FIRESIDE CHAT WITH NICK CATALANO
As a Professor of Music and Literature at Pace University, I can't think
of a man more qualified to tell me the life and art of Clifford Brown.
But since I am merely a lowly undergrad (and as John McCain points out
at every occasion he can USC stands for the University of Spoiled Children),
I will let him tell you, as always unedited and in his own words.
JUNG: Why write a book on Clifford Brown?
CATALANO: Easy answer. I played with Clifford about forty years ago. I
was on the same bandstand with him a couple of times. He is the greatest
musician that I personally have come into contact with in all my years
as a jazz writer, producer, musician, and a professor. And the idea that
no biography had ever been done about him was amazing to me. So Oxford
University Press approached me and said, "Would you do this?" They read
my stuff here in New York and I said, "I'd love to do a biography of Clifford
What instrument do you play?
CATALANO: I'm a reed player. I'm not as active as I was at one time. I
was very active in New York. I'm a New Yorker. I was going around different
clubs and stuff like that and there he was. As the saying goes and I am
certainly quoting a cliche here, but "we all wanted to take our horns
and throw them in the river." He was just so marvelous and so wonderful.
I also got to see him with the Max Roach Quintet in Basin Street, here
in New York, a couple of times. I have never forgotten those experiences.
They were amazing. They were record setting crowds. They were at that
club for ten times longer than anybody else was. It was a long time ago,
but it was astounding.
You pointed out how amazed you were that no one had written a book on
Brown. That absence of publicity also extends to his recordings, and yet
when I speak with any trumpet player, without fail, his name is mentioned.
CATALANO: I agree. The interesting things is, as time goes on, I'm sixty,
it seems that that story, even in the circles of jazz as you have indicated,
yeah, they don't know enough and so a book had to happen somehow. It is
getting great reviews and there is going to be, as a result of this book,
the Lincoln Center Jazz people have asked me to host a show in September,
on September 26, so there will be enormous exposure and examination there.
But really, the big reason to do this book was to do exacly what you just
said and that is to let people know who this guy was because they don't
and that's unbelievable. You talk to any trumpet player and they mention
his name and I mean Wynton Marsalis, who I have spoken with and other
people and sometimes they become inarticulate because that is how much
of a hero worship cult there is.
How long did you research this book?
CATALANO: This book has been on the burner for about five years and most
of that was research. It's really been in my mind for many, many years.
I'm a television producer aside from being a professor here at the University
and I was out in Hollywood twenty years ago, producing a comedy show and
I spoke with Harold Land then. I said, "Someday, I think I will be doing
a book on Brownie." At the time, I was writing pieces for Down Beat just
to keep my hand in the jazz thing while I was doing my television writing.
So it has really been kind of a dream and ironically, a little autobiographical
because I am almost a contemporary and I am writing about a time when
I was young. The interesting thing is, the more I got into this, the more
amazed I became. Not just his incredible playing, but it was even greater
when I really looked at it and examined it and interviewed the scholars
and trumpet players and so on, and got to know his playing in a way that
I hadn't before.
in your five years of research and writing this book, what was the most
remarkable thing you learned about Clifford?
CATALANO: Well, I had heard stories, but quite frankly, as Nat Hentoff
puts it, "Nobody in jazz has said a bad word about Clifford Brown." Another
writer called him "jazz's angel." Clifford Brown was the most amazingly
special person that I have ever read about and most people in jazz that
knew him have ever met. He was a special person. He was so virtuous and
wonderful and terrific and regular and all of those adjectives. Art Farmer,
who played with Brownie in Lionel Hampton's band in 1953, the first Lionel
Hampton tour, and you know Art Farmer was a wonderful, wonderful horn
player. Art was so candid with me. He said, "I had pretty good respect
for myself in those days and I had real ability, but every night out,
Hamp would pit Brownie against me," because Hamp loved these trumpet duels,
and I am paraphrasing now what he said in the book, but he said, "He killed
me. Every single night, I was so scared out of my mind because this guy
was coming after me like you can't believe." He said, "but I could never
feel any kind of antipathy towards him because he was such a special person
and he was so good to me." I mean, that is just one of the stories. There's
a million of them in the book.
What is Clifford Brown's legacy?
CATALANO: I was struggling pretty carefully for a title here. I called
this book, The Life and Art of Clifford Brown. In my mind as a player
or teacher and so on, what Brownie did Max, I feel that their recordings
constitute the best aesthetic statements of high jazz art. First of all,
it is in the bop legend and I'm a big bop person. The bop material from
Parker and Max int he Forties and so on, to me, represents the high watermark
of th art and within that context, Brownie and Max and some of the things
he did before Max represents even a higher watermark, no just as a player
or an improviser, but as somebody who created really, really special,
improvisational design, whose attention and whose care of what he did
on recordings was absolutely without parallel. I have listened to so many
Charlie Parker recordings where he is playing out of tune, but Brownie
managed to control all of that and so the product was high art. I'm talking
about the high art of bebop and the high art that they achieved.
Are you humbled now, even more so than prior to starting the research
for the book?
CATALANO: Certainly. I have always wondered in the forty-five some odd
years, would there be somebody who would dislodge Clifford's greatness
in my mind. I was almost afraid when I started this book that there might
be someone to come along, but there hasn't been thus far and that says
an enormous amount. That is a terribly superlative statement because we
are talking about some great, great artists, but in my mind that has not
Has anyone come close?
CATALANO: What can you say about, and I am talking about some unknowns
here, Booker Little and Joe Gordon and people like Miles, particularly
in the early days. I am not a big fan of Miles' trumpet playing, but Miles
in the early days had big time chops, Dizzy, this is high trumpet art
and to make that statement of Brown is scary, but I stick with it.
Jung is the Editor-In-Chief and master-debater. Comments? Email