When it comes to the trumpet, I’ve heard jazz old timers say, “When those cats got to blowin’ they could blow the house down.” Great jazz trumpeters are frequently the subject of heated debates among jazz fans. There is no uniform consensus about who was the greatest of them all, and it doesn’t seem quite fair to compare younger trumpet players to those from earlier eras. The youngsters built upon what had come before them.
This #BlackMusicSunday we’ll sample some of the finest players to ever blow their horns and let you be the judge.
I wasn’t joking about the acrimonious debates about jazz trumpeters. When I moved from New York City to Washington, D.C., and wound up as part of a team building a jazz station, I ran smack into a solid wall of local deejay antipathy towards Miles Davis. I was bemused. One person who had a show on the station (I’ll call him Al) adamantly refused to even play any Miles in his time slot.
“Well … who the hell are you gonna play then?” I asked. Al looked at me as if I were stupid and said, “Clifford, of course.”
I thought to myself “Who?” but I wisely refrained from exposing my ignorance. Al launched into what sounded like it was going to be a long monologue—and it was.
“Clifford Brown was the finest trumpet player ever,” he stated. Without skipping a beat or pausing for breath, Al insisted that “Miles Davis is only famous today because Clifford died so young. He isn’t fit to carry Clifford’s horn case.”
Two other guys with shows at the station walked in at that point and went into paroxysms of joy as they discussed Brown’s music, disparaging Davis while mourning Brown’s loss.
Al glared at me in challenge. I mumbled something about how Brown being dead was really sad, and he nodded, adding that it was the “greatest tragedy ever in the jazz world.” I left him standing there, still lamenting “Brownie” with the other dudes, and went into my office. I was not going to run a station where Miles was off limits, but I realized I knew very little about “Brownie.”
And so I learned.
Clifford Brown’s death in a car accident at the age of 25 was one of the great tragedies in jazz history. Already ranking with Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis as one of the top trumpeters in jazz, Brownie was still improving in 1956. Plus he was a clean liver and was not even driving; the up-and-coming pianist Richie Powell and his wife (who was driving) also perished in the crash.
Clifford Brown accomplished a great deal in the short time he had. He started on trumpet when he was 15, and by 1948 was playing regularly in Philadelphia. Fats Navarro, who was his main influence, encouraged Brown, as did Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. After a year at Maryland State University, he was in a serious car accident in June 1950 that put him out of action for a year. In 1952, Brown made his recording debut with Chris Powell’s Blue Flames (an R&B group). The following year, he spent some time with Tadd Dameron, and from August to December was with Lionel Hampton’s band, touring Europe and leading some recording sessions. In early 1954, he recorded some brilliant solos at Birdland with Art Blakey’s quintet (a band that directly preceded the Jazz Messengers) and by mid-year had formed a quintet with Max Roach. Considered one of the premiere hard bop bands, the group lasted until Brown’s death, featuring Harold Land (and later Sonny Rollins) on tenor and recording several superb sets for Emarcy. Just hours before his death, Brownie appeared at a Philadelphia jam session that was miraculously recorded, and played some of the finest music of his short life.
I also listened.
As YouTube user Spatial Blues notes, Brown’s rendition of “Stardust” is a “masterpiece.”
January 20, 1955: At the age of 24, Clifford Brown recorded this masterpiece of music and sensitivity. God, the warmth! Simply perfect. Brownie was one of the great giants of jazz trumpet; a year and a half later, he was killed in an auto accident. We’ll never know what changes he could have brought to the music. Recorded at NYC’s Fine Sound Studios for the painfully beautiful ‘Clifford Brown With Strings,’ with the Max Roach Quintet and the Neal Hefti Orchestra.
Listen for yourself.
After listening to Brownie, I agreed with the guys at the station: His playing was exquisite. But I simply wasn’t going to allow them to cow me out of playing Miles.
Brown’s death at such a young age was tragic. However, fantasizing about what he would have done had he lived seemed pointless to me. He clearly had not been forgotten by his fellow musicians. He has been eulogized by all the greats, especially in this tune written by Benny Golson and first recorded by Donald Byrd.
Later, Cuban American trumpeter Arturo Sandoval would record an entire album of the same name. Sandoval’s I Remember Clifford featured him “performing ten selections previously recorded by Brown,” plus his original composition, “I Left This Space for You.”
