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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.

AAJ: What year was he at the Maryland State College, now known as University of Maryland Eastern Shore?

DG: He went there for the spring semester of 1950. That June was when the accident happened, and he was laid up for about a year after it. He never went back to college. So he only had one year of college: one semester each at Delaware State and Maryland State.

AAJ: People talk about how great he was in mathematics.

DG: Overall, his grades were not great growing up. But people did talk about him being a brilliant mathematician. He got an A minus in algebra at Delaware State. Quincy Jones talks about him being able to calculate exchange rates for the band in his head when they were touring Europe with Lionel Hampton.

Events Surrounding Clifford Brown's Death

AAJ: Jumping ahead to a few years later, I understand that there are lingering questions surrounding the events that occurred on the night of the fatal car accident that killed Clifford, Richie Powell, and Powell's wife, Nancy. What can you tell us?

DG: One very important part of our research has to do with the details surrounding Clifford's death. It was generally believed but not proven that the last night before he was killed he was recorded at Music City on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. That recording was included in an album released by Columbia and it was sold to them by a producer named Don Schlitten. They released it with the title The Beginning and the End (Columbia, 1973) because it included Clifford's first recordings with Chris Powell, plus the tracks that purported to have been recorded on the last night before he died. But there was some uncertainty about it. I wanted to check it out.

A friend of mine, Alan Hood was also doing serious Clifford Brown research and we teamed up to track down Ellis Tollin who was one of the owners of Music City. Ellis also played drums on the recording. I spoke with Ellis by phone and he insisted on the accuracy of the Columbia release, assuring me that the recording took place on the night of the accident. He even volunteered to send me Music City newsletters that would prove it. He sent me the newsletters and they actually proved the opposite of what he said. They were dated over a year before Clifford's death. We shared news of that discovery with Nick Catalano and he included the correction in his book about Clifford. However, the crucial newsletter sent to me by Ellis Tollin now appears in the documentary and is reprinted in the liner notes. It should finally put an end to the controversy. It should be noted that saxophonist Billy Root who plays on the recording, always maintained that the Columbia date was incorrect, stating he was on the road with Stan Kenton when Clifford was killed.

AAJ: But didn't Clifford again play at Music City the night he was killed?

DG: We think he did, but there's no firm documentation. It was a Tuesday night, the regular session night at Music City and the timeline fits perfectly to put Clifford at the accident site at 1:15 AM. Plus, some people remembered Clifford participating in a session that night.

AAJ: Do we have an idea of who may have performed with him the night he was killed?

DG: No. Because almost everyone we talked to mixed up the night of the recording with the night Clifford was killed, so they got the wrong tunes and the wrong personnel, if indeed Clifford played there the night of his death. So we don't know positively what happened that night, but we think it's likely that he did perform at Music City.

We also researched the fatal car accident itself, and we got a look at the coroner's report. I saw the details of the injuries and exact time of death which was 1:15 AM on June 27, 1956. June 26 is often mistakenly indicated in biographies and on memorials.

AAJ: That still hasn't been corrected in many sources. By the way, I know that some people proposed to the Pennsylvania government that a memorial be erected at the site of the accident. Do you know if that has been accomplished?

DG: Patrick Dorian, a music professor, has made an effort to do so, but I don't think it has happened thus far.

AAJ: Sadly, there is a lot of jazz history that isn't properly honored or memorialized.

DG: I agree. Just in Philadelphia, we could easily have a "Freedom Trail" of jazz history.

AAJ: That's a great idea! Somebody should do that! Anyway, it sure sounds like a lot of detective work went into making the documentary.

A Family Tragedy: Clifford's Sister Marie

DG: There was one thing that came as a total surprise. Clifford's friend and neighbor, Ralph Morris said: "Clifford had a sister who died, and when I went to the funeral, Clifford was more emotional than anybody." That stuck in my mind, and when I visited the Delaware Public Archives in Dover, I looked through the birth and death certificates for the family. There I came across the death certificate of Marie Vendetta Brown, Clifford's sister. I saw that she died at the Delaware State Hospital, which is a mental hospital in Farnhurst. Having grown up in Wilmington, I knew that was a foreboding place, a very scary place for her to be and to die. Later I found out she'd been there for ten and a half years.

