Clifford Brown

CLIFFORD BROWN –  Born  Wilmington Delaware, October 30th 1930;   Died April 1st 2005 in Wilmington.

Clifford Brown, who survived three near-fatal auto accidents to become America’s most beloved jazz ambassador and a pioneer of jazz education, died of heart failure, age 74. 

A protegee of the young and doomed trumpeter Fats Navarro, Brown rose to fame in 1953 as part of Lionel Hampton’s big band.  The next year he formed a stellar quintet with Max Roach and Sonny Rollins that is certainly one of the most significant groups of the 1950s.    He was widely admired for his rich tone, percussive attack and knowledge of the styles of past stars like Bunny Berigan and Frankie Newton. 

Never a drug user or even much of a drinker (“one beer a night was enough for Brownie,” his friend Quincy Jones recalled), Brown was unfailingly polite to fans and helpful to young musicians wanting guidance.    In short, he was not just a magnificent player but an exemplary human being as well.

It all very nearly came to a premature end on a wet night in June 1956, when a car in which he was riding skidded off a turnpike, flipped over and exploded in flames.  Pianist Richie Powell and Powell’s wife died in the crash; Brown was thrown clear and only broke his hip and shoulder.  It was the second near-fatal crash of his life.

After convalescing, Brown returned to the jazz scene in late 1957, leading a septet on a cultural exchange mission for the US State Department to Russia, Poland and Hungary, the first such US jazz tour to communist nations. He endeared himself to the local musicians by jamming with them till dawn each morning, then rising to give classes to children in local schools. It was this overseas success that prompted Brown to reduce his night club commitments in the USA and devote ever more time to jazz education at home.

His efforts were rewarded in 1963 when the University of Delaware established a School of Jazz Studies (one of America’s first) and made Brown the department head.

His third near-fatal car accident happened on another State Department tour, this time in Malawi in 1971, when his Land Rover was attacked and destroyed by two rogue elephants.    Undaunted, he continued the tour and organized several bands of young African players to tour the USA, precipitating a nationwide revival of interest in African music.   Throughout the 1970s he was a frequent guest at the Newport-New York and Monterey jazz festivals, usually playing alongside students or with his three jazz-playing sons.    He officially retired in 1996 but still gave trumpet lessons to young people who would come from all over the world to his home.    He also became active in Democratic Party politics, campaigning for Al Gore in 2000 in North Carolina and Florida, states Gore won in a close election.

He was teaching his tune Joy Spring to a Cambodian teenager last week when he suddenly clutched his chest and died.   President Gore declared a National Day Of Mourning for the day of Brown’s funeral, the first time a jazz musician has been so honored in US history.                  

Steve Robertson