The song was also was picked up by vocalists after Jon Hendricks of vocalese trio Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross fame wrote lyrics.
I know he’ll never be forgotten Long as there’s still sound He was a king uncrowned Not all kings are given crowns I know I’ll always remember Always The warmth All his warmth Of his sound Was in his sound Lingers so long I’m sure he’s still around Still around… Those who’ve heard For all those who’ve heard Truly, they repeat him yet Even yet So those who hear won’t forget And the ever-present sound That abounds in his praise Echos throughout the universe For endless spans of time uncountable By days The pretty little piquant passages Clifford played They are with us now And I’m positive that they will endure Should time and sacred circumstance allow Yes, they’ll live forever Oh, yes, I remember Clifford now Seems I always feel that Clifford’s spirit’s Hangin’ roun’…
Thinking back about my resistance to the anti-Miles faction at my station, I’m glad I both learned about Clifford Brown and became a fan, and that I continued to champion Miles and his ever-changing, wide-ranging musical journey.
My introduction to Miles Davis was as a kid. My parents joined the Columbia Record Club. For those of you who didn’t grow up during the age of vinyl recordings and who didn’t live during a time where disposable income was tight, in those days record-buying for a family on a budget was a luxury. We got enticed into a “deal” from Columbia House.
After a long debate at the dinner table, our first order in 1960 included an album by Miles Davis and Gil Evans, Sketches of Spain. My dad had just bought a new stereo system, and when the awaited package of records arrived, I remember sitting still, entranced by the lush sound of Concierto de Aranjuez—the first (16-minute) track below.
Davis’ website offers this insight into the genesis of the album:
George Avakian, who was in charge of an ethnic music series at Columbia directed by the ethno-musicologist Alan Lomax, especially wanted Gil Evans to work with flamenco because of his knowledge of Spanish composers. In fact, Miles himself had simultaneously discovered Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto De Aranjuez” and flamenco—thanks to both an anthology brought back from Spain by the actress Beverly Bentley and a concert to which Frances Taylor had taken him. The result was majestic music in which Gil Evans skirted the kitsch of Rodrigo’s original score and held his own with the help of Miles’ lofty trumpet. Along with the adagio from “Concierto,” Gil Evans borrowed Manuel de Falla’s “Will O’ The Wisp,” and adapted “The Pan Piper” from a panpipe aria recorded by Lomax in Galicia and “Saeta” from an eponymous ritual chant sung to the accompaniment of the brass bands escorting the processions in Seville during Holy Week. In this last piece and in “Solea,” Miles drew on the ardor of flamenco singing while distancing himself from all traces of the folkloric.
I was 13 years old the first time I heard this, and this was music that carried me away to other shores. I’d grown up with all the jazz greats played at home, but this was not Louis Armstrong. It was alluring. It was sensual. It was haunting. There are those who argue that it ain’t jazz, of course. Frankly, I don’t give a damn what label is applied to Sketches of Spain. I can only say that I’ve never forgotten hearing it for the first time.
From there we worked backwards, and my dad and I ordered two earlier Miles recordings from Columbia: Kind of Blue (1959), and ‘Round About Midnight (1957).
For many, his crowning achievement was the album Kind of Blue, the best selling album in jazz history. In 1999 it topped The Independent’s “50 Best Recordings of the 20th Century” list, in 2006 it topped the Jazzwise “100 Albums that Shook the World” listing, while more recently The Guardian’s “1000 Albums to Hear Before You Die” gave Kind of Blue a half-page box-out, an honour accorded to just 20 or so albums on the whole list. It even featured at No. 66 on the pop station VH1’s “100 Greatest Albums of Rock ’n’ Roll.”
No other recording in jazz has come remotely near acquiring the kind of cachet Kind of Blue has accumulated over the decades. It’s an album that has probably been responsible for more Damascene conversions of non-believers into the jazz faith than any other, it has been the base-station from where countless fans have begun their journey into jazz and it’s an album that crops-up in the record collections of classical, rock, pop and Country and Western devotees who would not otherwise give jazz house room.
“I think for the dilettante Kind of Blue is a lifestyle recording,” says Bob Belden, composer, saxophonist, pianist and producer of over 200 CD reissues of Miles Davis’ recorded music, and three times Grammy winner for his work on the Columbia/Legacy Miles Davis boxed set series. “The music is a sound you can ‘use’ as a background to your life, much in the way Frank Zappa described music for a certain type of listener. I’ve heard the recording at least a thousand times, so it’s more of a ‘brain juke box’ top-10 hit for me and I’m sure many others.”