She was born in 1916 and was fourteen years older than Clifford, extremely bright, very religious, and involved with her church. We couldn't figure out why she was institutionalized for so long, and why she had such an influence on Clifford. I couldn't get her medical records because they didn't qualify under the Freedom of Information Act, but I got some information from Clifford's sister Geneva, and other family members.

Microfilm research revealed that during that time African Americans at the Delaware State Hospital were housed in the basement under nightmarish conditions. The head of the hospital sought funding to improve the situation, saying that the basement was a snake pit unfit for human habitation. Marie died there in 1952 of pneumonia with the aggravating condition of bedsores. She was 35 years old when she died. Clifford had just recently joined the Chris Powell band.

So I wondered: did Clifford see this place? Did he visit her? How did she get there? Clifford was merely 10 years old when she was first committed in 1941. What happened? Apparently she had gotten involved with a man who got her strung out on some type of drug. She was brought back to the family home and, according to a niece, withdrew from the drug and exhibited serious mental symptoms. So, we considered the possible effects this experience likely had on Clifford's own lifestyle and his strong views about substance abuse and the effects of addiction.

It was a difficult subject for Marie's siblings to discuss. They were hesitant to talk about this painful history. We decided not to include it in the documentary but we did cover it in the 28-page liner notes. It was a completely new discovery that didn't appear in any previous biography.

The Paradise Club in Atlantic City

DG: Another story that emerged has to do with a famous gig at the Paradise Club in Atlantic City. The intersection of a few important musicians and their biographies happened during this 1953 summer gig. It was Tadd Dameron's band which Dameron assembled for a stage show with singers and dancers and for which he composed the music. He got a great band together that included known and soon-to-be-known jazz stars like Clifford Brown and Johnny Coles on trumpets, Philly Joe Jones on drums, Jymie Merritt on bass, Cecil Payne, Bennie Golson, and Gigi Gryce on saxophones, and Don Cole on trombone. After about three weeks, the band started to unravel. There were rumors that there was a drug raid on the show.

Biographies such as Rat Race Blues: The Musical Life of Gigi Gryce by Noal Cohen and Michael Fitzgerald (Berkeley Hills Books, 2002), and Dameronia by Paul Combs (University of Michigan Press, 2013) discuss this pivotal time in Atlantic City.

We researched all this in the Atlantic City newspaper archives and found no reference to a raid on the club. However the arrest of Philly Joe Jones received a lot of press. He had gone to New York and returned with heroin, and the cops set up a trap for him. So Tadd Dameron got nervous, and the whole band started to unravel. Lionel Hampton, who was working in Wildwood at the time, offered jobs to Clifford Brown, Benny Golson and Gigi Gryce. There was a lot of speculation in various biographical accounts, so we were able to document many facts about that summer in Atlantic City.

AAJ: And you've got to wonder how a young man like Clifford Brown, starting out his career and living a clean life, reacted to all that occurred there.

DG: Yes, and there were other young players there, sort of a new wave, who were clean living. They were guys coming around with a different mind set. And Clifford was only 22 and still involved heavily with his family in Wilmington, which was a very different lifestyle than he often encountered on the road or in Atlantic City.

AAJ: What happened to Clifford after Atlantic City?

DG: He joined Lionel Hampton's band and left Atlantic City that summer. The Hampton Band left for Europe on September 2nd and did a three month tour.

