Monday, 16 November 2009

I Remember Clifford

FOLLOWING the article I did on trumpeter Lee Morgan last week, critical discussions and debates have continued to take place among musicians and devotees for whom the story evoked nostalgia. Today’s piece is informed by the reactions of some of our readers who claim that Morgan cannot be fully appreciated without the elaborate mention to situate Clifford Brown, his mentor, in his true perspective.
Perhaps the greatest testimony in remembrance of the legendary jazz trumpeter, Clifford Brown is the beautifully crafted composition after his death in 1956, of I remember Clifford by tenor saxophonist and composer, Benny Golson.
As a matter of fact, it is this composition, a jazz classic that has been performed in different ways by jazz men, that has continued to boost the high reputation Golson has as a composer-arranger; coming after the setback he had from working with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.
Golson was completely at odds with the theory of Art Blakey, whose drumming was considered too loud for his sidemen to function the way they should. “I play the way I feel and try to get my message across,” said Blakey. “If the horn-man knows who he is and has something to say, he’ll make himself heard,” Blakey maintained.
At the time Benny Golson was musical director of the Jazz Messengers the way John Lewis was to the Modern Jazz Quartet, (MJQ), the group was quite highly regarded, but Golson’s conception was not entirely satisfactory to Art Blakey, who needed all the freedom in this world to play the drums as leader of the Jazz Messengers.
“He’d come in with an arrangement and it was a good one, but he’d tell me when to use sticks and when to use brushes and what cymbal to play and I just couldn’t do that,” Blakey complained.
Benny Golson went elsewhere and presumably both he and Blakey became freer to express themselves. Besides, the fact that Golson did leave, and amicably, was indicative of Blakey’s philosophy: he did not expect his men to stay with him forever, but rather looked forward to the time when they felt ready to go out on their own.
However, some critics who did not understand the conditions under which the Jazz Messengers existed made insinuations in their comments that tended to make the story look like Golson was fired for his inability to cope with the discipline and chemistry of the Jazz Messenger’s music. And I remember Clifford, which he composed at the time continued to speak volumes for Golson’s capability as a composer of substance and an arranger of note.

True, Clifford Brown was influenced by Fats Navaro, but Clifford took the inspiration to a completely new level of performance both in tonal conception and the fluency of his solo lines.
In addition to his artistic achievements as a trumpeter, Brown exuded virtue and magnanimity. He was not just a nice guy, he was much more than that. Clifford Brown was an extraordinary person; and as the veteran critic, Nat Hentoff once declared: “Nobody I knew in the jazz world ever had a bad word to say about Clifford Brown. He was too open, entirely without guile, without even a hint of malice torward anyone.” Hentoff’s remarks are indicative of the powerful effect Brown had on people who knew him. It was precisely this combination of his amazing talent and his virtuous life that set many musicians who encountered Brown on a different life path.
Before his appearance, many players used drugs in imitation of Charlie Parker. But because of Clifford Brown, many players decided to clean up their acts. He believed that in order to achieve success as a jazz artist, a performer had to live in moderation with enormous focus and discipline. Because Brown was not ostentatious, it was only the respect that jazz musicians had for his enormous talent that led them to emulate his life style.
As a youngster, Brown had created quite a sensation in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware. One night when Dizzy Gillespie brought his band to town, Brown’s friends urged the king of the bebop trumpet to let Brown sit in for a couple of tunes. Gillespie was awe-struck. Immediately he insisted that Brown, who, at the time was attending a near by college, launch himself into a performing career.
Clifford Brown had received considerable formal musical training and came from a family whose traditions included rigourous discipline and dedication. Soon after the Gillespie episode, he became a regular on Philadelphia bandstands, playing alongside Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and other bebop pioneers. Quickly, he encountered other young second generation boppers like Gigi Gryce whose intention was to develop the new style and concurrently adopt aesthetic standards equal to that of serious classical musicians.
A few of his black compeers could seek to establish themselves as rhythm ‘n’ blues stars, thereby gaining fortune as well as fame, but Clifford Brown would shun this life. His desire was to create the best music possible in the bebop genre, and after he realised that he could improvise with the best, he worked even harder, practising inexhaustibly and living fastidiously. In addition, he was one of those rare musical artisans who could spend a few days in North Africa, assimilate the colours of the indigenous music, and create a composition incorporating those elements that would become a classic in jazz literature. At age 23, alongside the quintessential bebop percussive Max Roach, Clifford Brown created a musical explosion that continues to dazzle audiences to the present day.

What Brown and Roach achieved in their group of the early 1950s was unique. At a time when art music of the great boppers was being diluted as “Jazz at the Philharmonic” blowing sessions designed to excite the appetites of screaming audiences, Clifford and Max turned elsewhere. Drawing upon training that had strong classical roots, Brown had found an unusual jazz colleague, a drummer who listened to Stravinsky.
The two musicians spent long hours discussing new concepts of jazz performance that would incorporate many traditions inherent in classical forms. It soon became clear that only in the context of intellectually crafted compositions containing tapestries of exquisite improvisational design could the music achieve the artistic heights Brown and Roach desired. Solos, the necessity for any improvisational virtuouso, had to be economical, serving the needs of the compositional frame work rather than the demands of egocentric players of hero-worshipping fans.
As an improviser, Clifford Brown created flowing lines of soaring melody and improvisation, containing geometric symmetry and punctuated with an articulated attack and buttery tone that became the envy of trumpeters everywhere. With Max Roach, Harold land, and later Sonny Rollins, the group played to audiences packed with musicians and other cognoscenti, who were continually astounded at their performances.
Clifford Brown’s artistry is at its high level in the area of improvisational design. Like Charlie Parker and pianist Art Tatum, Clifford Brown commandeered the vast resources of his creativity to construct solos that contained revolutionary melodic language and new rhythmic subtlety. With the advent of academic interest in jazz in recent years, Brown’s achievement has been analysed in dissertations and discussed in professional conferences. His focused approach to composition has influenced countless musicians and as bebop steadily gains a greater place in the aesthetic hierarchy of even the most critical circles of establishments, his art continues to emerge and flourish.
Some of the major beneficiaries of his inspiration and influence include Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd, Freddie Husband. Others are Art Farmer, Blue Mitchell, Don Cherry, Terence Blanchard. Disciples of Clifford Brown in Nigeria are Michael Falana, Fela Ransome-Kuti, Biodun Adebiyi, Nathaniel Bassey and young Taiwo Clegg.

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