Remembrance: Paying Tribute Through The Art Of Jazz Composition

Dan Bilawsky By

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Paying tribute to the dearly departed is simply a part of life. We honor them with words and we pay our respects through our actions as we help to keep their memory alive. In music, we pay tribute to the dead through the medium that we know best...sound. Whether we use "requiem," "threnody," "ode," "elegy," or any other number of terms, we are always simply saying "tribute through music." Music seems to be an excellent way to say "thank you," or "we miss you," or any one of a million thoughts that come to mind. Jazz, specifically, has a rich history of immortalizing the people who have had an impact on this music in song. While Lester Young's centennial celebration, in August of 2009, made it tempting to start with Charles Mingus' dirge-like "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," the call of the trumpet lured me in another direction.


While jazz has suffered more than its fair share of tragic deaths and premature passings, trumpet players seem to be particularly susceptible. Fats Navarro, Kenny Dorham, Clifford Brown, Booker Little, Lee Morgan and Woody Shaw represent a significant slice of the jazz trumpet lineage, and their lives were snuffed out too early—whether by disease, semi-natural causes or tragic accident. While the memory of all these men lives on through their music, Brown was also the recipient of one of the most enduring jazz tribute songs ever written. Benny Golson's "I Remember Clifford" has proven, over time, to be one of the most oft-covered and recognizable musical memorials that jazz has ever known. A virtual who's who of jazz artists, regardless of their instrument of choice, has performed it at one time or another.

Brown, who exemplified clean living and hard work, was a shining light in the jazz world, and his group—co-led with drummer Max Roach—was one of the most popular groups in jazz at the time of Brown's passing in June of 1956. The automobile accident that killed Brown, pianist Richie Powell and Powell's wife Nancy (who was driving) caused shock and sadness throughout the music community. Trumpeter Art Farmer, in the studio at the time he heard the news, recalled that everybody tried to go on with the session but the news quickly eliminated that possibility and the session was over. Benny Golson, playing at the Apollo Theatre with Dizzy Gillespie at the time, has noted that everybody was in tears throughout their performance on the night that they heard about Brown's tragic passing.

While Roach penned a number of pieces, including "Tender Warriors" in honor of Brown and Powell, and "Praise For A Martyr," which was specifically for Brown, it's Golson's "I Remember Clifford" that has proven to be the most memorable tribute. Golson and Brown had worked together in the bands of Tadd Dameron and Lionel Hampton in the early 1950s, and both men were considered to be rising stars. With Brown's legacy and life on his mind, Golson wrote this composition and it has become an essential part of the standard jazz repertoire.

In the late 1950s, Lee Morgan performed one of the most stirring renditions of this piece. With his own tragic demise many years off in the future, Morgan was considered, at this time, to be one of the up-and-coming trumpet players, and he was holding down the trumpet chair in one of the most prestigious groups in jazz: Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. The Jazz Icons DVD series, which has put out some amazing, previously unreleased jazz concerts from the past, gave the world a great visual of Morgan performing this song with The Jazz Messengers on their Live in '58 (Jazz Icons, 2006).

Morgan, intensely observing his fingers, delivers the familiar melody with elegant ornamentation, passion and care. Golson, the composer, stands to Morgan's side and remains completely upright—almost standing in salute of his fallen comrade—as he gently provides some long mournful tones beneath the trumpet.

Every jazz tribute song walks a fine line between respectfully honoring the deceased and addressing the joy that their music brought to the world. That joy is addressed when the quintet moves into double-time for Bobby Timmons' piano solo and Morgan's trumpet follow-up. The music returns to its more reverential roots as it nears its end, but by this point the two-tiered message of the song has been delivered and the band brings the song to an end. It's another example of musical triumph born of tragedy.



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