Big Breaks and Early Recordings

DG: Word had been spreading about Clifford since Dizzy Gillespie heard him in Wilmington in 1949, the same year that Clifford first met Fats Navarro in Philly. After a year-long recovery from the 1950 automobile accident, Clifford also had the opportunity to play several nights with Charlie Parker during the summer of 1951. Then the November 2, 1951 issue of Downbeat mentions Clifford playing in Jimmy Heath's band at Peps. Later that month he joined Chris Powell. His first recordings were with Chris Powell and the Five Blue Flames, an entertainment based rock and roll band. In the documentary, Benny Golson talks about how he first heard Clifford with Chris Powell, and that Brownie's virtuosic jazz solos had nothing to do with the pieces that were being played! [Laughter.] He recorded with Chris Powell in Chicago on March 21, 1952.

After leaving Powell in May 1953 and joining Tadd Dameron, Clifford's jazz recording career exploded as follows: June 9: Lew Donaldson -Clifford Brown Quintet (Blue Note, 1953); June 11: A Study in Dameronia with Tadd Dameron (Prestige, 1953); June 22: The Eminent Jay Jay Johnson (Blue Note, 1955) ; August 28: Clifford Brown-New Star on the Horizon (Blue Note: 1953). It's amazing! That summer he was featured on four major jazz recordings including his first as leader!

From then on, it was off to the races, because that fall he went to Europe with Lionel Hampton and recorded there. In early 1954 he was with Art Blakey for about three weeks during which time he recorded the two volumes of Live at Birdland (Blue Note, 1954). After Blakey, he went to California to form the quintet with Max Roach. So, Clifford's remarkable jazz recording career took place in only a three year period from 1953 to 1956.

AAJ: I'm wondering why Helen Merrill, who made her debut recording with Clifford (Helen Merrill; EmArcy, 1954), and much later memorialized him in another recording (Brownie: A Homage to Clifford Brown; Verve, 1994) is never mentioned in the documentary.

DG: Clifford did three albums with vocalists, including Helen Merrill, but I have no record of her doing any other major performances or gigs with him other than the recording. It's possible, but we didn't see anything. With limited time in the documentary we had to make choices concerning what was most important to serve the underlying themes and fit the narrative.

Encounters with Lee Morgan and Charlie Parker

AAJ: A lot of jazz history has taken place in Philadelphia, and Clifford got his start in Philly. Hal Rutenberg, a cardiologist who also is a fine jazz saxophonist, told me he had a memory of seeing and hearing Clifford at a place where a musician had set up an opportunity for young players to be taught and mentored by top performers.

DG: Was it the Heritage House?

AAJ: Yes, I think that was it. And Hal also remembers encountering a young Lee Morgan there. Lee Morgan's playing echoes Clifford in many respects, and so I'm wondering if they met at that place.

DG: Clifford was a mentor to Lee Morgan. Clifford's wife LaRue, who later became very focused on jazz education, said that Clifford had a strong commitment to passing the music down to the next generation. He loved being around youngsters who were playing. Lee Morgan was definitely someone whom he helped. Tom Perchard's Lee Morgan: His Life, Music and Culture (Equinox Publishing Ltd.) addresses the connection between Clifford and Lee.

AAJ: You mentioned that Clifford also performed with Charlie Parker in Philadelphia. I try to imagine a young trumpeter sitting in with Bird and trying to match up to him. He must have felt intimidated.

DG: Roy Haynes was on the gig when Clifford first played with Bird. He said that if Clifford was nervous, he didn't show it. That was in the summer of 1951, and Clifford had just recently recovered from the car accident from which he was laid up for about a year. I worked Tom Darnall, an excellent saxophone player from Chester, PA who was friends with Clifford. Tom sat in with Bird one afternoon at the Club Harlem in Philly. After the session Parker asked for a recommendation for a trumpeter to play an evening set. He had just fired his trumpet player, Benny Harris. Darnall called Clifford who made the gig. According to Roy Haynes, Parker was excited by what he heard and asked Clifford to play the remaining few days of the engagement.

AAJ: I thought that Clifford had gone international soon after he played with Bird. So how does that dovetail with a later time with Morgan? So exactly what is the historical sequence?

