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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.
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