The Mellifluous Mr. Brown

More than any other big band, the Duke Ellington Orchestra was a collection of unique and diverse musical personalities. In choosing the men for his band, Ellington picked players with distinctive sounds and approaches to their instruments. Like a great painter, he mixed these various colors and textures to create inventive and breathtaking art. Ellington’s musicians weren’t mere sidemen. They were inspiring collaborators and irreplaceable hues in his orchestral palette. Among the most important was trombonist Lawrence Brown whose smooth ballad playing and virtuosic jazz solos were an integral part of Ellington’s sonic world.

Lawrence Brown (Photo by William Gottlieb)

This week on SDPB Radio’s Big Band Spotlight, we’re featuring Lawrence Brown in recordings from his three decades in the Ellington orchestra.

When Brown joined Ellington in 1932, he brought a creamy, smooth sound to a band that was often gritty and earthy. Not for nothing was the early Ellington band’s music described as “jungle music.” Brown was one of the first jazz trombonists to play in a lyrical, legato style that broke from the rough, smeary, almost comic sound of New Orleans trombonists.

Lawrence Brown was born in 1907 in Lawrence, Kansas. His father was a minister and his mother played organ in their church. When he was seven, his family moved to California. In school he played around with the piano, violin, tuba and saxophone before taking up the trombone. He thought the trombone had a tone similar to a cello and decided to pattern his style on the sweet sound of the cello instead of the loud, raucous, raspy playing of other trombone players.

At the age of nineteen, Brown and his older piano playing brother decided to become professional musicians. Their strict, minister father objected. His brother relented and took a job in the post office. But young Lawrence slipped around playing dances until his father said, “either behave yourself and quit disgracing me, or get out!”

So the young trombonist left home and played for various bandleaders in and around Los Angeles. In the early 1930s, he was a member of the Les Hite Orchestra, which played at Sebastian’s Cotton Club in Culver City. The band’s drummer was Lionel Hampton. The featured attraction was Louis Armstrong, who, Brown said, was the only musician who had an influence on him.

Duke Ellington (Photo by William Gottlieb)

Brown quit after Armstrong’s manager called a rehearsal on Easter Sunday. He didn’t work on Sundays because that was the day he visited his parents. But it just so happened that Duke Ellington’s Orchestra was appearing in Los Angeles at the time. Ellington’s manager Irving Mills had heard Brown play at Sebastian’s Cotton Club and recommended him to Ellington.

The addition of Lawrence Brown gave Ellington a three-man trombone section at a time when other bands used no more than one or two. Each of Ellington’s slide men had a unique and distinctive sound. Brown’s playing was smooth and lyrical. Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton was the “growl and plunger” specialist. Juan Tizol played valve trombone and had a clear, bright, sometimes eerie tone. What’s amazing is how well these three completely different trombonists could blend so well together. Together they were known as the Ellington band’s “pep section.” Many years later they were given the name “God’s trombones.”

Despite the warmth of his playing, Brown was a rather aloof man who rarely smiled. He was sober and straitlaced and never drank, smoked or gambled like most of the other guys in the band. When he met friends at a bar, he’d have Coke and buy them a whiskey. His nickname was “Deacon” and “Reverend” or simply “Rev.” Ellington cornetist Rex Stewart, who was also a fine writer, compared Brown to a Baptist who wandered into the wrong place seeking converts. His manner was no doubt inherited from his minister father, who was never happy about his son going into the music business.

Like other musicians in the band, Brown was unhappy when Ellington took credit for music he wrote. The trombonist always claimed he came up with the A section of one of Ellington’s biggest hits, “Sophisticated Lady.” He and saxophonist Otto Hardwicke, who Brown said wrote the bridge, sold their portions of the songs to Ellington for fifteen bucks.

By 1946 Lawrence Brown was the only one left of Ellington’s legendary trombone trio. Juan Tizol had already been gone for a couple years and “Tricky Sam” Nanton died that summer. The loss of these musicians, and others, changed the character of the Ellington band, which only made Brown’s presence all that more important, especially to fans who longed for the Ellington bands of the past.

But in 1951, Lawrence Brown, alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges and drummer Sunny Greer stunned the jazz world when they quit the Ellington and formed a new group under Hodge’s leadership. After nineteen years, Brown was tired of playing the same old thing night after night, show after show. He and Hodges both wanted the freedom to stretch out and play jazz in a small group. In the summer of ’55, though, Hodges returned to the Ellington fold while Brown became a freelance studio musician. But Brown’s musical individuality, a plus in the Ellington band, was a minus in the studios where all the musicians needed to sound alike.

Lawrence Brown and Johnny Hodges, who also didn't smile much. (Photo by William Gottlieb)

So like Hodges and another prodigal son, trumpeter Cootie Williams, Brown found himself back in the Ellington band. He rejoined in 1960, but wasn’t happy with the new role Ellington assigned him: growling mute and plunger specialist, like his old colleague “Tricky Sam.” Brown resented Ellington for making him play that style of trombone, saying it messed up his lip and destroyed his own, more lyrical approach.

Brown left Ellington once more in 1970, but this time it was for good. On his way back home to California, he stopped to visit an aunt in Cleveland and left his trombone behind her rocking chair where, he said, it stayed. He quit the music business and no one could persuade him to pick up his mellifluous trombone again.

When the late Ellington scholar Mark Tucker visited Brown in 1985, three years before the trombonist’s death, he met a gloomy and bitter man. Brown refused to glamorize or romanticize his years with Ellington, calling him an egomaniac and an exploiter of men and a seducer of women. For Brown it had just been a way to earn a living – and not a particularly admirable one. He told Tucker that his decision to join Ellington and leave California was a regrettable mistake; the beginning of the end.

Tucker found Brown, the man, the opposite of the sweet, elegant, noble and romantic sounds that came out of his horn. But Tucker suspected Brown’s resentment of Ellington stemmed partly from his awareness of how much he owed him.

There don’t seem to be any film clips of Lawrence Brown playing his Ellington features like “Rose of the Rio Grande,” but this 1962 video of “VIP Boogie/Jam with Sam” has Brown playing a short solo after about four minutes.

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