Clifford Brown: Donna Lee


Donna Lee


Clifford Brown (trumpet)


The Beginning and the End (Sony 725)

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Clifford Brown (trumpet),

Sam Dockery (piano), Ace Tisone (bass), Ellis Tollin (drums)


Composed by Charlie Parker


Recorded: live at Music City, Philadelphia, PA, June 25, 1956 (or May 31, 1955)


Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

When Clifford Brown revisited Ellis Tollin's Philadelphia instrument shop, Music City, for another Monday night jam session on June 25, 1956, it seemed that the sky was the limit for the brilliant 25-years-young trumpet star. In just four short years he had taken the jazz world by a storm. But after his final number that evening, "Donna Lee," he left by car to travel to Chicago for the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet's next gig, only to die in an accident en route, along with Richie and Nancy Powell.

But was this "Donna Lee," and two other tracks, really from June 25, 1956, as Bruce Lundvall and Dan Morgenstern's liner notes for the original 1973 LP release proclaimed? Or was Nick Catalano's 2001 biography correct in asserting that this particular jam session actually took place a year earlier, on May 31, 1955? Catalano (and researcher/trumpeter Al Hood) pointed to participating saxophonist Billy Root, who was apparently on the road instead with Stan Kenton in late June of 1956, and who believed the recordings came from the May 1955 session. However, jazz historian Phil Schaap, for one, stands by the 1956 date, as did Ellis Tollin himself.. After all, Brownie is heard complaining at the conclusion of "Donna Lee" about how hot it is—and Philadelphia hit a cool 71? on 5-31-55, as opposed to a more sultry 86? on 6-25-56.

Whatever the case, listening to Brown's magnificent playing on "Donna Lee" is an exhilarating experience, but also a painful one, with the knowledge that the trumpeter, depending on which date is correct, had either mere hours or just a year left to live. What's most noticed in Brown's playing of the theme and especially in his solo is his great facility and rich, lustrous sound, and also his typical fondness for the middle register. He thinks on his feet, and comes across unrushed even at the surging up-tempo that the rhythm section handily maintains here. Brown's extended lines are uncliched, tireless, and thematically focused, as he inventively explores the harmonies of Parker's tune. Dockery contributes a fluent piano solo notable for its intriguing left hand accentuations. Tollin's energetic support behind both Brown and Dockery's solos show him to be a more than adequate drummer in the bop genre. Brown's second improv contains even more compelling phrasing, as he smoothly intersperses—amidst his runs—both crisply-hit high notes and lower octave tones played with a broad vibrato.

Reviewer: Scott Albin

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  • 1 Al Hood // May 20, 2009 at 02:03 PM
    This session most definitely took place in 1955. When I interviewed Ellis Tollin, he supplied some 1955 "Music City" fliers which had a review and pictures from the jam, prominently mentioning "Donna Lee" and "A Night In Tunisia." In re-interpreting the fliers it is now more commonly believed that the session took place on June 6, 1955 - the following week. Those sessions were always on a TUESDAY night, making even the Columbia June 25th date incorrect. Billy Root indeed was with Kenton in Wisconsin at the time of the 1956 date. Since Clifford played at Music City on many occasions, and since many (including Tollin) remember seeing him there the night he died, I can only assume that he did actually play there on Tuesday night, June 26th, 1956 (his wife's birthday and their second wedding anniversary) and perished in the fatal accident with Richie and Nancy Powell on the Pennsylvania Turnpike near the 1 AM hour of June 27th (from police report). But this wasn't the recording of that night. I don't give much credence to the outdoor temperature theories of Philadelphia - it could be hot in any building after performing, even on a winter day! Brownie's actual final recording (with the regular quintet including Sonny Rollins) at the Continental Restaurant in Norfolk, VA is stunning.
  • 2 Al Hood // May 24, 2009 at 08:28 PM
    Sorry - above date should read Tuesday, June 7, 1955....
  • 3 Scott Albin // May 25, 2009 at 02:22 PM
    Thanks for your clarification. Apparently someone was either misinformed or attempting to deceive regarding the claim that these three tracks were played just hours before Brown's tragic death.
  • 4 KrisBelucci // Jun 01, 2009 at 11:55 PM
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  • 5 Bill Brown jr // Jun 03, 2009 at 04:39 PM
    Hi, good post. I have been wondering about this issue,so thanks for posting. I’ll definitely be coming back