Born August 3, 1907, in Lawrence, KS; died September 5, 1988, Los Angeles, CA; raised in Pasadena, CA; father was a minister; mother played organ in church; married and divorced twice, Fredi Washington and Dorothea Bundrant. Education: studied piano, violin, tuba and saxophone before settling on trombone;.

Lawrence Brown was virtually a "lifer" with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. In two stints, he spent nearly thirty years as an integral part of the most remarkable trombone section ever assembled and with the most honored musicians in the world of jazz. Along with other giants-saxophonists Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney and Ben Webster; trumpeters Cootie Williams, Bubber Miley and Rex Stewart; bassist Jimmy Blanton, drummer Sonny Greer and vocalist Ivie Anderson-it was Brown's specific sound that helped shape the Ellington musical persona. For it was Ellington's orchestra-that uncommon blend of unique timbres and personalities-that provided Duke's inspiration and gave voice to his genius. It is no accident that Brown's two arrivals in the band coincided with two spurts of creative energy and cohesiveness in the Ellington organization.

After moving, at age seven, from Kansas to Pasadena, California, Brown studied several instruments as a child: piano, violin, saxophone and tuba. He chose the trombone and quickly demonstrated unusual skills and dedication. For a while he harbored the idea of becoming a physician but the pull of music was too strong. It is said that his first professional job was playing for a Mother's Day service in Los Angeles for an audience of 6,000 at Aimee Semple McPherson's church. He began playing clubs such as the Los Angeles Cotton Club and the Club Alabam, in both Los Angeles and San Francisco with the bands of Curtis Moseby, Paul Howard and others. It was in this period that he served as a "strolling trombonist," playing with such control and delicacy that he visited tables to serenade the diners, much in the manner of the popular strolling violinists of the day.

In 1929 and 1930 he made his first recordings with Howard's Quality Serenaders. In 1930, he also appeared along with drummer/vibraphonist Lionel Hampton in the Les Hite orchestra. Under another name they backed the great Louis Armstrong in a group of sides that drew less than great comments from Gunther Schuller in his book Early Jazz, "These sides [are] listenable only when Louis is playing ... For the rest there is a wasteland. ... Once in a while the elegant trombone of a Lawrence Brown ... penetrates the labyrinth of commercialism." Brown's developing style featured great facility and technique and a tonal quality reminiscent of a cello. As he told writer Stanley Dance in a 1965 interview: "It was my own idea, and I wasn't following anyone else. 'Why can't you play melody on the trombone just as sweet as on the cello?' I asked myself. Everybody was playing so loudly and raucously on trombone. I wanted a big, broad tone, not the raspy tone of tailgate, and if you think of the cello you can see how it influenced me."

This sound attracted the attention of maestro Ellington, who Brown joined in 1932. According to Bill Crow in his Jazz Anecdotes, Brown had no written parts when he joined the Ellington band: "There were no third trombone parts, so I had to sort of compose my own parts. Then as the new numbers came out they started arranging for the third trombone. And Duke was superstitious as Brown related, "I didn't play with the band at first, because I was the thirteenth man. There was so much superstition. Oh, no, not thirteen men! I had to wait for the fourteenth man [altoist] Otto Hardwick, for about six weeks. And I didn't get paid until I played my first job." Brown had intended to stay for only a year but the Depression had hit the music industry hard and, since Ellington was able to survive, Brown's first tour with the band stretched over two decades.

A Voice Among Voices

Of Brown's 1932 addition to the Ellington band, Schuller wrote in The Swing Era, "Certainly the major new voice was Lawrence Brown, an extraordinarily versatile trombonist who brought a number of unique musical qualities to the orchestra and to Duke's sonoric palette. I believe the impact that Brown had on the so-called Ellington effect ... has never been fully appreciated. Not only did the Ellington band become the first to acquire a permanent trombone trio, but Brown was the first trombonist of any major black orchestra to develop a full-blown ballad and lyric style. This was some years before the emergence of players like Tommy Dorsey and Jack Jenney, still a time when the trombone was associated almost exclusively with 'hot' jazz, and hadn't quite lost its New Orleans 'tailgate' ancestry."

This unique trio of trombonists was completed by Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton and Juan Tizol. Nanton, of West Indian heritage, specialized in the "jungle" sounds that characterized the early Ellington orchestras. He employed growls and a rubber plunger with a small mute in the horn to produce solos that expressed the gutsier side of Duke's creations. Tizol, from Puerto Rico, was classically trained and played the unusual valve trombone which gave him great flexibility and speed. Brown's smoothness and power, juxtaposed with his lyric qualities, made him a natural for playing lead. And despite their differences in personality and approach, these players could blend to produce an unmatched ensemble sound-or almost any effect the leader desired.

Classic Recordings

When, in May of 1932, Brown recorded his first solo with Ellington, it was on the almost impossible pop tune, "The Sheik of Araby." Schuller, whose technical analysis of jazz is always instructive, writes, "Brown's solo [is] jaunty, debonair, eloquent, topped by a graceful lip trill on a high B-flat, as effortless as if played on a flute ... in a style that combined lyricism, 'hot jazz,' swing and consummate technical command in a synthesis that no other trombonist at the time could muster." Indeed, these qualities were present on any number of recordings that Brown made with the band, causing some critics to question whether he belonged in the Ellington band, or whether Ellington was becoming too pretentious, having forsaken some of the raw sounds of the 1920s.

