Donaldson (Donald) T. Byrd
Tempus Fugit, which means in Latin, "Time Flies." This is the name of a composition Dizzy Gillespie wrote and used to play at a ridiculous tempo. When Dizzy played this composition, I marveled at his technical ability, his magnificent range, and his distinctive tone quality. My attention was drawn to the composition: the way it was constructed, the chord progression, and the melodic lines. These were the elements that captured my attention. I gave little if any attention to the title of the tune, for the title was just two significant words written in a dead language which is still written but not spoken.
How many times have we heard words or phrases that have very little meaning and how many times has it taken a significant occurrence to bring about an awareness and to give meaning to a saying or phrase that you have often heard? Just such an occurrence happened to me two weeks ago in Wilmington, Delaware. All of the sudden, forty years passed through my mind at the speed of light.
Forty years ago (June, 1956) I was shocked to hear that one of my favorite trumpeters and idols had died on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, due to bad weather and miscalculation and confusion by the driver. It brought about the demise of three persons: Clifford Brown, Richard Powell and his wife.
This was a great loss to the music world. Even today, his ability to perform on the trumpet is unparalleled and indelible. This I can attest to by the many requests I get to explain his approach to the art of playing trumpet. This is further seen by the popularity of his recordings, written music, and the performance of his music. All of those who have followed his lead have been impacted upon in one way or another, including me. Trumpet players such as Roy Eldridge, Charlie Chavers, Clark Terry, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Buck Clayton, Edrees Sulieman, Dizzy, Miles, Art Farmer, Nat Adderley, Benny Bailey and many others who came before him and his contemporaries were in awe of his dedication and awesome talent. Those who started out of his talent have names which run into infinity such as Bill Hardman, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Booker Little, Woody Shaw up to and including the trumpeters of today such as Wynton Marsalis, Terrance Blanchard, Darren Barrett and many others (including Randy Brecker, Tom Harrell, Marvin Stamm, Joe Schepley). Many have written about him or quoted him musically in their performances. Clifford truly redirected the art of playing trumpet. All trumpet players from various disciplines and of different persuasions know of him and acknowledge his greatness. Clifford is immortal.
In Wilmington, they have named an auditorium at the Christina Culture Center in his honor. The city has further honored him by creating a Jazz Festival using his name. People from all over the world come to the festival and world class musicians perform there often dedicating compositions in his honor or playing his music. His contributions and name are timeless. His greatness can also be measured by the sales of his records, sheet music, and the honors that are still given to him. Further evidence is seen by the articles and dissertations written about him. He is held in the highest esteem by all musicians: jazz, classical and any others. As I stood before his grave, I was awestruck by his accomplishments. But as I looked at his beautiful headstone, then looked around at the cemetery where he was laid to rest, I was taken aback by the conditions of the active historical Black cemetery.
What had a further impact on me was the fact that he is buried with his family -- mother, father and others. Which is also near the place where the famous vibra-harpist Len Winchester is interred. Len's death is another story I will tell at a later date and time. Another point that left me speechless was at this Wilmington historical burial ground/site, there are many slave markers which have dates that are in the early 1800s, before emancipation. I had only experienced this once before, so right away I became profoundly involved. Here was my friend, idol, and one of the greatest trumpet players of this century interred beneath the garbage, rubbish, and abandoned auto parts scattered among the many pools-flooded roads, paths, and swamps of water. Here is a place surrounded by overturned headstones, desecrated grave markers, and situated only five feet from the railroad tracks. It is more to believe that Wilmington was still a segregated city in the summer of 1956, than to believe this black cemetery and others a couple of blocks down the main street were in such a condition.
Respect, honor and admiration do not diminish nor die at the funeral. They grow, if anything. Nothing in terms of love and devotion are lost, they are heightened, for the total picture is rarely seen.
My father said, "we will be judged by what we have accomplished. All of our efforts will be measured, all of our actions accounted." To sum it up it is like Max Roach's album, "Little Deeds", not words. I've never head a disparaging word spoken about Clifford Brown, only praise. Praise in terms of honor, dedications, and songs, such as Benny Golson's "I Remember Clifford."
How time flies is seen by the fact of all who come to the festival in his name, from all over the world. The many hundreds and thousands that go to the concert that is named in his honor, and the hundreds that pass and sit in the shadow of his bust in the Education and Humanities building at Delaware State University. They have not seen nor know the state of the burial grounds.
I must say to all the hundreds and thousands of young trumpet players who copy, imitate, emulate, great and not so great, young, middle aged and old, "you are next."
A tradition, culture, or heritage will only last--will only survive--if it is carried on and promoted. What makes a tradition and culture viable when the principles are kept alive and are used? That is what makes a culture, a society, a tradition, and heritage great! We must not only never forget but we must always remember. To use a very old expression, "how soon we forget." A phrase that is often used and sometimes looses its meaning, but then you have some events like Clifford's death and the grave site which revitalize that meaning. As I stood before his headstone and reviewed the last forty years of my life since his death, I could see how quickly time passes and in terms of his gravesite and the condition it is in, how soon we forget.
Too often, we have a bad habit of separating a man from his music. The music of Clifford is soul, heart, mind, and belief. As his music lives, so will his existence. Let us honor him as we honor his talent. We will always be grateful for his inspirations.
Tempus Fugit, an open letter from Donald Byrd reprinted from http://www.blackbyrd.com
Selected portions reprinted courtesy of the Clifford Brown Jazz Foundation
Content ©1997-2007, Greg Morey, all rights reserved, unless noted otherwise. Photo (upper-left) by Herman Leonard.