I Remember Clifford by Mark Craemer

Jazz musician Nick Reeves meets one of his heroes, sadly diminished, but no less of an inspiration; by Mark Craemer.

The clubs we played in Chicago back then were beer and wine joints that served a young, college-educated, but mostly jazz-ignorant crowd. Folks came to drink, get out of the house, or maybe impress a date. I'm certain they would have been happier if we played something more familiar with a danceable beat, or at least had a vocalist they could sing along with. But one night we had a gig at Redford's, and Redford's always had an attentive crowd. They were there for the jazz. This was a rare night when the audience actually contributed to our performance and a night that provided a glimpse into my career crossroads.

Our tenor player, Curtis Wilson, and I traded solos on Cherokee that strayed far from the melody. A couple of guys and their dates at a table near the stage were hooting and whistling, prompting us to stretch even further. They must have been musicians. When Curtis finished his extended solo on an especially high note, I blew my trumpet loud to further the riff. I was reaching for Clifford Brown's birdsong. Trying to echo his long, burnished phrasing. Like rapid-fire watermelon seeds, I sprayed the notes with precision and lyrical persuasion; blurring those individual black eighth notes across the lead sheet into a wavering band of charcoal gray, I was striving to bring melodic and harmonic compression to each chorus. With the muscular force and pounding rhythm of a jackhammer, I pummeled the keys to accentuate every expression. It was Clifford Brown's brilliance I was trying to match, and that night I felt his presence on stage.

The bass player kept an up-tempo, never allowing me to fall back. Jeff Tanner, the always-audible yet rarely comprehensible drummer, grunted and gawked while beating the ride cymbal louder and louder, forcing me to blow even harder. All the while, our pianist was comping percussive chords. The usual clatter of clinking glasses, whirring blenders and tabletop chatter were silenced by the groove we had going on stage.

I didn't spot him until we finished the set and got out from under the blinding stage lights. Albert "Ziggy" Hines, a wiry, older Black man sitting alone at a table in the back of the club, appeared like a faded recording of the legend I remembered. I wasn't even certain this was him until his bony fingers gave him away. Years ago, I saw him perform and remembered these long, fat-knuckled fingers splayed across the horn all crooked and stiff. Now, as he sat before me, his left hand cupping a beer glass while holding a cigarette, the fingers on his right hand were bent and triggered, as if making ready for an upcoming solo. Ziggy looked over when he sensed me staring.

"You play a vibrant horn."

"Hey, thanks. You're Ziggy Hines, right?"

He nodded and smiled, obviously pleased that I recognized him.

"Mind if I sit down?"

Ziggy motioned to the chair opposite him.

"Nick Reeves." I offered my hand. His grip was soft, and weaker than I expected. "Man, I've listened to you for as long as I remember. You inspired me to take up the trumpet."

"Is that a fact?"

Ziggy brought the glass to his mouth and took a long, slow swallow. He had a worried face even when he smiled. His eyes were yellow and puffy, and his lips much fuller than other trumpet players - better suited for the trombone.

"You and Clifford Brown," I continued.

"Yeah?" Ziggy took a drag from his cigarette and let the smoke come out on its own. "I thought I heard Clifford up there. You've got the same intensity."

Something about Ziggy reminded me of my father. Maybe it was his melancholic eyes or the way he held his head downward and slightly cocked to the left, as if it was too painful to keep straight. Had my dad lived, he would have been about the same age, and for a moment I imagined him as a Black man. Ziggy came from an entirely different background, but like my father, he looked utterly defeated.

"Did you know Brownie?"

"Yeah, we hung out a few times just before he died. Man, when was that... nineteen fifty-eight?"

"Fifty-six," I said. "The year after Bird died."

"That's right." Ziggy looked down and crushed his cigarette into an ashtray. "Long time ago."

Brownie always sounded like he was playing for the very last time, and in his brief career he'd made a bigger impact on jazz than most did in a lifetime. Many said he was the heir apparent to Dizzy Gillespie, but a car crash took his life when he was just twenty-six. My own career wouldn't have that urgency, nor that limited duration. But what impact?

In the silence, I scratched my goatee. "So, what do you think of my playing?"

"Man, you've got chops. No doubt about that. Your technique's as good as anyone's. And you've got strong wind. Same as Clifford."


"Sure." Ziggy fished for another cigarette. "You're doin' fine."

"Okay. But what do I need to work on?"

