War, radio, a thriving club scene and native talent once made Wilmington a fertile ground for musical innovation, and no one in its history made a bigger mark than the legendary Clifford Brown.
Music professor Don Glanden (left) isÊmaking a video documentary of Clifford Brown. Dean Jenkins (right) was two grades behind Brown at Howard High School. Brown, Jenkins says, showed him a few chords, which started Jenkins' career in Jazz.
Photograph by Pat CroweÊ http://www.patcrowephotography.com
Don’t let anyone tell you that Wilmington, the fair city that has served as capital for such un-swinging things as banks and chemical companies, doesn’t swing.
Under the town’s buttoned-down exterior, there has quietly simmered since the earliest days of the 20th century a vibe fed by sin and syncopation, the language of the street, and the sweat of dance halls and speakeasies.
It was born amid oppression and segregation, then blossomed into the one true form of American music.
It’s jazz, daddy. And if you know the password, you might find that Wilmington has given the world things besides platinum cards and Dacron. The password is Brownie.
The nickname of Clifford Brown still opens doors. It makes the hands of the old heads move like those of young men who could caress trumpet valves like they were the flesh of a fine woman.
Because Brown is a legend, a tragic protagonist who rose from Wilmington’s Eastside to entrance the progenitors of bop.
He was a straight arrow who, after playing for only a few years, sat in with Dizzy Gillespie and, at his height, was considered a better trumpeter than Miles Davis. His death at the age of 25 on June 26, 1956, in a car crash on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, would ensure his status as a legend and forever prompt fans and critics to wonder what he might have become.
For almost 20 years, Wilmington has honored him each June with a festival that attracts big-name musicians who are happy to play in honor of a man whose sound was so fat. The 2007 DuPont Clifford Brown Jazz Fest will be held June 17-23.
“I grew up in Wilmington, so I know a lot of people from my generation,” says jazz pianist Don Glanden, head of graduate music studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. “But while I would be out playing and doing concerts and gigs and stuff, people would come up to me and say, ‘Man, my uncle was a jazz musician.’ And I’d say, ‘Who’s that?’ And they’d say, ‘Clifford Brown.’ And I’d say, ‘That’s like saying my great-grandfather was a politician—Abraham Lincoln.’”
Yes, Brownie will open doors, minds and mouths. Suddenly other names spill forth—Daisy Winchester, Betty Roché, Robert “Boysie” Lowery. To many, the names mean nothing. But they are the people who started it all so that someone like Brownie could blow us all away.
After jazz was born in the late 19th century, its children—African-Americans who fled oppression in the South for industrial jobs and better lives in the North—carried it to the masses. Though segregated, Northern cities provided the arrivals a degree of opportunity unheard of in states like Georgia and the Carolinas. In Wilmington, as in other cities, the music—which incorporated ragtime, minstrel songs, the blues and orchestral pieces—percolated in burgeoning black neighborhoods.
But even in its own neighborhood, jazz existed only in bars and juke joints. It wasn’t necessarily for polite society—and certainly not for white folks.
The job of bringing jazz to white ears fell to the radio. The form was moved forward by musicians everywhere. To everyone else, it became the soundtrack of a new attitude that had accompanied the end of World War I in 1917 and the institution of Prohibition in 1919.
Suddenly, white people aspired to the cool they saw among the growing ranks of black jazz musicians and listeners. Throughout the 1920s jazz was the music of bathtub gin parties and city speakeasies. A new attitude of permissiveness meant that taboos against blacks and whites socializing were bent or broken.
And anyone with a properly tuned radio could pick up jazz broadcasts from places like New York and Baltimore without ever having to set foot in a legally suspect environment.
In 1928 Wilmington landed WDEL, which immediately began to broadcast jazz by local performers such as Crash Peyton, pianist Marita Gordon, and singers Sarah Dean and Daisy Winchester. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal began to get people back on their feet in the 1930s, the Wilmington club scene, previously an underground network of speakeasies, stepped into the light.
The Eastside pulsated with sounds from venues like Club Harlem, George’s Café, Bill’s Café and the The Spot at the Royal Hotel, where performers such as Winchester and Dean, Blanche Saunders, Lidia White, Madeline Johnson, Dr. Laddie Springs and his Deuces of Rhythm, Jimmy Hinsley and his Maniacs, and the Felix Brown Orky would sing, swing and blow.
The period began Wilmington’s brief peek into the larger picture of jazz. It was in 1940 that Daisy Winchester had a brush with fame after recording “You’ve Got to Go When the Wagon Comes” with Louis Jordan’s Tympani Five.
During World War II, one Wilmington native would see her star rise, if not for long and not very brightly. Betty Roché left Wilmington for Atlantic City, then began performing in New York City with the Savoy Sultans after winning a talent contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater when she was 17.
The band broke up almost immediately after she joined, but she soon caught the eyes and ears of Duke Ellington. Though she was a prolific performer—she sang with Ellington at his ground-breaking 1943 Black, Brown and Beige show at Carnegie Hall—few recordings of her work existed until the recording of the Carnegie concert appeared 40 years later. One biographer described Roché’s work ethic as “feckless.” She left Ellington’s band later in 1943, then joined pianist Earl Hines the next year. She left him to rejoin Ellington in 1951.
Though her mark was small, it was significant. Her version of Ellington’s “Take the A Train” was put to record in 1952. It remains the best-known version of the song.