It’s hard for me to even decide to pick which tune on the album is my favorite. Depends on the day and my mood. Today’s mood is about “So What.”
I also love Eddie Jefferson’s vocal version of the song.
Here’s a sampling of Jefferson’s lyrics to “So What.”
Miles Davis walked off the stage, That’s what the folks are all saying. Oh yes he did leave the stage, After his solo was all over. Coltrane he walked off the stage That’s what the folks are all saying.
Yes they both left the stage Clean out of sight now
They felt they had to rehearse Although we know they are masters They get a real groovy sound, And you will have to admit it.
But yes they both left the stage Soon as their solos were over. And if you can’t figure out, Their groove I’d like to help you
On the occasion of a Columbia/Legacy reissue of Round About Midnight in 2005, John Fordham wrote about some of the key tracks and collaborations.
The appearance at Newport, with Davis an informal guest, was the episode that restarted the trumpeter’s stalled career. Playing on Monk’s composition “Round About Midnight,” he curls slow notes around the pianist’s hammer-and-anvil chords as an intro, plays a quick, dancing figure and then a long, arching sound to bring himself within range of the theme. He keeps sidestepping the melody and simultaneously hinting at it, with soft hovering sounds and shrugging upward slides, and typically balances sighing, suspended sounds with lightly blown double time. Monk, meanwhile, keeps threatening to bring the piece to a dead halt, with grumpy, full-stop chords and preoccupied, boogieing figures. It’s a classic jazz collaboration, and after that performance everybody wanted to know the 29-year-old Miles Davis all over again. Recruiting his brilliant quintet soon followed.
The studio material also kicks off with the title track, this time featuring the trumpeter’s famous muted sound in slow, weaving counterpoint with Coltrane. Charlie Parker’s vivacious “Ah-Leu-Cha” is a dialogue between the horns and drums, “Bye Bye Blackbird” an object lesson in tantalising behind-the-beat timing, and a nimble “Two Bass Hit” and Bud Powell’s boppish “Budo” are among the studio tracks added from the same period.
But it’s the live material on the second disc that is the most absorbing. Apart from the Newport performance, six tracks from a 1956 concert in Pasadena catches the freshly ignited energy of this new group, with Davis often operating in the fast, twisting bebop-rooted style that preceded his more famous free-modal and fusion approaches of the decades to follow. The empathy of the whole group on theme statements and the driving presence of Jones is clear on an account of Walkin’ in which Davis brilliantly deploys only a sparing selection of notes and pauses. There’s a lovely ballad account of “It Never Entered My Mind” and a breakneck jitter through Dizzy Gillespie’s Salt Peanuts. Impresario Gene Norman’s short interview with Davis inadvertently sounds hilariously like an old Lenny Bruce sketch, which all adds to the period interest.
My choice will always be “Round Midnight” with a hat tip to Thelonious Monk, who wrote it.
Miles could have continued playing along the same lines and still have been considered a trumpet legend; however, fate moved him in another direction with a little shove from a young woman named Betty Mabry, whose life story was recently told in the film Betty: They Say I’m Different.
Betty, a model and hostess at a Black and Latino disco club called The Cellar, was someone I hung out with in the late 1960s. She aspired to be a songwriter and performer of R&B and funk music. One evening she asked me a pretty strange question: “Denise, I know you know all that jazz stuff. I saw a jazz guy in a club who had on these fantastic grey suede shoes and I want to meet him.” I looked at her like she’d lost her mind. I’m supposed to identify “a jazz guy” in New York City based on a pair of shoes?
Nevertheless she was insistent, so I asked her the next logical questions: What instrument did he play and where did she see him? “Trumpet,” she said. I groaned inwardly since there were only about a couple hundred jazz trumpet players in the city at the time. I couldn’t imagine her in a jazz club, but we finally figured out that she had been at either the Village Gate or the Vanguard. I looked up who had been playing, found Miles Davis’ name, and showed her his picture. She grinned. “He’s the one, I want to meet him.”
I said, “Betty, it’s Miles Davis.” That rang no bells for her, so I explained, slowly and emphatically, “Miles Davis is famous. You can’t just meet him.”
