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|Written by Brendan Blom|
|Monday, 02 February 2009 08:06|
The only video footage available now of Clifford Brown is on Youtube: a grainy, scratchy clip from an old TV program called "Soupy's On" (hosted by the comedian Soupy Sales): Despite the poor quality of the sound as he plays a fast-paced version of the Gershwin tune "Lady Be Good" and Hoagy Carmichael's ballad "Stardust," it's still possible to hear the freshness, exuberance, and technical skill of Brown's trumpet playing: what critic Len Lyons refers to as his "round, sweet sound, virtuosity and lyricism." Another critic, Bert Vuijsje, wrote that Brown's playing "projected a joyous spirit and effected a self-aware perfection that nobody ever equaled." At the time of the recording, in 1955, Brown was considered by critics and fans alike to be the next in line to join Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis as one of the all-time greats of the jazz trumpet.
But Brown died in a car accident on June 26, 1956, traveling to Chicago from a practice session in Philadelphia with the pianist Richie Powell and Powell's wife, Nancy. Nancy Powell had been driving in wet conditions; the car went off an embankment. All three were killed instantly. Brown was 25 years old.
When news of his death circulated among the jazz community, the shock and grief were comparable to those seen in more recent years following the deaths of such celebrities as Heath Ledger and Kurt Cobain. Ken Burns, in Jazz: A History of America's Music, relates that Dizzy Gillespie and his band heard the news as they were about to go onstage at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. When the curtain went up, most of the men were crying; they got through their performance, but could not focus on the music - several songs were cut off mid-stream.
This distress was caused not only by the loss of Brown's musical qualities, but also for what he stood for as an example in character to other jazz musicians.
As hard as it may be to believe, now that its main stars are the blandly elegant, clean-cut and fresh-faced Diana Krall, Michael Buble, and Wynton Marsalis, the world of jazz in the 1950s was viewed by much of the public as a realm of unsavoury addicts and petty criminals. In truth, many stars did have serious drug and alcohol addictions, encounters with the law, and stints in rehab centers.
Legends such as Billie Holiday, Fats Navarro, and Bud Powell had their lives cut short, in their twenties, thirties, and forties, through a combination of their habits, misfortune, and persecution by overzealous police officers and authority figures. Others, including John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, and Gerry Mulligan, had well-documented drug problems and run-ins with the law.
The hard drug of choice at the time was heroin. Miles Davis, after his first success in his early twenties with The Birth of the Cool, went on a tour of Europe. Returning to the US in 1950 and becoming disillusioned with the racial prejudice he continued to face in both his personal and professional life - far different from the respectful, warm reception he had received in Europe - he found himself hooked on the drug. In his autobiography, he writes:
"I remember starting to fuck around a lot uptown in Harlem after I got back from Paris. There was a lot of dope around the music scene and a lot of musicians were deep into drugs, especially heroin. People - musicians - were considered hip in some circles if they shot smack. Some of the younger guys ... and myself ... started to get heavily into heroin around the same time."
Heroin and jazz quickly became intertwined in the frenetically-paced, multi-racial urban setting of New York. The conflicting tensions of a post-war spirit of cultural liberation and lingering racial discrimination led to the creation of a highly insular and marginalized community of musicians who, at the same time, were also the subjects of intense public attention and commercial success. These ingredients, plus the injection of organized crime into a newly urbanized population, produced a lifestyle that was a fervid mix of drug abuse, petty crime, and free-flowing musical experimentation in smoky, late-night clubs in Harlem, packed with a mix of showbiz hangers-on, fellow artists and intellectuals, serious fans, celebrities, and the merely curious. Miles Davis remembers experiencing the underbelly of the scene:
"Me, a tap dancer named Leroy, and a guy we called Laffy was copping up on 110th, 111th, and 116th streets up in Harlem. We were hanging in bars like the Rio, the Diamond, Sterling's, LaVant's pool hall, places like that. We were snorting coke along with heroin, all day long...We'd buy $3 caps of heroin and shoot it up. We'd do four or five caps a day, according to how much money we had. We'd go over to Fat Girl's apartment in the Cambridge Hotel, on 110th Street between Seventh and Lenox; or sometimes to Walter Bishop's house to shoot up...Then we'd go hang around Minton's and watch the tap dancers dueling each other."
Davis would stay more or less hooked on the drug until 1954, when he was finally motivated, and encouraged by friends and family, to give it up. Other musicians were not so lucky. "Fat Girl," also known as Davis's fellow trumpet player Theodore "Fats" Navarro, died in 1950 at the age of 27 of tuberculosis brought on primarily by his drug habit. Billie Holiday died at the age of 44 in 1959, after more than a decade of heroin addiction.
To some in the 1950s, the jazz lifestyle seemed out of control and on the verge of collapse. Artie Shaw, the famous clarinetist and band-leader, said at the time, "Jazz was born in a whiskey barrel, grew up on marijuana, and is about to expire on heroin."
The foremost example of this destructive tendency in the jazz world was the revolutionary alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, the most mercurial, imaginative, and notorious of mid-century jazz musicians. He exerted a strong influence on all of the Harlem jazz society in the breakneck speed and the lyrical and harmonic brilliance of his music, but also in the recklessness of his substance-fuelled lifestyle. Ken Burns relates the following anecdote, told by the pianist Hampton Hawes, who once watched as Parker, "chain-smoking marijuana, first downed eleven shots of whiskey and a handful of Benzedrine capsules, then shot up: 'He sweated like a horse for five minutes, got up, put on his suit, and half an hour later was on the stand playing strong and beautiful.'"
Parker, along with Dizzy Gillespie, was the foremost practitioner of bebop, the fast-paced, harmonically complex jazz that developed out of the swing era. The new music was, in part, an attempt to counter-act the image of black musicians as simple 'entertainers,' men and women who served only to perform for the dancing pleasure of middle-class white people. Bebop, based on fast-paced chord changes (as on this recording of Parker's called "Ko Ko":
required serious musical study to play proficiently, and was not as light and easy on the ears as the more traditional swing of the '30s and '40s.
(Brown's solo starts around 1:47 on the clip.); and in an album of ballads made in January 1955 with a string orchestra playing along with Roach, Morrow and Powell: