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Don Glanden: Remembering Clifford Brown

Victor L. Schermer By

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Benny Golson's timeless ballad, "I Remember Clifford" is but one measure of the reverence and love with which Clifford Brown was regarded by musicians, friends, family, and fans. The affection in which he was held during his lifetime was made all the more poignant by his untimely death at the peak of his rapidly advancing career. Over the years, legends and myths have grown up around Brownie, and, although most are based on loving memories, many of the details of his life were lost in the shuffle. Don Glanden, pianist and Division Head of Graduate Jazz Studies at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, has devoted twenty years to documenting the life and times of this legendary musician, getting the facts right, and producing a ground-breaking documentary on the man and his music called Brownie Speaks.

Like any good biopic, the documentary inevitably leaves questions in the mind of the viewer. It also makes one realize how much research was necessary to fill in the knowledge gaps about Clifford Brown's life and music. So All About Jazz asked Glanden to give us the lowdown on the film and clarify some of the details and controversies about Clifford Brown's life.

AAJ: How did you as a jazz pianist decide to do a documentary about a legendary trumpet player like Clifford Brown?

DG: I grew up in the same city as Clifford, Wilmington, Delaware. As I was developing my career as a jazz musician, I would often run into people who knew Clifford, his family members, and people who worked with him. So I was always hearing stories about his impact and influence in my own community. For example, I once played at the Hotel Dupont, and someone said, "I really love your group. My uncle was a jazz musician, a trumpet player named Clifford Brown." And I said, "Wow! Do you realize the historical importance of your uncle!"

Much later, while working on the documentary, I was talking with Clifford's widow, LaRue, and she asked me how I got into jazz. I told her that when I was ten years old my father bought us a piano. When the piano tuner showed up and completed the tuning, he started playing jazz and I was captivated. When I told LaRue that his name was Charles Freeman, it gave her goosebumps, because after Clifford and LaRue moved back to the East Coast from California, Charles and his wife Ruth were their first friends as a couple. So early on, I had this connection with people who had interacted within Clifford's circle.

Then when I had to do a major historical work for my masters degree at Rutgers, Clifford Brown was a logical choice. I had access to family, historical records, and many of the locations were in my home city.

AAJ: So that's how the idea for the documentary first arose. In what year did it start to materialize?

DG: The first interviews were in 1994, so it's been a twenty-year journey. I was working on my masters degree in jazz studies at Rutgers, and one of the requirements was to do a historical jazz study, which was overseen by the scholar and critic Dan Morgenstern. When I got all the footage together, he was extremely impressed with it. There's a 28 page accompanying booklet with the DVD that discusses all this in a section called "Making 'Brownie Speaks.'"

AAJ: The date of beginning is extremely important, because the picture changed over the years that you were working on it even long after Clifford died. Some of that, I take it, is in the booklet.

DG: The whole package includes the DVD including the bonus features, and the booklet. To keep the documentary to a reasonable length, there were many relevant things we couldn't include. Some of the historical discoveries can be found in the booklet, and we also put together an extraordinary time line from the day Clifford was born until his death including, for example, the bookings where Clifford performed with Max Roach, and important details about recordings and other significant details of his life and career.

The Detective Work

AAJ: What were some of the main discoveries you made in researching and interviewing for the documentary?

DG: We made numerous discoveries that unfolded as we went along. For example, Clifford's sister, Geneva Griffin, told us that their great grandmother, Martha Abrams, was a Cherokee Indian, so we found out there was an American Indian in his family background. Martha lived to be over a hundred years old. She was a street preacher. A picture of her with Clifford's uncle Arthur, a musician, is included in the booklet.

AAJ: Does that have anything to do with Clifford's famous recording of the song, "Cherokee?"

DG: No, it probably was just a coincidence. There are also other coincidences with song titles in the story. Another area where our research was important was in collecting Clifford's school records, which took us many years to gather. We dug up transcripts of his records in elementary and high school, and we got a transcript of the one semester he did at Delaware State College, so all that was new information about his life as a student. We also found out information about the car accident in Princess Anne, Maryland, when he was at Maryland State College. Previous accounts were inaccurate or very incomplete. I was able to get down there and do a lot of research about the specifics of that accident. I found one person who was still alive who was in the car with Clifford. I interviewed him, and he clarified what happened with the accident, and what happened at Maryland State College.

Every biography of Clifford states that he started college right after high school, but I found that he actually took a year off from school. He graduated from Howard High in the spring of 1948, and didn't start at Delaware State College until the fall of 1949. The year in between was when he met Fats Navarro and the year that he sat in with Dizzy Gillespie at the Odd Fellows Temple in Wilmington. So he was practicing and sitting in with various groups during that year off.

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