She pouted and insisted that I find his address. I rolled my eyes but did call a girlfriend of mine named Anita, whose dad was Miles’ lawyer, and got his address. Betty—who was stunningly attractive—paid him a visit, all decked out and looking half-nude in a see-through chiffon designer mini-dress made by her friend Stephen Burrows.
The rest is history: She and Miles were married soon after. Their tumultuous marriage only lasted about a year, but during that time, Betty turned Miles on to all things electric and funky, including Jimi Hendrix. The Davis sound was never the same.
The liner notes from Betty’s album mention my story about the shoes, and the impact Betty and her fly girlfriends had on Miles.
In some circles, Betty and her friends – which included Jimi Hendrix’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Devon Wilson—were known as “the cosmic ladies” and no less than Carlos Santana felt that these women, lead by Betty, had a profound effect on Miles’ artistic evolution.
In his essay, “Remembering Miles,” Santana noted, “you could see how these ladies were affecting Miles. They changed the way he dressed, the places he went, and the music he listened to. Largely because of their influence, Miles really began to check out James Brown and Sly Stone, and he started hanging out with Jimi … I have always thought that Bitches Brew was, in its own way, a tribute in Miles’ language to those women who opened his eyes to a whole new world and who encouraged and prodded him to take that next big step.”
Betty’s nickname was “Stuff,” and her girlfriend Loretta was called “Little Stuff.” Miles went on to record a tune named for Betty, “Mademoiselle Mabry (Miss Mabry”); that’s Betty on the album cover below.
I like the album and still play it from time to time, but the record that went down in history as a complete shift in Davis’ musical direction was “Bitches Brew.” Paul Tingen wrote a lengthy exploration of its genesis for JazzTimes.
The music on Bitches Brew is indeed provocative, and extraordinary. For Miles it meant a point of no return for the musical direction he had initiated with the recording of “Circle in the Round” in December of 1967. Until August of 1969 he had remained close enough to the jazz aesthetic and to jazz audiences to allow for a comfortable return into the jazz fold. But Bitches Brew‘s ferocity and power carried a momentum that was much harder to turn around. The hypnotic grooves, rooted in rock and African music, heralded a dramatic new musical universe that not only gained Miles a new audience, but also divided it into two groups—each side looking at this new music from totally different, and seemingly unbridgeable, perspectives. In the words of Quincy Troupe, these two groups were like “oil and water.” 
Bitches Brew signaled a watershed in jazz, and had a significant impact on rock. In combination with Miles’ fame and prestige, the album gave the budding jazz-rock genre visibility and credibility, and was instrumental in promoting it to the dominant direction in jazz. The recording’s enormous influence on the jazz music scene was bolstered by the fact that almost all the musicians involved progressed to high-profile careers in their own right. In the early 1970s, Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter (with percussionist Airto Moreira) were involved in Weather Report, Herbie Hancock and Bennie Maupin set up Mwandishi, John McLaughlin (with Billy Cobham) created Mahavishnu Orchestra and Chick Corea founded Return to Forever with Lenny White.
Bitches Brew was not a sudden dramatic move in a completely new direction for Miles, though. In line with his long-standing, step-by-step working methods, the recording was maybe a large, but nevertheless logical step forward on a course he had set almost two years earlier. In terms of personnel, musical conception, and sonic textures, the album was a direct descendant of its predecessor, In a Silent Way. Teo Macero remarked that with the latter album, the music “was just starting to jell. [In a Silent Way] was the one before [Bitches Brew]. Then all of a sudden all the elements came together.”
You can listen to the full album below.
I don’t know how you feel about Miles, or fusion, or which Davis period was your favorite. But since I’m not tied to some academic definition of what is or isn’t jazz, I listen to and enjoy them all.
I’ve come a long way in my musical education since I first heard Miles as a 13-year-old. I respect the DJs’ introduction to Clifford Brown, and all the other amazing trumpet players who’ve enriched my life in the intervening 60 years.
The list is a long one, starting with Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Donald Byrd (who taught at my high school), and Clark Terry, who I learned more about since he was an old friend of Rep. John Conyers, who did a radio show at my station. I also got an education about the outer limits of jazz from my old friend Baikida Carroll, who was teaching for a while here in upstate New York at Bard College.
This is by no means a complete list, and at 73, I’m still learning.
Join me in the comments section, post your favorites, and let’s blow the house down!