I n December of 1954, jazz singer Sarah Vaughan began working with the rising-star trumpeter Clifford Brown on an collaborative album. Their joint LP, simply titled “Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown”, was recorded in just two days and quickly became a jazz classic — almost unsurprising considering the sheer talent that this duo bought into the studio. Sadly, however, this record is the only time that Sarah and Clifford worked together, and the above photograph is one of only a few existing photos to capture their collaboration. This may be partly due to Clifford’s sudden death just two years later, in an automobile accident which also killed pianist Richie Powell (Bud’s younger brother) and his wife Nancy.
For some backstory —Sarah Vaughan was thrust into the limelight after she won a talent contest at the Apollo Theatre at 18 years-old and was noticed by the pianist Earl Hines. After joining his band in 1943, she had the opportunity to meet and eventually record with a number of now-famous bebop musicians such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Eckstine, and Tadd Dameron. Years later, when her career was already flourishing in the early ’50s, Sarah apparently heard Clifford Brown perform somewhere, and was greatly impressed by his virtuosity. So much so that she immediately decided she wanted to work with him. The final result of their collaboration was an album full of riveting interplay between two of the most gifted and influential musicians in jazz history.
By the time he started recording with Vaughan, Clifford Brown was already at a high point in his career. Throughout 1954, Clifford reached a number of milestones in his career: his first session with drummer Max Roach, the first recording of his classic composition “Joy Spring”, a famous live album with Art Blakey at Birdland, and even a record date with Dinah Washington. With these accomplishments in mind, Brown’s early death in ‘56 is even more devastating, considering what he might have achieved had he lived past 25. Perhaps there may have even been a second collaboration with Ms. Vaughan! Unfortunately this is all just speculation, but it’s tough not to wonder how jazz might have evolved differently if Clifford had lived to grow old.
To give you a rough idea of Clifford’s impressive skills, here is a brief anecdote about an encounter that took place between him and Miles Davis in 1954, as recalled by pianist Horace Silver:
Miles came down there to listen to us rehearse, you know. This was afternoon down at Birdland. The place was closed up and we were rehearsing. In the middle of our rehearsal, Miles got up and started to leave. As he started to go out the door, he yelled out to Clifford jokingly, “Clifford, I hope you break your chops!” And then Curly Russell said “Man, he ain’t kiddin’, he means that!”
The rehearsal was for Art Blakey’s live album “One Night at Birdland”, which also featured Horace Silver on keys and Lou Donaldson on alto sax. There are many other similar stories about how Brown’s abilities shocked his peers, including one which claims that Charlie Parker pulled Clifford aside during a gig and exclaimed “I don’t believe it, I hear what you’re saying, but I don’t believe it!”
Although the Art Blakey’s record was extremely successful, Clifford’s most influential work was actually done in collaboration with another drummer, Max Roach, as the “Clifford Brown & Max Roach Quintet”. The other members of the original group were bassist George Morrows, pianist Richie Powell, and tenor saxophonist Harold Land, who was later replaced by Sonny Rollins. This band was one of the first to push jazz in a new direction that expanded upon bebop, along with groups led by Miles Davis and Art Blakey, among others. Eventually this new school of jazz became known as ‘hard-bop’, and even today this particular subgenre remains one the most iconic and memorable parts of ‘50s American culture.
The very first studio session for “Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown” was held on December 16th, 1954, and two days later, on the 18th, the recording was finished. For the full personnel and other details from both sessions, check this page from JazzDisco.org. Stand-out tracks from the LP include “Lullaby of Birdland”, “Jim”, and “September Song”.
The first track on the LP is a composition by the blind pianist George Shearing, called “Lullaby of Birdland”. The title, of course, is a reference to the 1949 jazz club “Birdland”, named after Charlie Parker a.k.a. Bird.
Shearing composed and recorded the song as the George Shearing Quintet in ’52, two years prior to Sarah and Clifford’s version. Born in London in 1919, George was already an accomplished pianist by 1947, when he first moved to The United States. His most well-known compositions are “Lullaby of Birdland” and the more fast-paced “Conception”.
Sarah’s rendition of “Lullaby of Birdland” includes an inviting intro / outro melody in the arrangement, and the rhythm section swings tremendously throughout the whole recording. After Sarah sings the main melody, pianist Jimmy Jones and the rest of the rhythm section take short and succinct solos, before Sarah starts scat-singing and trading fours with the wind instruments — Herbie Mann on flute, Paul Quinichette on tenor saxophone, and evidently Clifford Brown on trumpet. The entire arrangement (by Ernie Wilkins) is excellent and the only potential downside is that we don’t hear quite enough Clifford on this track. Other notable versions of this standard have been made by Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, and Amy Winehouse.
Another exceptional track is the relatively unknown ’40s ballad “Jim”, written by James Caesar Petrillo and Edward Ross. In this recording the group takes a very laidback approach, with the rhythm section subtly and tastefully supporting Sarah’s flowing vocals. Herbie Mann’s flute really shines here as he harmonizes with Sarah, although he sadly does not take a solo. In fact, the only soloist on this track is Clifford Brown, and his performance is exceptional — with his keen melodic sense on full display. His robust tone and exciting rhythmic ideas really leave you wanting more from the second he finishes his short and concise solo.
“September Song” is a famous Kurt Weill composition that has been performed by countless singers and instrumentalists since it debuted in 1938. To name a few, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Django Reinhardt have all made outstanding recordings of this standard. It’s difficult to describe what makes Sarah sound so great on this version; it could be her relaxed behind-the-beat delivery, or perhaps her impressively wide vibrato. Either way, she certainly lives up to her nickname “Divine One” here, as she creatively embellishes the song’s melody throughout the recording. Adding to the excitement are two excellent solos by Clifford Brown and flautist Herbie Mann. This is perhaps Clifford’s best solo on the whole record — every phrase just seems perfectly formed and his playing gives off a joyful exuberance that only he was truly capable of.
Although we’ve only discussed three tracks from the album, it seems worth mentioning that the rest of the record is also excellent. If you are already a Sarah Vaughan or Clifford Brown fan, then this LP is absolutely essential listening if you haven’t heard it before. On the other hand, if you aren’t familiar with either artist then this record is still highly recommended, as it is very accessible and also an excellent place to start in either musician’s discography.
This concludes our third article here at Gems of Jazz, and we sincerely hope you enjoyed reading about jazz history and the musicians who made it happen. Your support is very much appreciated and we will continue striving to create more insightful content for our audience to enjoy.