The Clifford Brown Jazz Festival in Wilmington, Delaware — the largest free jazz festival on the East Coast — is celebrating its 31st year. The festival, named after the hugely influential trumpet player who called Wilmington home, is all set to take place June 19-22 (with a Kick-Off Celebration on June 16) in Rodney Square, at the heart of downtown Wilmington. It will feature performances by internationally acclaimed musicians like Terence Blanchard, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Branford Marsalis and many more. Delaware jazz aficionados and dyed-in-the-wool Clifford Brown fans have known about this festival for years, but recently, the fest’s stellar lineup and unbeatable educational programming have made it one of the biggest draws of the summer jazz season. If you’re considering a summer vacation, here are five reasons to add the Clifford Brown Jazz Fest to your itinerary.
1. It honors a jazz legend
Wilmington native Clifford Brown was a pioneering trumpeter when it came to bebop and hard-bop, an artist whose effervescent personality, warm tone and wonderfully coherent improvisations influenced jazz musicians the world over. But his impact on the music extended far beyond his technique. As an advocate of clean living and a healthy lifestyle — he never used drugs, rarely drank and hardly ever used foul language — he served as a counterpoint to the stereotype of jazz musicians as burnouts and flunkies. He is said to have personally helped saxophonist Sonny Rollins overcome a heroin addiction, and in doing so became an important role model to musicians who sought to pursue their art while maintaining a full, wholesome grasp on life. Unfortunately, Brown’s own life was cut tragically short when, in June 1956, a car he was riding in with pianist Richie Powell and Powell’s wife, Nancy, veered off the Pennsylvania Turnpike and crashed, killing all passengers. He was just 25 years old at the time, leaving behind a wife and young son. In 1994, Brown’s widow, LaRue Brown Watson, established the Clifford Brown Jazz Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to inspiring jazz in young people. And Brownie’s legacy also lives on through his music and through the annual jazz festival held in his name.
2. Its lineup is top-notch
Clifford Brown’s legacy continues to grow since his passing (this year marks the 67th anniversary of his death). But so too does the scope of the Clifford Brown Jazz Fest. The complete Clifford Brown Jazz Festival Experience now comprises six full days of festivities, which is a testament to its popular appeal and significance to the community. It all begins on Sunday, June 16, with a Community Kick-Off event at the Clifford Brown Listening Garden, located at 16th and Clifford Brown Walk in Eastside Wilmington. The event features musical performances, chess matches, games, food and family activities. On Wednesday, June 19, the festival kicks into high gear in downtown Wilmington’s Rodney Square with performances by drummer-vocalist Jamison Ross, soul-jazz trombonist Jeff Bradshaw and trumpeter Etienne Charles’ Caribbean-flavored ensemble Creole Soul. The next day brings heated sets by Pablo Batista’s Latin Jazz Ensemble with special guest Nestor Torres, The Spanish Harlem Orchestra and the Alfredo Rodriguez Trio, presented by Quincy Jones.
On June 21, trumpeter Christian Scott a Tunde Adjuah will take the Rodney Square stage along with The Jenkins Project and guitarist Norman Brown’s Summer Storm starring Eugue Groove and Linsey Webster. Saturday, June 22, marks a highpoint for the fest, with scheduled performances by trumpeter Terence Blanchard featuring the E-Collective, Raye Jones Avery & Adagio, Kendrick Scott Oracle and Mwenso & The Shakes. Saxophonist Branford Marsalis, whose latest album Between the Shadow and the Soul is currently climbing the jazz charts, will close out the festivities with a special evening performance.
3. It’ll keep the kids entertained
Clifford Brown was a firm believer in reaching children through the language of jazz, and the Clifford Brown Jazz Festival is proudly carrying on that legacy. On June 22, the fest will present “Hands On Jazz!!” at the Wilmington Library, located across the street from Rodney Square at 10 East 10th Street. This event will give children the opportunity to “touch” jazz music via a hands-on “jam” session with The Arpeggio Jazz Ensemble. Children are invited to explore the vibrant world of jazz, singing, drumming, scatting, dancing and using their imaginations. The goal is to remove barriers between music and audiences (of all ages) and focus on the fun and healing powers of live music.
4. You’ll leave enlightened
For those who like a little scholarship with their jazz, a special presentation of “The Connection: Jazz, Folk Music, and African Griot in the music of Bill Withers and Curtis Mayfield” will take place at Wilmington’s Christina Cultural Arts Center on North Market Street. By performing the music of Bill Withers and Curtis Mayfield — two brilliant and lyrical storytellers as well as established musical interpreters of everyday life — The Arpeggio Jazz Ensemble will take audience members on an interactive musical journey through the 1960s and ’70s. The audience will recognize some of their favorites like Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead” and Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands” and will participate in creating jazz “riffs” that add to the core of the music’s impact. Attendees are invited to bring their instruments.
5. There’s gonna be a block party
The Clifford Brown Jazz Festival’s website refers to its namesake honoree as “a legend — our legend — whose work offers a moment to laugh, dance, sing, eat, love and experience the ultimate joy music brings.” Well, the entirety of downtown Wilmington will get in on the action on Friday, June 21, from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m., when live music and dancing will take over the streets in celebration of the scene that made Clifford Brown famous. Food and drink specials will be available at participating restaurants, and like all good block parties, you can bet that good times will be had and new friendships will be forged.
For more information on the Clifford Brown Jazz Festival, including a full lineup, visit the fest’s website.