I believe in the transcendent power of music. For many, music represents entertainment, white noise, or cell phone accessories; for me it is a sixth sense I credit a dead trumpeter for sparking.
Clifford Brown was a trumpet phenom who ascended to fame in 1952 a few short years after picking up the horn in high school. Blessed with the dazzling technique of Charlie Parker and the lyricism of Miles Davis, Brown reached the zenith of his fame touring as a bandleader in 1956. It was on this tour that Brown was killed on June 26, 1956 on a Pennsylvania turnpike heading to a show in Chicago.
I can remember the exact moment he visited me. In 1993, my high school band director pulled me into his office and asked me to sight-read for him, encouraging me to audition for jazz band. Mr. S. explained to me the basics of accentuation and swing as I struggled to make sense of the odd series of dots and stray markings in front of me. A mediocre concert trumpeter, I was unconvinced that jazz would hold any more passion than the rote scales and arpeggios I practiced at home. Sensing my skepticism, my director lent me a tape to listen to. “This,” he told me, “is jazz.”
That evening I slipped in the cassette. The first few songs contained traditional big band standards which seemed to differ little from the music emanating from the back of my grandpa’s Buick. Then I heard “Joy Spring” by Clifford Brown. It was fast, it was confusing, it was incredible. The bell of Clifford’s trumpet sang notes even Gabriel must have envied. I listened to “Joy Spring” over and over: in my dad’s car, on my Walkman, in my room, everywhere I could, trying to comprehend the beauty and complexity of Clifford’s solos. I literally wore out the tape until it was a crackling mess in my mom’s Honda. But by then, I didn’t need the tape. Clifford, and the allure of jazz, was inside me.
Clifford led me into that audition where I worked to become lead soloist. Clifford then led me to college where I performed in the university’s top jazz ensemble as a freshman. Like Brown, my career as a trumpeter was cut short, not by death, but by the pull of teaching. Today I teach high school English hoping students find solace in Thoreau and activism in Twain, yet my original inspiration has stayed with me. Music opened a world to me I had never known, that the combination of dedication, talent, and passion can illuminate the power of imagination and the beauty of the human soul.
Brown never made it to my native Chicago that slick winter night, and it has been over 50 years since he was stolen from the rest of us. Yet I celebrate the 15 wonderful years I have known him and the part of my soul that continues to swing with the rhythm of life.