"Slippery Horn," "Ducky Wucky," "Bundle of Blues" and "Ain't Misbehavin'" are some of the early recorded vehicles for Brown solos. The orchestra made the first of many successful overseas tours in 1933, on which the Duke consorted with European royalty and the band solidified its growing reputation. Upon return, they became the first major black orchestra to tour theaters in Texas and Missouri. During the period from Brown's joining until 1940 this group recorded such memorable Ellingtonia as "Sophisticated Lady," "Solitude," "In A Sentimental Mood," "Reminiscing in Tempo," "Caravan," "I Let A Song Go Out of My Heart," "Ko-Ko," "Concerto for Cootie (Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me)," "Cotton Tail," "Never No Lament (Don't Get Around Much Any More)" and "Transblucency," a vocal without words co-written by Brown for Kay Davis's unique voice. Brown also composed "The Golden Cress" and "On A Turquoise Cloud." "Yearning for Love (Lawrence's Concerto)" was a three- part composition written by Ellington for Brown. "Black, Brown and Beige," Duke's lutionary 1943 excursion, also featured Brown's unique skills and, according to musician-critic Leonard Feather, saw "the elevation of jazz to an orchestral art."

Branching Out, Breaking Off

Beginning in 1938, the trombonist regularly recorded with a small group headed by bandmate Johnny Hodges, and made up exclusively of Ellington sidemen, including the pianist himself. Typically Hodges's group would include Brown, Cootie Williams, Harry Carney, Sonny Greer, the then-current bassist and the incomparable altoist as leader. These sessions were done against a backdrop of the full Ellington Orchestra's year-round travel and recording schedule. They were also a precursor to a major change in Brown's career and Ellington's Orchestra. Though the 1939 addition of the magical composer-arranger Billy Strayhorn, breakthrough bassist Jimmy Blanton and tenorman Ben Webster brought a fresh infusion of energy to the band, Brown and others were becoming restless. Two decades of grinding travel, the sameness of program night after night and the desire to showcase his own talents concluded in a move that shocked the music world and temporarily crippled the Ellington Orchestra.

Several Ellington stalwarts-Williams, clarinetist Barney Bigard, Webster, Tizol and Nanton among them-left the Duke at various times through the 1940s. But in 1951 Hodges, "permanent" drummer Greer and Brown defected, with Brown choosing to tour with a Hodges-led small group. Though Brown's own salary was at a peak at that time, the big band business was drying up for all but a few, and as he told Dance, "... the flexibility of the small band, the opportunity to spread out, make it interesting to the musician. And Johnny Hodges had a terrific little band." This tour lasted through about 1953, after which Brown freelanced successfully in New York in the radio and recording studios, in 1957 securing "the best job in the business," a staff position with CBS. "But then came the cancellation of all the transcontinental radio programs, and everything started going into tape and they didn't need the same set-up or number of men." After working the New York clubs for a while, Brown answered a call from Duke and re-joined the big band in Las Vegas in 1960.

With the return of Brown, Hodges and Williams, the Ellington Orchestra of the 1960s, according to Schuller, "regained some if its earlier glory. With these exceptional voices back in place, many of the recordings of the sixties took on some of the orchestra's old luster and uniqueness." During this ten- year tour Brown was asked to take on an additional role, that of playing the growl and plunger solos originated by "Tricky Sam" Nanton. "I don't like the plunger," Brown told Dance, "but I imitate the tops-Tricky. That buzzing breaks your lip down and you have to wait a little while to get back to normal."

After ten more years with Duke, Brown retired from the music business in 1970. He engaged for some time in business consultancy and became politically active, helping with the Nixon re-election campaign. His last job was as an agent for the Los Angeles Local 47 of the American Federation of Musicians. Summing up his role with the Ellington Orchestra, Schuller wrote: "Brown, as leader of Ellington"s trombone section, was not only a great lyric player, but his solo style was so unique that it was virtually inimitable. At the same time he was no less of a 'hot' improviser ... Such versatility was unprecedented in the 1930s and is still relatively uncommon today." Brown is seen as an influence on such major players as Tommy Dorsey and Bill Harris.

Summing Up

Throughout his career Brown always demonstrated the highest standards of professional conduct. His was an independent spirit. In a business in which the use of alcohol and other substances was the norm, Brown never drank or smoked. Yet he was able to work, play and live with his differently disposed bandmates amicably.

His long-time leader wrote in Music is my Mistress: "As a soloist, his taste is impeccable, but his greatest role is that of an accompanist. The old-timers used to say, 'Soloists are made, but accompanists are born.' Lawrence Brown is the accompanist par excellence. During the many years he was with us, records prove that his solo performance had the widest range from classical standard up to, around, and above the jet-swept contour of the vision we almost hear."

by Robert Dupuis

Lawrence Brown's Career

First recorded with Paul Howard's Quality Serenaders, 1929-30; recorded with Louis Armstrong, 1930; played with Duke Ellington's Orchestra, 1932-51 and again 1960-70; freelance, recording and CBS studio work, 1951-60; after 1970 served as business consultant, worked on political campaigns and as an official of Local 47 of musicians union.

Lawrence Brown's Awards

Esquire Silver, 1944-45.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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