The Delaware Valley is fertile ground for jazz musicians. The region, which traces the flow of the Delaware River through Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland, counts several icons among its native sons and daughters: John Coltrane, Lee Morgan, McCoy Tyner, Benny Golson, Patti LaBelle and Jill Scott among them. But for musicians in Wilmington, Delaware, downriver from Philadelphia, one name looms larger than any other: Clifford Brown.
Despite a recording window of just four years, Brown, a Wilmington native, is widely regarded as one of the most influential trumpeters in jazz. Together with drummer Max Roach, his longtime musical ally, Brown played a central role in the formation of hard-bop, a gritty, flame-cooked style of jazz that rose to prominence in the 1950s, after bebop had relaxed its grip on jazz audiences.
Brown possessed remarkable facility on his instrument. His tone was warm and inviting, and he was able to execute fast passages with remarkable precision, a skill that would eventually become his trademark. More than a musical role model, he was also a paragon of clean living, abstaining from drugs, alcohol and foul language in an age when jazz’s reputation had been sullied by stories of junkie musicians and destructive behavior.
In light of his wholesome character and artistic genius, Brown’s untimely death, in an automobile accident in 1956, is all the more tragic. He was 25 at the time, leaving behind a wife and young son. For critics, colleagues and admirers, his life represents one of the most poignant “what if?” stories in jazz, as many are left to wonder just how much he might have accomplished had he lived.
Amid the countless memorial albums, tribute songs and biographies that followed in the wake of his death, one of the most enduring acknowledgments of Clifford Brown’s legacy is the DuPont Clifford Brown Jazz Festival. For the past 30 years, this festival has drawn casual jazz listeners and hardcore Clifford Brown fans alike to Wilmington’s Rodney Square to celebrate the trumpeter’s life through music. This year’s festival is scheduled to run June 17–24. It will feature a strong roster of headliners, including trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, saxophonist Miguel Zenon and bassist Marcus Miller. Also scheduled to perform is the Clifford Brown Tribute Band, led by Wilmington native Gerald Chavis.
Chavis, a trumpeter and educator, has personal connections to Brown’s legacy. For one, he studied with Brown’s private teacher, Robert “Boysie” Lowery, from whom he inherited not just musical advice but stories about Wilmington’s jazz past. And in 2016, he was among a group of musicians honored by the Delaware History Museum for enduring contributions to jazz in Wilmington. Also in that group: his hero, Clifford Brown.
JAZZIZ spoke with Chavis from his home in Delaware about plans for the upcoming festival, as well as how Clifford Brown influenced his life and music.
How long have you been involved with the Clifford Brown Jazz Festival? Were you there from the beginning?
Yes. Actually, before it was officially the Clifford Brown Jazz Festival, it started out as a one-day concert. A piano player that played with Clifford in his youth started hounding the city about getting some recognition for Clifford. The original concert took place around June 26, on the anniversary of Clifford’s death. Over time the concert grew legs and became a festival. The first year of the festival, they brought in Max Roach, Harold Land, George Morrow and Helen Merrill. Because that was the band Clifford was working with when he passed. That was pretty cool.
When did you officially take the reins of the tribute band?
Last year was the first year. And they asked me back, so something must have gone well! (laughs)
Do you recall your first encounter with Clifford Brown’s music?
Yes, actually. It’s kind of odd, but I was in my first year at Florida A&M University. Coming up to that point, I’d been an R&B player, playing high school dances, that kind of thing. And I’d heard of Clifford. I knew the name and that he was from Wilmington, but I never listened to his music until my freshman year in college. That’s when the head of the alumni association gave me a recording of [the posthumously released Clifford Brown retrospective ablum] The Beginning and the End.
I was listening to it and I was like, “There’s no way a trumpet can play that fast that cleanly!” It just blew me away completely, and I knew right then that I had some work to do (laughs).
What was it about Clifford’s sound that so captivated you?
The precision, first of all. And his tone, too. But the thing that just blew my mind was his eloquence. Melodically, he would do things that I had never heard, and that I’m still trying to get with! In literature, he would be like a Shakespeare — a great writer who can tell a story like nobody else.
Did that spur you to take your jazz playing more seriously?
Definitely. I came back to Wilmington, and luckily Clifford’s teacher, Robert “Boysie” Lowery, was still teaching. I started studying with him and my playing improved.
Did Boysie incorporate any of Clifford Brown’s music into his teaching?
