Wilmington Jazz

Well, OK, it’s not the subtlest of tributes: Clifford Brown hailed from Wilmington, Delaware, and marron is “brown” in Spanish — but I think it’s a coincidence that proud Wilmingtonian Cliff Marron would enjoy.

I was fortunate to have been introduced to jazz through Clifford Brown. Back when I was in high school, Columbia Records used to have a newsletter called “The Inner Sleeve.” One, in a Chicago album, ca. 1975, announced a new album offering the first and last recorded music of a well-respected trumpeter who died tragically young. I’d never heard of him, but the description of his music was so infectious that I went out and bought the record, and from that moment on, I was real gone.

brownieClifford Brown’s music was clean, clear and bright, without being the least bit superficial. Chicago’s jazz-rock had pointed me in that direction, but Brown obviously had way more to say than those guys. I knew nothing about jazz, but I could immediately relate to his solos: they had a narrative structure, a beginning, middle and end. They didn’t burn, the way Charlie Parker’s did, toward an unendurable perfect flash; nor did they wail all history’s ecstatic incantations like Coltrane; they shone. A Clifford Brown solo carried no weight of history; it was brilliantly sufficient, right there. It made you glad.

It would have been amazing to hear how Brown would have evolved into the post-bop freedom of the 1960s. He was killed in a car crash in 1956, at the age of 26, on the way to another gig. The night before, with a pickup band in a Philadelphia club, he made the recordings that were on that first record I bought. He died young, as did so many other musical legends, but unlike them, he wasn’t self-destructive. Along with Max Roach, Lou Donaldson and a few others, Clifford Brown eschewed “the life.” Sonny Rollins said of him, “Clifford was a profound influence on my personal life. He showed me that it was possible to live a good, clean life and still be a good jazz musician.”

Miles Davis was somewhat dismissive of Clifford Brown. Davis didn’t have Brown’s outrageous chops (who did?), and he implied that Brown was just a hard blower who lacked artistry. I’d call that harsh (as Miles certainly could be). Yet I’d have to admit that Davis — perhaps even as early as 1956 — was the greater artist. Bob Dylan also needed (for all his mysterious reasons) to push his songwriting harder than Carole King did hers. But I’m not ashamed to say I’m not always prepared to run the voodoo down. “Joy Spring” is really real, too.

alfdexI guess no one would be surprised to learn that the music of Cliff and Marissa had a real-life model: the wife & husband team of Alfie Moss and Dexter Koonce, to whom I spent many a happy evening listening, and dancing, in the early 1980s. I didn’t know them personally, so the fictional personalities of Marissa and Cliff were made up out of whole cloth — but I tried to describe their music as faithfully as I could to what I remember. (Not that there’s any empirical reliability to that: memory is a very tricky thing. I’ve found that the only sensible course in fiction is to give one’s imaginary friends their freedom; the traditional legal disclaimer then becomes true in a deeper sense: any resemblance really is coincidental.) I hope Alfie and Dexter will feel complimented, though; that was certainly my intention.

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