DG: That famous meeting of Clifford and Bird reportedly happened in the summer of 1951. In fact, Roy Haynes seemed to recall that Clifford was still using crutches from the 1950 accident. It wasn't until the summer of 1953 that Clifford began recording jazz for major labels. Certainly his reputation was growing prior to the 1953 recording dates and Bird's enthusiastic support contributed to people's awareness of him. Sometime around March of 1954 Clifford left for California to start the group with Max Roach. It was there that he met and married LaRue. His mentoring of Lee Morgan likely began some time after Clifford and LaRue moved back to the Philadelphia area in the fall of 1954. Tom Pechard indicates that Lee Morgan's informal lessons took place in the Browns' home at Sansom and Farragut Streets.

AAJ: I believe McCoy Tyner lived in that neck of the woods, in West Philadelphia, as did other young jazz musicians of that time.

Neglect of Clifford Brown's Burial Site

AAJ: Earlier, we talked about memorials to Clifford. I noticed that on an unofficial Clifford Brown website, Donald Byrd posted a blog in which he criticized the deplorable dilapidated condition of the graveyard in which Clifford is buried. I don't know when Byrd wrote that blog, but I'm wondering if something is being done to improve that place, not only for Clifford's sake, but for the others who are buried there.

DG: Despite the valiant efforts of some dedicated volunteers, including "Friends of Mt. Zion Cemetery," the condition of this historically black cemetery is often deplorable. We have a Brownie Speaks Facebook page where I've posted rather heartbreaking photos with an appeal to the City of Wilmington to do something about it. It was originally a church cemetery but there has been ongoing confusion about who is now responsible. The scope of the maintenance task would indicate that city involvement may be required.

AAJ: It concerns me that many places in the history of jazz are either unmarked or improperly cared for. Just as one example, there's no plaque to indicate the location of the Café Society in New York, the first desegregated jazz club, where Billie Holiday sang "Strange Fruit" and so many others got their start. So you could go right by that place and never know it was there. Café Society played a major role in both jazz history and the Civil Rights movement. We call jazz the great American Classical Music, and yet we don't attend to honoring it properly.

Clifford Brown's Contribution to the Jazz Legacy

AAJ: One issue explored in the documentary, which I think is first raised by Wynton Marsalis, is whether Clifford Brown should be considered a true musical innovator or more someone who brought forth the quintessence of a particular style of trumpet playing. Marsalis seems to say that he thinks Brownie developed a style, but wasn't an innovator as such. Do you have a personal opinion on the matter?

DG: One of the three major objectives of the film was to examine Clifford's historical significance in the light of three criteria. I had previously, for another project, devised the three "I"s: individuality, innovation, and influence as criteria by which to measure historical importance. Our goals in making the film were first to give as accurate a biographical account as possible, then to make the viewer feel something, in the same way that Clifford made you feel something when he played. And then the third goal was to examine his historical significance in the light of those three "I"s. So I was really happy that Wynton made a definitive statement. He said, "Clifford is the proof of the power of the art form because, although he didn't create a new vocabulary, he achieved a distinctive personality in the existing language."

Immediately after that, Donald Byrd says that "Clifford created a vocabulary that I and everyone since then has adopted." That tension between Clifford as an innovator and as embodying the tradition goes through the film. At the end, Clifford's teacher Boysie Lowery, says Clifford's language is all over the world. So I want the viewer of the film to be sorting out Clifford's historical role in jazz as the film moves along. According to one definition, innovation merely means to introduce something new, or make changes in something established. So there are various degrees involved. Some people are completely revolutionary in their level of innovation.

There are also different areas of innovation such as sound, technique, or tonal organization. In what may be the pivotal statement of the documentary Dizzy Gillespie says "It's not a question of newness. It's a question of evolution. There's not too much newness in anything. It's just the concept he brought out was new. He was definitely the next major voice in the line of trumpeters." My thoughts now are that his greatness may be more like Bach than Beethoven in that he may not have revolutionized a system of tonal organization, but he mastered and expanded the existing vocabulary, was an innovative contributor to the evolutionary process of jazz, and had a style all his own. He was profoundly individualistic. You can recognize his playing immediately. And he still is profoundly influential fifty years after his death.

