Born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1930 Clifford Brown started music lessons aged fifteen after his father, himself an amateur musician, gave him a trumpet. He went on to study jazz harmony, theory, piano, vibes and bass. By 1948 he was playing regular gigs in Philadelphia with Miles Davis, Kenny Dorham, Fats Navarro, Max Roach and J.J. Johnson. The latter as well as Dizzy Gillespie and Roach were his main influences, as was Charlie Parker who encouraged the teenage Brown.
‘Clifford’s self-assuredness in his playing reflected the mind and soul of a blossoming young artist who would have rightfully taken his place next to Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and other leaders in jazz.’ – Quincy Jones
In June 1950, a year after attending Maryland State University, Brown was in a serious car accident. It delayed his recording debut until 1952, when he played trumpet and piano with the Blue Flames, an R&B group led by Chris Powell. The following year he joined Tadd Dameron’s group, before touring Europe with Lionel Hampton’s band from August to December. He also got the opportunity to lead some recording sessions, including some with saxophonist Gigi Gryce while in France. Later, with the Art Blakey Quintet – the band that directly preceded the Jazz Messengers – Brown’s superb solos were recorded at Birdland. By mid-year, he had helped form a quintet with Max Roach, Harold Land, and later Sonny Rollins. They were based at the Lighthouse Cafe in California and gained a reputation as one of the best hard-bop bands. The group continued until Brown’s death.
Brown’s trumpet playing had a full, rich, warm tone, in itself reminiscent of Fats Navarro, yet with his own particular way of improvising that made him such a prospect. Brown’s records not only let us hear what might have been, they let us hear what a flawless and wonderful trumpeter he was, especially on Study In Brown (1956) and his wonderful improvisational skills on Clifford Brown & Max Roach (1954). On his At Basin Street (1956), the wonderful interplay with Sonny Rollins takes the music into unique territory for a trumpet and saxophone.
Brown received the New Star award from the DownBeat critics’ poll in 1956. Just hours before his death, Brown had been playing at a Philadelphia record store and the jam was recorded; it featured some of the best music he ever played, although his recording career lasted less than three years.
The man they called Brownie, who was already being mentioned in the same league as Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, died aged just twenty-five in a car accident en route from Philadelphia to Chicago. Also killed in the crash was the young pianist, Richie Powell, brother of Bud Powell, and Richie’s wife, who was driving. One of jazz’s great hopes turned into one of jazz’s great what-might-have-beens.