Also during the war years, one of the most valuable, though little-known jewels in Wilmington’s jazz crown hit the scene. Saxophonist Robert “Boysie” Lowery, with his brother Bud, arrived in Delaware from their native North Carolina, formed the Aces of Rhythm, then began playing with stalwarts like Daisy Winchester at Wilmington venues such as Club Baby Grand, the post-war incarnation of Club Harlem.
In Wilmington, Lowery would become a student of the emerging sub-genre of jazz known as bebop—much of it gleaned from playing with creators like Dizzy Gillespie—then passing what he learned to several generations of musicians in and around Delaware.
UArts’ Glanden has been working for years on a video documentary about Clifford Brown. He says it’s impossible to discuss Brownie or Wilmington’s place in the jazz world without tackling the immense presence of Lowery.
“When you hear him talk, he was this really nurturing, kind guy,” Glanden says. “He himself was self-taught. He started teaching primarily kids from the black community. If they could afford it, fine. And if they couldn’t afford it, fine,” Glanden says. “He’d have people in his house for however long they needed to be there. If they didn’t have a place to stay, they would stay there for a couple of nights —just this really kind, nurturing person.”
Time spent with Gillespie, combined with his keen analytical mind, resulted in a remarkable achievement that went on to benefit not only Brownie, but generations of jazz musicians to follow. “What Lowery did musically that’s remarkable is, back in the 1940s, he figured out a system to explain what was going on with chord movement,” Glanden says.
Thus bebop’s seemingly random improvisational tangents were pinned down as musical science. Lowery’s system formed the foundation for his teaching.
While he was teaching students privately, the young people of the Eastside were benefitting in other ways from what might now seem a surprising source: the public school system.
Until the civil rights movement, Wilmington and many other medium-sized Northern cities remained in a state of de facto segregation. Howard High School in Wilmington’s Eastside was established in 1867 as one of the nation’s first public high schools for black children. The building students attended in the 1940s and ’50s was built in 1927 through a donation from then-General Motors chairman Pierre S. du Pont. In both its physical plant and educational tradition, Howard was one of the top high schools in the country.
“You get into the whole political history of Delaware, that the Republicans at that time were champions at helping the plight of the blacks, and you had the du Ponts who historically sometimes ended up in conflict with [President Franklin D.] Roosevelt,” Glanden says. “There was a kind of different sensibility about how to deal with problems, but there was a real philanthropy impetus to a lot of what went on in the du Pont family.
“Howard High School is a big part of this story because you’re talking about an era of educational segregation, but extremely high standards. So there was a competitive nature to that school. That school put on operas. The teachers lived in the community. The percentage of doctors and lawyers that came out of that is simply astonishing. That was a very nurturing, positive environment in the midst of this segregated system.”
Nick Catalano, a professor at Pace University in New York, author of “Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter,” agrees.
“I just feel that not enough has ever been written about the magic of the Eastside of Wilmington, with its extraordinary educational traditions,” says Catalano, who grew up as a jazz musician in New York. “The best way to express the irony is that, in segregation, those schools were far superior to what they became after integration. I was there in the period, but when I went to Wilmington, I was completely awestruck by what happened there. There’s a tremendous support among the neighbors for each other. The educational system was so rigorous that Clifford won a math scholarship to Delaware State.”
Joining Lowery were Howard music teachers Sam Wooding, former leader of the globe-trotting Sam Wooding and his Orchestra, and Harry Andrews, who would become music superintendent of the Wilmington schools. They helped unleash the young Brownie upon the world.
“People like Robert Lowery, Sam Wooding, they’re the illustrations of everything you’ll find when you go to cities and study the influences of jazz,” says radio personality Phil Schaap, a Billie Holiday biographer and curator of jazz at the Lincoln Center in New York. “It’s something you don’t hear about any longer and may, in fact, not exist any longer.”
“The teachers—not just the regular teachers, but the music teachers—they developed in the students a real respect for the European music tradition,” Catalano says. “All that goes into making Clifford Brown a very complete musician and performer.”
Other important events were transpiring. Jazz and swing music had been adopted as the soundtrack of the American G.I. It was carried over military radio and played at USO dances. French girls knew the jitterbug and the Nazis churned out propaganda with grotesque caricatures of black musicians designed to illustrate the “evils” of America’s “negro” music.
When the war ended in 1945 and troops began to settle into the stability of America’s new suburban ideal of family life, the rebellious force of bebop bubbled in the big-city subculture. That same year marked Brown’s matriculation to Howard.
“It’s Boysie who brings that wonderful new jazz and revolutionary music theory” to Brown during practice sessions in Lowery’s Broom Street home, says Schaap. “He taught everyone there, and Brownie was his star pupil.”
“Brownie had an incredibly high work ethic. The whole family did,” says Glanden. “They were an extremely competitive family—competitive in who was going to get the best grades and he got into shooting pool with his brothers and friends and was very competitive at that.”
That competitiveness, paired with an ability to focus on a task and the math aptitude that earned him a scholarship to Delaware State, sped young Brown’s development.
“Talent is important, but focus—I know of no one else in jazz who has that kind of determination and that kind of focus,” Catalano says.
The result would become evident quickly.
“When you hear Clifford play at 14, 15 years old, you can hear him put the bebop vocabulary to use then,” Glanden says. “I think he sounds then like he was at least up to where Boysie was at that time. I’ve thought a lot about his role in Clifford’s development. Was this a substantive musical thing, or was this the guy who happened to be the Little League coach of Babe Ruth?”