Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Brown, Lawrence

Lawrence Brown rounded out Duke Ellington's innovative trombone trifecta in the 1930s and 1940s, and he played in a virtuosic, highly decorated style. His distinct instrumental voice made him one of Ellington's preferred soloists for nearly two decades.

Brown's playing featured impressive slide technique and a show-stopping capacity to play in the extreme upper register of the instrument. He also played the lead voice in the trombone trios that Ellington started writing upon his arrival in the band. Brown's straight-and-narrow personality sometimes caused conflict in the orchestra and created some contoversy among jazz critics, but his impact on the Ellington sound as well as the development of the jazz trombone style is undeniable.

Born in Lawrence, Kansas on August 3, 1907, Brown's family moved to Oakland, California when he was six or seven years old. He was raised in a very musical environment: his mother played piano and organ and his father sang frequently as a part of his sermons in the African Methodist Episcopal church. Brown became enthusiastic about music at an early age and started playing the violin. He tired of that quickly, however, and took up the tuba in his school band. He was also learning keyboard skills from his mother during this time.

Brown first discovered the trombone while doing janitorial work in his father's church, where he found an old instrument in the chuch choir loft. Having an affinity for the melodic sound of the cello, Brown thought that he could replicate that sound on the trombone. He began practicing the instrument feverishly, intending from the beginning to perform in a melodic way as opposed to the oom-pah or tailgate styles that were prominent in jazz at the time.

When his family moved to Pasadena around 1923, Brown continued his involvement with local musical outfits. He often played cello parts in the school orchestra, and was even featured as a soloist for a Mother's Day concert for an audience of over 6,000 people. His father encouraged him to pursue his musical talents; however, he disapproved strongly of his association with jazz and dance bands. This disagreement led to Brown leaving the house to begin his professional career at age 19.

His first regular job with a band came with Charlie Echols at the 401 Ballroom in Los Angeles. Soon after, he began working with Paul Howard's Quality Serenaders, with whom he made his first recordings. Howard's band ultimately took up residency at Sebastian's Cotton Club in Culver City, where Brown played alongside vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. Les Hite took over leadership of the band in 1930, and he managed to book for two extended engagements over the next two years. The members of Hite's band were also working frequently as studio musicians for Hollywood films.

In 1932, Armstrong's manager called a studio session on Easter Sunday. Brown refused to work the date and gave his notice to quit the band. Coincidentally, Duke Ellington's manager, Irving Mills, had heard Brown play at the Cotton Club and convinced Ellington to make him an offer to join the band. Mills's conviction was so great that Ellington hired Brown without having him audition, famously saying, "I never knew you, I never met you, I never heard you. But Irving says get you, so that's that." Shortly after joining Ellington, he married actress Fredi Washington.

Brown's first studio sessions with Ellington, in May 1932, feature his soloistic trombone style prominently. "Shiek of Araby" in particular shows off Brown's virtuosity; "Slippery Horn" shows off the capabilities of Ellington's groundbreaking three-trombone section, which featured Brown playing the lead voice, Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton second, and Juan Tizol playing valve trombone. Ellington was the first to use three trombones in his big band, and is said to have considered the trombones his favorite section. Ellington did not, however, rewrite his old tunes to incorporate Brown in the section; instead, Brown had to write new parts for himself.

Although Brown continued to perform exclusively with Ellington for most of his career, his tenure with the band was not always smooth. Brown had a reputation for being uptight -- clarinetist Barney Bigard once described him as "grumpy" -- and did not drink, smoke or party with his bandmates. He once described a scene when the band where the band was smoking marijuana and drinking, while Brown had brought a quart of milk that he sipped for much of the evening.

Brown also sometimes fought directly with Ellington, such as when the two disagreed about the composer's credit for "Sophisticated Lady," one of Brown's better-known features with the band. Many critics also believed Brown's trombone style was a poor fit with the Ellington ensemble, and gave his performances a number of negative reviews.

This didn't deter Brown from his consistent, virtuosic trombone playing with Ellington. Other recordings with the orchestra alongside Nanton and Tizol include "Daybreak Express," "Cocktails For Two," "Caravan," "Jack the Bear" and "Black, Brown and Beige."

Examples of Brown as a featured soloist with Ellington include "Tootin' Through the Roof," "Flamingo" and "Do Nothing 'Til You Hear From Me." He also co-composed "Blue Cellophane," which was only performed occasionally but showed off Brown's trombone talent to maximum effect. Brown did not improvise his solos; instead, he worked them out ahead of time and practiced them alone before performing or recording them with the band.

Ellington's classic trombone sound began to unravel in the mid-1940s, in part as a result of Tricky Sam's death in 1946. Ellington requested that Brown fill in as the plunger soloist, but Brown refused and even threatened to quit the band as a result. He did manage to stay for another five years, and during this time recorded "Happy Go Lucky Local," "The Tattooed Bride" and "Mood Indigo" among many other performances.

In 1951, he left Ellington along with another mainstay and soloist of the group, saxophonist Johnny Hodges. Juan Tizol, who had left to play with Harry James in 1944, was brought back as his replacement. Over the next decade, Brown was based in New York City and played with a small group led by Hodges as well as a number of studio engagements, including regular work with the CBS Orchestra. "You Need to Rock," recorded in 1958, is an example of his work with Hodges; "What Can I Say After I Say I'm Sorry" (http://www.jazz.com/music/2009/7/5/jo-stafford-what-can-i-say-after-i-say-i-m-sorry) shows him in the studio setting backing up vocalist Jo Stafford.

Brown decided to rejoin the Ellington band in 1960 after three consecutive trombonists - Quentin Jackson, Booty Wood and Lou Blackburn - left the band. Upon his return, Brown finally took up the plunger mute soloist role pioneered by Tricky Sam Nanton. In the later years, he served more as an all-purpose soloist, covering ballads, fast virtuosic passages and expressive Nanton-inflected plunger solos. Examples of his later work with Ellington (and smaller groups led by Johnny Hodges) include "Jingle Bells," "Things Ain't What They Used To Be," "Everybody Knows," "310 Blues," and "Blood Count."

In 1970, Brown moved to Detroit and married for a second time, and retired from trombone playing. A year later, he took a job for his cousin's consulting firm in Washington, D.C., where he also served on the advisory committe for the Kennedy Center. In 1972, he returned to Los Angeles and worked for the musicians' union for thirteen years before suffering a stroke in 1985. His last public appearance came in the movie "The Competition" in 1983.

Brown passed away on September 5, 1988 at the age of 81. He left behind a musical legacy that spanned decades and laid the foundation for the jazz trombone style, establishing himself as one of the forefathers of the lineage that includes J.J. Johnson, Curtis Fuller, Urbie Green, Frank Rosolino, Grachan Moncur III, and the many younger trombonists who have emulated their styles.

Contributor: Alex W. Rodriguez