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Brownie Speaks: A Video Documentary: The Life, Music, and Legacy of Clifford Brown

Victor L. Schermer By

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Brownie Speaks: A Video Documentary: The Life, Music, and Legacy of Clifford Brown
Glanden Productions
2014

This thoroughly researched and fascinating documentary about legendary jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown reveals the full scope of the man and his music through extensive interviews, recordings, photos, and both new and archival film and video footage. It is the result of the labor and devotion of Don Glanden, pianist and Division Head of Graduate Jazz Studies at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, who, with his son, Brad Glanden, a media expert, spent many years researching and preparing it. In 2008, they previewed it at a conference dedicated to Brown, and kept refining it for six years thereafter until satisfied with the results. If time spent is a measure of dedication, this one tops the charts as far as music documentaries are concerned.

Clifford Brown was a musical and personal phenomenon. In an all too brief career (1950-1956) prior to his untimely death in a car accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, "Brownie," as he was affectionately called, changed the face and sound of jazz trumpet by combining impeccable execution with the complex demands of bebop playing and unsurpassed lyricism that encouraged the heart and broke it at the same time. Supremely well-educated (besides music, in chemistry and mathematics), he led an exemplary drug-free life of love, care, and responsibility towards everyone he encountered. In this respect, he helped change the image of the "junkie" beatnik jazz musician.

Surviving two earlier auto accidents seemed to forecast the one that took his life in his 25th year (he wasn't the driver in any of the events). While achieving his incredible musical legacy and at the same time building a family with his wife LaRue and his son Clifford, Jr. (now a radio host in San Francisco), he and those close to him lived with the apprehension that he might die young. In documenting his abruptly foreshortened life, the film shuttles between his musical development, personality (as reflected by those who knew him well), and the contexts of time and place in a way that brings them together in a coherent and enduring whole. The background music, consisting largely of Brown's recordings, provides a vivid reminder of what great players he and his cohorts were. Many of his co-musicians and those inspired by him appear in interviews, stories, and quotable quotes. They include luminaries like Sonny Rollins, Wynton Marsalis, Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones, Benny Golson, Max Roach, Harold Land, Jimmy Heath, Arturo Sandoval and Donald Byrd -the list goes on—as well as lesser known figures who were close to Brown, notably Vance Wilson and Charles "Bop" Wilson, both longtime friends.

One of the unique features of the film is the depth and extent to which it pursues the familial and social context of Brown's childhood and coming of age. As we hear from Brown's family members, especially his sister, Geneva Griffin, and his music teacher, Robert Lowry, we learn the story of an African American family and community. These were hard-working families with strong moral fiber who came together to give their children exemplary education and a wholesome life when blacks were still humiliatingly segregated. (This happened all over the country as African Americans migrated north to start a new life and is an all too easily forgotten part of America's history and, in particular, the story of jazz.) Brown's parents loved their children and gave them every opportunity for a good future. The community came together to create Howard High School, one of the best schools in the country. (Ironically, the principal was dismayed by Brown and the Board of Education's desegregation ruling because he was concerned it would lower the standards of the school!) Brown's music teacher, Robert Lowry, took him under his wing and even got him gigs to develop his skills. Visible throughout this film is the love and courage shown by the African American community for one of their own. It took a village to make Clifford Brown.

The film-makers also devotedly document the early modern jazz scene in Wilmington, Delaware, Brown's home town, as well as Philadelphia, where he came up and was mentored by Fats Navarro and befriended by Benny Golson, and Atlantic City, where many musicians of that time, notably the great Tadd Dameron, got their "sea legs," "bread," and, unfortunately, drug stashes. We see rare photos and footage of downtown Wilmington, the Showboat and Pep's jazz clubs in Philadelphia, and news items and film from Atlantic City, all with great nostalgic effect.

Brown's rapid rise in modern jazz was majestic and meteoric. After learning some important lessons from Navarro, especially bebop improvising and a resounding lyrical tone, he played so exquisitely that he quickly got the attention of everyone, especially at Blue Note Records and other prominent labels, making enduring recordings with Lou Donaldson, J.J. Johnson, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Zoot Sims, and many others. He went to Europe with the Lionel Hampton band, where he committed what may have been his only antisocial act, doing an underground recording that had been "verboten" by Hampton. When it got around that Brown was fired, the whole band quit in sympathy, and Hampton had to relent. Between 1953 and 1956, Brown became a fixture on the jazz scene, and everyone wanted him in the band.

During that time, Brown did some recording work in California, where he fell in love with a college student named LaRue (now LaRue Brown Watson), and after she summarily dismissed his music only to find that her professor was a big fan of his (years later, she charmingly relates this story in the film; her presence lights up everything), he played a song dedicated to her on a beach beneath the stars (it couldn't have been better staged by a Hollywood director) and proposed to her. They married, lived happily in Philadelphia, and had a son whom they adored. But Philadelphia was where the end began.

Glanden went to great lengths to carefully document the fateful events leading up to the car crash that took Brown's (and pianist Richie Powell and his wife's) life. Family members and musician friends recount Brown's last evening with his parents in Wilmington and the night of the car accident, when he played at a store called Music City that had a big upstairs room arranged like an auditorium where many of the greats had performed, and then, with Mrs. Powell driving, took the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a gig in Chicago. The documentary re-traces the drive in a rainstorm to the bridge where the car overturned and went into a gully, where all three perished, concluding with the funeral and the impact of the traumatic loss. Those interviewed come close to tears remembering the tragedy decades later. (One of the many merits of the film is the way the interviewees were able to relate naturally in front of the camera.) The film ends by showing how Brown's legacy lives on in recordings, memories, impact on the music, and an annual Clifford Brown Jazz Festival in Wilmington.

It's hard to find fault with a documentary of such power and devotion, which makes criticism seem like quibbling. Technically, the video images for the non-archival footage might have benefited from better color balance and finer resolution. At times, the large number of interviews seemed repetitive and tedious. A subtler, but important, point could be made about the idealization of Clifford Brown as a near-perfect human being. While he certainly possessed what Nat Hentoff calls in the film a "natural greatness," his human shortcomings and struggles are probably understated. Nothing is said of encounters with racist bullies, which nearly every black person of that era experienced, of the sources of his fatalism, nor of his problems deciding on a career or between his previous lover Ida Mae and LaRue, or of trying to figure out how to match Charlie Parker on a gig. In the film, you can sometimes perceive sadness on Brown's face, but the depths of his human soul are not fleshed out. Nor is the nature of his brilliant improvising explored in any depth or detail. Perhaps the idealization results from the extent and prematurity of the loss of such a beautiful person, or possibly Brown presented himself to others as the perfection he sought in himself. But perfection comes at a cost, and we don't know what that cost was to him.

However, in all fairness, the film is intended as homage to Clifford Brown, not a depth probing of his mind. The heartfelt sincerity of "Brownie Speaks" along with its devotion to historical accuracy and detail earn it a five-star rating and a secure place as an important telling of jazz history.

DVD Information: Runtime: 86 minutes; Format: DVD 4:3 Aspect Ratio; MPEG-2; Dolby Digital 2.0; 8 scenes + Bonus Features.
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