He used to have me play these rather “basic” etudes on a blues – I say “basic,” because to me they sounded almost classical. And he wouldn’t tell me what it was. He’d just have me play it. I remember getting really frustrated because I was playing this exercise over and over and over. And he would just say, “Well, keep working on it!” One day, I was listening to a Brownie recording and I heard something familiar. So I picked the needle up from the record and put it back a few choruses and realized that the exercise I had been playing for months was a transcription of Clifford’s solo! But it didn’t sound like that when I played it. I was playing notes; I wasn’t making it breathe. It sounded totally foreign until I listened to this solo and followed it note for note on the paper.
Which tune was it?
That was the solo for “Blues Walk.” And the next time I went back to a lesson with Boysie, I played it as close as I could to the way Clifford was playing it. And he just smiled. Man, the smile on his face was priceless. He just nodded and said, “Yeah.” (laughs) Then we were on to something else!
Would Boysie talk about Clifford a lot? Would he relay a lot of stories?
You know, he used to say that Clifford wasn’t his best student. There were a couple of guys at the time that Boysie thought were going to go on and become the next big thing. But he said that Clifford just stuck with it. He said Clifford was just relentless with his practicing, and he just got better and better and better. Eventually, Clifford started gigging with Boysie’s band, just doing gigs around town. Got some professional experience while he was in high school. But yeah, Boysie said he wasn’t even his best student.
You’re an educator as well as a performer. Do you pass along any of Boysie’s lessons to your students?
The thing that got me the most wasn’t a particular exercise, but it was a perspective or concept that I hadn’t grasped at that time. We were talking, and he was explaining some theoretical processes, talking about how this one thing was going to cause tension, and how you can release it through these three of four ways. And being the youngster I was — and a little full of myself — I said, “Well, couldn’t you just describe this differently?” I tried to show off my analytical chops, stuff I learned in theory class in college. And he got a little pissed at me!
Now, he would never raise his voice. He always stayed calm. So in this really quiet voice, he said, “You know, if you really understood that theory that you’re talking about, I’d hear it coming out of your horn.” And that said it all. I stopped talking at that point and started trying to play everything that I thought I knew (laughs).
Did you get a sense from some of the older Wilmington players of how much Clifford’s death rocked that jazz community?
You know, it was important for me to realize that Clifford was only 25 when he passed. Because even when I first heard his music back in college, I thought he was much older. To think that this guy who was playing all this stuff was in his 20s? Incredible. Some of the older players didn’t really share a lot verbally. They would share things musically, like giving me some of Clifford’s music to check out. But they didn’t talk to me as much as Boysie. He used to comment time to time about Clifford’s character. Clifford never drank. Never took drugs. He was liked by everybody. He was a genuinely good person.
One of the stories that I remember was from when Clifford was on the road with some of the Wilmington guys. There was a club owner that didn’t want to pay them. And the band started talking — some of the guys wanted to do bodily harm to the guy, right? So Clifford was like, “Wait a minute. Let me go talk to him.” And Clifford came out with everybody’s money. And they said they didn’t hear any harsh words — no hollering, no arguing, nothing. They didn’t know what he did, but he must have just said the right thing.
Let’s shift our attention to the festival. What can you tell us about the tribute band’s upcoming performance?
OK, so we’re doing songs that Clifford played, but because of the improvisational nature of his music, we’re going to open up and let the guys cut loose. We thought that would be the best way to pay tribute to a guy who was the greatest soloist I’ve ever heard.
And you’ll be joined by the great Ernie Watts, another Wilmington native.
Yes, we’re doing some compositions that he’s selecting that he’s done before. I’m not exactly sure which ones he’ll choose, but we’re prepared with five big band arrangements and four quartet compositions.
Walk me through the Wilmington jazz scene today. What are some of your favorite spots to hang out and hear great music?
There’s a spot called the Nomad between 9th and 10th on Orange St. It’s — I guess I’ll describe it as a little hole in the wall. They have music a lot. As far as jazz, they’ll have everything from New Orleans style to straight-ahead to whatever. They don’t really advertise, so you gotta be in the know.
There are two other restaurants that feature jazz. One is a Thai restaurant called Ubon. They have live music on Wednesday and Sunday. And there’s a place called Celebrations on Market Street. They also feature jazz weekly from time to time. They have a Sunday brunch as well.
Aside from your set, of course, who are you excited about checking out at the festival?
My buddy Arturo Sandoval! He’s gotta be one of the greatest living trumpeters. And a heck of a nice guy.
And a huge Clifford Brown fan, too. He did an entire Brownie tribute album.
He’s just incredible. My goodness gracious. But more importantly, he’s a good person. That was one thing that Boysie talked about: content of character. Clifford and Arturo were both shining examples of that.