Born: Lawrence, Kansas, 3 August 1907,
Died: Los Angeles. California, 6 September 1988.
WHEN Lawrence Brown joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1932, he changed not only Ellington's music, but the whole approach to jazz trombone playing.
Until his appearance only a few trombonists, like Jimmy Harrison, Jack Teagarden and Jay C. Higginbotham, had managed to break free from the circus-type noises which had been accepted as the horns metier. These three had given the trombone a new eloquence and had dispensed with the very basic role developed for the instrument by the earlier New Orleans players like Kid Ory and Honore Dutrey.
Brown brought to the instrument another kind of eloquence, based on a sweetness and purity of tone which he introduced to jazz. Later, too, he became one of the best blues players on his instrument.
His arrival in the Ellington band started a controversy that is still discussed today. The audiences on Ellington's first English tour in the early Thirties were outraged when, as well as the popular "Rockin' in Rhythm and "Mood Indigo", Duke featured Lawrence in a lugubrious version of "Trees". In fact, this was one of the earliest examples of jazz ballad playing, but to the jazz fan of the time, it was "commercial" and not jazz.
Born in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1907, Brown, whose father was a minister, had a strict upbringing. He remained a temperate man, uninvolved and unaffected for 30 years by the boozing and gambling which was the Ellington band's modus vivendi. His nickname in the Ellington band was "Deacon".
"I never smoked, drank or gambled," he said, "but I didn't keep away from those who did. The bar is still the main place where I meet my friends. I have a Coke and buy them a whisky."
The Brown family moved to California in 1914, where Lawrence learned to play piano, violin, tuba and saxophone. He was eventually drawn to the trombone because few people seemed to play it and he tried to model his trombone sound on that of the cello. "It was my own idea," he said. "Why can't you play the melody on the trombone just as sweet as on the cello? I wanted a big, broad tone, not the raspy tone of tailgate."
A trombone solo Brown played on a 1926 broadcast from Pasadena was heard by the evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, and led to him playing in her Los Angeles temple. "After I began playing professionally," Lawrence said, "the musician I liked was Miff Mole. His work was very artistic and technical. To get the smoothness I wanted, I tried to round the tone too much, instead of keeping it thin. Mine, to my regret, has become too smooth."
Brown consistently denigrated his own playing all his life, although he was regarded as one of the greatest jazz trombonists by Tommy Dorsey and Bill Harris, both of whom he influenced strongly. When Lawrence was 19, he and his older brother Merrill, a fine pianist, both wanted to become professional musicians, but their father objected. Merrill gave up the idea, but Lawrence persisted.
His father gave him an ultimatum: "Either behave yourself and quit disgracing me, or get out!" Lawrence got out. His father was convinced that he would finish up in jail.
Brown was such a good player that, within two weeks of leaving home, he had a regular job playing at a dance hall in Los Angeles. Soon he moved to the band at Sebastian's Cotton Club, where Lionel Hampton was the drummer and Louis Armstrong the featured attraction. Armstrong's playing had a profound effect on the trombonist. "He was the only musician who ever influenced me. I think the two greatest influences in the music of this century were Armstrong for his melodic style and," he added controversially, "Paul Whiteman for making a complete change in band style away from the symphony and dance band."
Hampton and Brown remained at the club in the band backing Armstrong until Brown had an argument with Armstrong's manager, who had called a rehearsal on Easter Sunday. Lawrence always visited his parents on Sundays and, after a confrontation, left the band. Coincidentally, the Ellington band was in town and Ellington's manager Irving Mills, who had heard Brown playing "Trees" as a trombone feature in the club, asked him to join Duke. He did, and stayed for the next 19 years.
Ellington's use of his individual musicians was brilliant, and he used Brown's legato sound as a major voice in the band. This was in contrast to that of the other strong character in the trombone section, Tricky Sam, Nanton. Nanton used plunger mutes to produce the "jungle" sound, a vigorous style of trombone playing uniquely his. When Tricky died, Ellington sought successors to emulate him - Tyree Glenn and Quentin Jackson. Eventually, during the Sixties when Lawrence had rejoined the band, Duke demanded that Lawrence should use the mutes and play what had been Tricky's very rugged role in the band. Brown's playing depended on a precisely blown and delicate lip technique. Lawrence hated Duke for making him play in the Nanton style as well as his own and always maintained that, in doing so he had destroyed his own trombone style by making unorthodox demands on his lip. Money was always a problem in the Ellington band. Duke paid the men on an individual basis, and there were jealousies over who was being paid more than his fellows. Johnny Hodges was ahead of the field and pretty avaricious. When, in 1951, Duke finally stood up to him and refused his demands, Johnny left, taking drummer Sonny Greer and Lawrence Brown with him to form his own small band. The Hodges band was very successful and Lawrence's bucketing blues solos matched the powerful solos of the leader for drive and swing. Brown stayed with the band until it broke up in 1955.
Jobs in the recording studios of New York, although boring, were very well-paid and extremely hard to get. On leaving Hodges, Lawrence was lucky to take over trombonist Warren Covington's post in the studios of the Columbia Broadcasting System when Warren resigned. At first Lawrence loved the work, particularly since it meant that he could take jazz jobs in the evenings.
The musicians in the studios were of the highest calibre, but any individuality had to be ironed out. "There's a peculiar thing about studio musicians," said Lawrence. "They all sound alike. They're great musicians and any one can sit in another's chair and it doesn't change a thing at all. My sound was too individual, and I couldn't suppress it properly."
Eventually the boredom persuaded him to resign. He worked in jazz clubs for some time until he received a call from Ellington, and went back into the band in 1960.
He remained a melancholy man, unconvinced of his talents as a jazz musician. "I can't play jazz like the other guys in the band," he told me. "All the others can improvise good solos without a second thought. I'm not a good improviser." He was totally wrong in this assessment, as innumerable jam session recordings prove.
He finally retired in 1970 with the typically morose remark: 'You have to realise that being popular is nowadays more important than producing anything of value."
During the Seventies, he worked in a business consultancy and took part in Richard Nixon's presidential campaign. Before his final retirement, he took up a post with the Hollywood branch of the American musicians' union.
Several attempts were made to persuade him to take up the trombone again after he left Ellington.
"When I finally left Duke," he said, "I called in to see my Auntie in Cleveland on my way back home to California. I left my trombone behind her rocking chair. As far as I know, it's still there. It can stay there."