Clifford Brown was born in 1930 and grew up in Wilmington, Delaware. He was fascinated by the trumpet at an early age and played as a youngster in small groups and big bands. At 19 he sat in with Dizzy Gillespie’s band when it performed locally.
Despite the encouragement of Gillespie and local fans to “go on the road,” “Brownie,” as he was affectionately known, stayed in school, enrolled as a math major at Delaware State College and in 1949 received a music scholarship to Maryland State College where he learned writing and arranging. While there he met two people who were to be important influences in his life, trumpeter Fats Navarro and drummer Max Roach.
Navarro, only seven years older than Brown, was a gifted and much-admired musician who suffered from a serious addiction to drugs which killed him in July, 1950, just one month after Brown was seriously injured in a car accident. After a year of recovery Brown joined an R&B band for which he also played piano.
In an age when many musicians were experimenting with drugs, Brownie was clean. Professionally he was admired for his technique, his emotional, warm delivery, and his sense of rhythm. But it was his personality and his kindness that elevated his stature beyond that of just an intensely admired musician. Fellow trumpeter Art Farmer called him a “Sweet Cat.”
Brown was working with trombonist J. J. Johnson when in 1954 drummer Max Roach was looking for a trumpeter. The Roach/Brown partnership, which because of Brown’s untimely death in a car accident lasted for only 27 months, comprised one of the most admired groups in jazz. Roach was deeply affected by Brown’s death, and while the drummer has never written a eulogy to his former partner, he has written tunes in his memory, in particular “Praise for a Martyr.”
It was saxophonist/bandleader Benny Golson who in 1957, a year after the trumpeter’s death, composed a memorable tribute to Brown. “I Remember Clifford” quickly entered the jazz lexicon and was picked up by vocalists after Jon Hendricks added lyrics. Golson and Brown had played together in the bands of Tadd Dameron and Lionel Hampton. Golson remembers Brown as the complete trumpeter who had mastered the entire range of his instrument and was equally at home with ballads and breakneck tempos. Brown was also a composer of note whose “Joy Spring” and “Daahoud” became major components of the jazz repertoire.
In addition to tribute albums, Brown has been honored in many ways. The Philadelphia musicians union set up a scholarship fund in his honor, and the Clifford Brown Jazz Festival was established in Wilmington, Delaware. In 1995 choreographer Twyla Tharp created a dance for Hubbard Street Dance entitled “I Remember Clifford” which concluded with the Golson piece.