and Clifford Brown were all killed.

Clifford Brown, probably the best jazz trumpeter of his generation, died four months before his 26th birthday. Unlike other outstanding jazz trumpeters who died early -- Bix Beiderbecke, Bunny Berigan, Fats Navarro, and Clevelandís Freddie Webster -- Clifford Brown never did anything to destroy himself. By all accounts, he was a very disciplined young man who never used drugs or drank excessively.

When Brownie died, his longtime partner Max Roach went to pieces. A young trumpeter named Freddie Hubbard couldnít believe it. "I cried when he died," said Hubbard. "I was back in Indianapolis and I had all his books, all his records. I was transcribing solos and practicing those things all day and all night. I used to carry all his albums on my dates. If a chick wanted to be with me and didnít want to listen, I couldnít be with her."

Today, Clifford Brown is still considered one of the all-time jazz greats. Jazz fans, however, sometimes forget that Brown was first introduced by Clevelander Tadd Dameron and died shortly after playing at Clevelandís Loop Lounge.


CLICK HERE for the last installment of "Jazzed in Cleveland"

Copyright 1998 Joe Mosbrook


You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30 and Friday afternoons at 12:30. Mosbrook's 1993 Cleveland Jazz History book, based on research for earlier broadcasts, is available from some Cleveland area bookstores, libraries, and the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society (216-397-9900).