AAJ: As you say, Clifford Brown created a musical tension between tradition and innovation, and that tension or dialogue may be part of what made him great. And I think he played an important role in the shift from bebop to hard bop.

DG: I spent quite a bit of time in the film on the musical analysis of Brownie's contributions, and much of it addressed his trumpet playing. As Wynton says, he pushed the instrument to higher levels of endurance, and Donald Byrd and others talk about his ability to tongue, to articulate the notes. Nobody in jazz could tongue that fast. And he was so consistent and melodically inventive. For example, when J.J. Johnson was doing different takes of a tune, Clifford was producing brilliant solos on every take. I think that what made him so consistent, above and beyond his melodic gift, was that he thoroughly understood the theoretical rationale of what he was doing. He was grounded in a mathematical and theoretical system from all the way back when he studied with Lowery. He had a system of outlining chords, of playing ornaments around chord tones. He had incredible control over all of this, so that when he improvised, almost every note was like a pearl. He heard it and also understood it intellectually. I think that gave him one of the highest levels of consistency of any jazz improviser in history.

AAJ: As your documentary notes, even in high school, he was a virtuoso on the trumpet. Harry Andrews, his band director at Howard High School, said that he whipped off the famous and difficult trumpet version of the "Carnival of Venice."

DG: Yes. Harry Andrews was another important teacher in Clifford's life. Andrews helped him a great deal with the technical mastery of the trumpet. It's also extraordinary that in the early days of bebop, Boysie Lowery had developed a system to teach the language and develop the ability to hear harmonic movement. So the influence of both teachers was lasting and important.

Concluding Reflections on the Documentary Itself

AAJ: What role did your son play in preparing the documentary?

DG: Brad joined the project in 2007 and became an equal partner and co-filmmaker. I had amassed a nearly insurmountable amount of research and film footage beginning with the first interviews in 1994. However, I was in need of a digital video editor to complete the project and realize the vision. Brad's decision to pursue filmmaking as a career came at the perfect time. We co-wrote the documentary, did additional research and filming together, and had endless conversations and debates about creative choices. His expertise as an editor and filmmaker was crucial in turning Brownie Speaks into a movie.

AAJ: What were some of the greatest difficulties and obstacles you encountered in bringing the documentary to fruition?

DG: Absolutely the most difficult part was the business-legal part. photo releases, music licensing, film clip clearances and all related film business. There are many people to thank who made this happen, and they are gratefully acknowledged in the credits. The creative and intellectual demands of a project like this are huge, but they are fun and challenging!

AAJ: In my review, I put forth the idea that Clifford Brown is portrayed as a flawless person in the DVD and that he may have been over-idealized on account of his tragic death. Do you agree or disagree?

DG: I don't believe the manner of his death influenced how we represented him in the film. We were committed to historical accuracy and letting those who knew him tell us about him. Dizzy once said that if he had a son, he'd want him to be like Clifford. Clifford seemed to have a profoundly positive effect on those around him. People loved him. Of course this may have affected the memories that endured. The narrative of the clean living, hard working, kind hearted genius was the prevailing message from countless people who knew him. We do not contend that Clifford was flawless or without many challenges, struggles, and heartache. The film and liner notes point out several examples. But to include uncorroborated references to specific failings or speculate about specific character flaws would have lowered the standard we set for other facets of the work.

Also, we did not intend to produce an homage in the sense of a testimonial, but a presentation of facts in the context of underlying themes. Accuracy and faithful adherence to the true story was paramount and we didn't want to engage in extensive psychological analysis and speculation. The deeper underlying theme was to examine the facts in relationship to Clifford's historical place as a musician. Essentially it's a film made by a jazz musician about a jazz musician. I desired it to be like jazz itself: honest, intellectually consistent, and emotionally deep. By attempting to refrain from projecting a world view on the facts I believe we ended up with a more objective and credible document.

Photo Credit: Mosaic Images, LLC

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