The Night Clifford Died

What do Clifford Brown, Richie Powell, N.C. Wyeth and John Gardner have in common? If you said they are all artists of one kind or another, you would have been right. But that’s not what I had in mind.

All four of them died in road accidents in Pennsylvania. This blog is about how I found out about one of them.

On a rainy night in June (June 26, 1956 to be exact) Clifford Brown, the great trumpet player whose young years belied the tremendous influence he had on jazz was driving to Chicago with pianist Richie Powell and his wife, Nancy. They were on their way to a gig. Nancy was at the wheel. Just west of the town of Bedford, on the Pennsylvania turnpike, Nancy lost control of the car and the three of them hurtled to their death.

It was a terrible loss for jazz. Brown was 25 years old at the time and left behind barely twenty records of his artistry. But that was enough to establish him as one of the great practitioners of the 20th century.

It was because of his reputation that I decided to listen to him on the evening of June 25 at a nightclub in Washington, D.C. I don’t remember the name of the club. I think it was the Silver Dollar. Or perhaps it was the Silver Fox. It was a long time ago, 54 years ago to be exact.

I had graduated from George Washington University and had gotten a Fulbright Scholarship to Merton College, Oxford. That summer was a time of excited anticipation for me, getting ready to leave the country for the first time, getting ready to lead a new life in a different land. I deliberately booked passage on the Cunard line’s Queen Elizabeth. Not the upstart QE2 (I also sailed on her), but the original. I chose an ocean liner because it took five days to cross the Atlantic. In 1956 Icelandic Airways made the journey in the unheard of speed of 26 hours! Too fast for me. I thought I needed time to get my head out of one world and into another.

Maybe that was what led me to go to the Silver Whatever on Tuesday, June 25. Clifford was there with Ritchie Powell. I don’t remember who was on bass. George Morrow, maybe. On drums? Max Roach? Could have been. In fact, I only remember two things from that evening 54 years ago. The first was that I was obviously in the company of a young master. The second was that I recognized a woman in the audience that I knew from school. She worked in the cafeteria. We always spoke to one another when I came by for lunch. She doled out the mashed potatoes. I doled out the chit-chat. I was glad I had run into her that night. It marked me as one of the white kids in the know. Her smile that night was far warmer than it had ever been at lunch.

As it happened, I had occasion to go back to campus the next day, the Wednesday. I remembered seeing her and thought I would stop by to tell her how great I thought Clifford was. Now, at last, I would have something real to talk about.

I picked up my tray, put it on the rack and slid it past the desserts, the salads, the sandwiches. When I came to the hot meal station, she looked up.

“Hi,” I said. I was about to go on, but before I could utter another word she burst into tears.

“What’s wrong?” I blurted. I was caught off balance. Nothing like this had ever happened to me. I didn’t know what to say, where to look, what to do.

She must have seen that in my face. She dabbed at her eyes with her apron. Then she said, “You haven’t heard, have you? Clifford’s dead.”