"Well..." Ziggy squinted, as if to bring me into better focus. Measuring the delta between what he needed to tell me, and what he thought I could handle. Like one of his teenage students uneasy with direct feedback, Ziggy worried that I might be unable to take it straight. Then he seemed satisfied and said, "Quit forcing Clifford into your playing. Try opening up to your own."

Before Ziggy could explain further, Curtis stepped up to the table and I introduced him. They shook hands and chatted for a bit until it was time for our next set.

Once on stage I told the band we were going to make a departure from our song list because I wanted to dedicate something to Ziggy. "Ladies and gentlemen," I said into the microphone while shielding my eyes from the spots to find Ziggy. But he was gone. The band concentrated on a few standards, but we never got back to that earlier groove.

A week earlier I awoke to a phone call from this record producer named Harvey Maxwell. Said he was going to be in Chicago later in the month and wanted to hear what he called my "Clifford Brown sound." He also said he'd like to discuss recording opportunities. The idea of recording my own side was something I had been looking forward to my entire career. Not only that, but since I'd been living entirely on what I earned at gigs and from sitting in on studio sessions, I needed the dough.

"Based on what I've heard so far," he said. "I think we could get a deal done while I'm there." Maxwell was enthusiastic talking about contracts, market demographics, and east coast promotional tours. My head was spinning. I had been so focused on finding an extra $500 to pay that month's rent, I wondered if he was going to say anything about an advance or whether it would be a bad idea for me to bring it up. When neither of us did, I decided I'd find a way to make it through the next three weeks, just as I always had, and then I could sign this contract and take my reputation to the next level.

I felt I was technically ready for the coming audition, but needed to build up my confidence and stay loose. Then came that night at Redford's.

Quit forcing Clifford. Open up to your own.

Ziggy's words began to haunt me. I knew this was a pivotal time for my career, and yet, I couldn't really get a grip on it.

The morning after the gig I entered Frank's coffee shop on Halsted Street where our drummer told me he had seen Ziggy a few times. I found an empty booth near the back and wiped crumbs from the worn red Naugahyde bench before I sat. Buzzing florescent lights hung from a yellowed, smoke-stained ceiling with a slowly revolving fan. On the table lay a plastic-coated menu splattered with ketchup and dotted with tiny stickers where prices had been changed more than once. Still a cheap place to eat.

I stared out the window and decided to hang hoping he'd show up.

Ziggy had been a sideman with many of the top musicians in the Fifties and Sixties, but by the early eighties he'd given up playing. Still taught high school kids in the neighborhood, but he didn't perform anymore. In a Down Beat interview he said he quit because he had contributed all he could to jazz, said today's music had gone in a direction he just didn't want to play. The writer called him a musician's musician, and I was convinced Ziggy had fallen short of where he wanted to be. Maybe he could help me avoid the same fate.

I finished some runny eggs with burnt toast and far too many cups of black coffee, and I was just getting up to leave when I spotted Ziggy on the other side of the street. As he walked towards the restaurant, I was shocked at how small and fragile his body appeared from a distance. Dressed in a faded yellow and rumpled short sleeve shirt with baggy pants that hung loosely around his waist, Ziggy looked much older than sixty. He shuffled along, hunched over, with his face peering down at the ground in front of him, his lips moving with quiet words or notes. I suddenly realized why Ziggy quit playing. Smack had done him in.

"Ziggy Hines," I called out and held up my hand as he made his way towards what must have been a familiar spot at the counter. He scanned the room, apparently unable to distinguish me from all the others now looking at him. It was an odd name, and many of the customers stared at the old man - unacquainted with the legend before them.

"Hey... my man with the vibrant horn."

"Can I buy you a cup of coffee?"

"Why shore." He slid into the seat opposite me. "You can buy me a cuppa joe."

Ziggy seemed genuinely pleased to see me, or maybe he was just eager to have company. Didn't matter. We chatted about the city and how few places were left to play. He told me about his lessons and that not many kids were interested in playing jazz anymore. Most of his students came because their parents wanted them to play, even though the kids spent much of their free time listening to hip-hop and rap. Ziggy said it was tough to keep their attention, so few put their heart and soul into playing.

"I wanted to ask about what you said last night," I began. "You know, about forcing Clifford Brown into my playing."

"Oh yeah." Ziggy sweetened his coffee with three sugar packets and whitened it with two cream containers. He stirred the cup, making a rhythmic F-sharp with the spoon, something he had probably taught himself to do consciously years ago and now did without thinking. The ceiling fan did little to circulate the cigarette smoke or move the stagnant air, but the place was less crowded now. Ziggy stared out the window and for a moment I thought he wasn't going to answer. Then he turned back to me. "It has to do with style, Nick. Finding your own."

