Clifford Brown: You’ve Got to Hear Things Before You Can Do Them


SKF NOTE: At some point, serious music students — jazz students, at least — will meet Clifford Brown. A brilliant trumpet player, the world is blessed to have Clifford Brown’s impressive recorded legacy to listen to. Clifford Brown was 26-years old when he died in an automobile accident. He was also, at that time, part of the Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet.

The Brown/Roach group is where I first heard Clifford Brown AND Max Roach. I still love the Brown/Roach group and the music both men recorded in other settings.

In 2005 I bought and read Nick Catalano‘s biography, Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter. This segment on how learning to hear played such an important part in Clifford Brown’s early studies makes sense to me, so I pass it along to you.


Clifford Brown was a junior high school student when he was brought to Boysie Lowery. He had advanced considerably beyond his initial fascination with the shiny trumpet and had developed a serious musical interest “through experience with the junior high school band.”

“I didn’t start him in a book,” Boysie Lowery recalled years later. “I taught him how to hear. The most important thing is to be able to hear. I know a lot of guys that have been to college, but they don’t have what it takes to improvise. They can’t hear. You’ve got to be able to hear things before you can do them.”

Lowery’s system has now become legendary. He calls it “the classes.” Briefly, it teaches the student how to hear chord changes and then to improvise on the basis of what is heard.

“The classes gave you the freedom to execute and develop a style,” [Lowery] said. “It gives you a chance to know what you want to do.”

Improvisation? Chord changes? Certainly not the stereotyped exercise books and uninspiring classical practice pieces that comprise the bill of fare for most young music students.

Lowery’s approach cut to the chase. It gave great motivation to youngsters who wanted to play jazz, which was where Clifford Brown’s aspirations lay.

“He really knew what he wanted to do as far as music was concerned,” Boysie Lowery later told jazz scholar Phil Schaap. “All he needed was the right person, and I think I was the one at the time.”

Source: Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, by Nick Catalano, Oxford University Press (2000)

About Scott K Fish
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