Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter

March 21, 2018 - Non-Fiction, Reviews
Author: Nick Catalano
Publisher: Oxford University Press

Clifford Brown is idolized by many today as the greatest jazz trumpeter to have ever played. He earned this reputation despite his untimely death at the age of 25 leaving the world with only a four-year-long recording career. In that time, Brown rose from the low-income neighborhoods of Wilmington, Delaware, and into the Northeast’s most coveted jazz clubs and studios alongside some of the industry’s most celebrated musicians. Dr. Nick Catalano of Pace University attempts to capture the majesty of Brown’s legendary and bittersweet story in Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter. Catalano faces a difficult task in documenting the character and accomplishments, both musical and otherwise, of a man who passed away almost fifty years prior. His interviews with Brown’s family, friends, colleagues, and contemporaries allow him to piece together an entertaining and fascinating collection of memories that in many ways do the jazz legend justice. However, Catalano’s focus is clearly on Brown’s musical merit, and does almost no investigation on his experiences drawn from race culture, economics, or black masculinity in the jazz industry. Of course, very little insight into these parts of Brown’s life were available to Catalano, as most interviews of Brown were centered around his skills and rise to stardom. As a result, much of Catalano’s book leans more towards discography, rather than biography.

Catalano uses a roughly chronological outline of the stages of Brown’s development. He often initiates a new section by introducing the “influencers” of that phase of Brown’s life. These influencers range from Brown’s father (from whom he inherited the nickname “Brownie”), to his first teacher Boysie Lowery, to jazz giants like Fats Navarro, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker. Additionally, Catalano emphasizes the constants maintained in people’s memories of Brown across his life. Aside from his remarkable ability and work-ethic, everybody was equally impacted by Brown’s humility and kindness that he maintained throughout his life. One of Brown’s distinguishing qualities as a musician was his “clean act.” In a time where jazz artists and drug addicts were mostly synonymous, Brown was notably “gentlemanly”, taking the time to call home to check in, while his bandmates were experimenting with cocaine and heroin. In this regard, Catalano further romanticizes Brown’s life. A prodigious musician, cut down in his prime despite leading a responsible lifestyle in which he put family and passion first.

It is irrefutable that Brown’s career and musical impact are the most significant and sizeable portions of his story. A self-proclaimed super-fan of his legacy, Catalano shows extreme attention to detail in documenting the significance Brown’s playing had on his peers, fans, and contemporaries. Catalano references the statements of family, friends, fellow-players, and music critics to map-out Brown’s growth as a jazz artist and the reception of his playing. The majority of the book’s contents are detailed descriptions of arguably historic performances and recording sessions by Brown and his bands.
Catalano falls short in incorporating any non-musical perspectives of Brown’s life. The only instances in which race is mentioned are anecdotal in nature. Brief stories of Brown and his band mates being harassed by aggressive police while touring in Southern states glaze over the types of lives black musicians lead even when they had reached popularity. This book describes Brown as a trumpet player at length, but does very little to convey who he was as a man, and almost nothing to convey who he was as a black man. Catalano is careful to point out distinct conflicts between interviewees’ accounts of the same story. The issue does not lie within Catalano’s desire for accuracy and legitimacy in his documentation. Instead, the limitations of his writing comes from the perspectives he is motivated to convey in the first place. Catalano sought to refute how influential and prolific a jazz musician Clifford Brown was. As a result, we received a book that reiterates many of the same points about why Clifford Brown is a valuable part of the jazz narrative. Catalano provides a collection of fascinating anecdotes and stories from many people with varied degrees of association to Brown. What he does not do, however, is investigate what Brown’s life was really like as an African American male in 1950’s America.

Jazz, the music Brown worked so tirelessly to master, is rooted in African American culture and tradition. The art form originated as an expressive outlet for the Black experience in 19th and 20th century America. Clifford Brown learned jazz from some of its most famous innovators, and eventually became one himself. Therefore, it’s pivotal to include Brown’s life experiences rooted in race, gender, and sexuality into the narrative of his influence as a jazz musician. Brown and his Black colleagues lived a different life than their white counterparts. The differences mark a significance in their triumphs, and offer explanation for their obstacles. Catalano demonstrates that we are capable of an inherent appreciation of Brown’s contributions to the world of music. However, that appreciation is only deepened by considering the society in which Brown accomplished everything in his short life.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.