"Yeah, but... I don't know how."

"Lemme tell you somethin'. Style isn't somethin' you pick up off a shelf. You won't find it in no store or library. You won't get it from me and you won't get it from any other goddamn teacher. Least not one who's any good."

He coughed, cleared his throat, and leaned in close.

"Look at Miles, man. That cat could play everything from bebop to hip-hop. He was always in front of the music, and never played any other way than his own."

"But where did he learn his style?" I asked. "How'd he get it?"

Ziggy pointed to his chest. His eyes were brighter now and I could feel him peering into me.

"But what you said about stop forcing Clifford..." I said. "I feel like Clifford Brown, Miles Davis... and Ziggy Hines are all part of my style. How can I give that up?"

"Nah. Whatta you talkin' bout?" Ziggy scrunched up his face and looked at me incredulously. "You can't make us your style. That's not jazz."

Ziggy glanced down at his misshapen fingers. Then he turned up the palm of his left hand to examine an imaginary blister. His upper arm exposing needle tracks.

"Clifford Brown had style all right. Put more notes into a bar than any cat I ever heard. Didn't play fast, but he played with density."

"Yeah, I remember Clifford," he continued. "One of the great trumpeters of all time. Killed when he was just gettin' ripe."

"He inspired me so much," I said.

"That's great. But let it be only that. Nothin' more. You've got what you needed from Clifford. Maybe from Miles and me, too."

I knew Ziggy was right, but that didn't make it any easier. He was telling me to change the very blueprint for my vocation. Clifford Brown's mastery of the trumpet had been the pinnacle of my pursuit for more than ten years. To look beyond that was to face the question of whether there was anything inside of me to deliver. It meant letting go of the security of where I was, giving up on all that I had accomplished and the reputation I had worked so hard to achieve. If I began playing what was in me - if there was anything there - wouldn't others then see that all my riffs to this point had never been mine? And what if I didn't measure up? Maybe the best of Nick Reeves would be considered technically sound, but altogether uninspired. How could I go on playing if that was the best I had to offer?

And then there was Maxwell. He'd expect me to play as I always played. Anything different would be risking a lucrative and potentially career-making record deal.

Ziggy and I left the coffee shop and strolled along Lincoln Avenue where I had to slow my pace considerably to keep from getting ahead of him. The sun felt hotter now and I could see the dampness clinging to the back of his shirt. When we reached his apartment building, Ziggy said he would invite me in but needed to get some rest before an afternoon lesson. Then he grabbed me by the arm and said, "Nick, don't quit until you can blow your own horn."

At first I tried to ignore what Ziggy had said. Then I couldn't. On stage the very next night I felt ashamed. I was an impostor - an actor playing a musician. But play from my heart? That meant getting in touch with what was there. Opening up to make myself vulnerable to whatever I found. And I could get hurt. Unbridled music always had a way of making conscious whatever I managed to bury away. No wonder so many jazz musicians turned to smack. There they found the courage to open up and face the void. But drugs were a short cut with consequences. Brownie stayed clean and so would I.

Instead, I stopped listening to Clifford Brown. Didn't want his influence anymore. I put away all my favorite sides and listened to Debussy and Stravinsky - getting back to my classical roots, but only now and then, since I didn't want them to interfere with finding my own voice either. Something in the works of these two composers had made me cry when I first listened to them, back when my father died. They had been part of his collection.

The next two weeks I played under the 'el' tracks near my apartment with only the accompaniment of rumbling trains coming from behind and in front, forcing me into erratic and chaotic trills. I played without thinking. Just closed my eyes and entered unfamiliar territory, releasing chord progressions and phrasing that felt odd and uncomfortable. I knew my licks were overly sentimental and sophomoric, but I didn't stop or turn back. I just emptied unfiltered what was inside of me until one day I found myself weeping with tears dribbling down my cheeks. I knew I was finished for the day. The feeling was too debilitating. I assumed this was grief for the unrealized potential of Clifford Brown and Ziggy Hines, but later I discovered this was pent-up emotion for my father.

Dad had spent his entire career in painstaking linguistic research, and never received the respect he felt he deserved from the academic community. Claimed it was university politics and died bitter. A heart attack took him away three weeks shy of his fiftieth birthday. Although I knew my father loved me, I couldn't remember a time when he had actually told me so. For that matter, I couldn't think of when I had said it to him either.

After his funeral I threw myself into practice. I found I had little in common with friends anymore. Jazz took over my life in such a fundamental way that I lost touch with everyone except those who also pursued music. Instead of going to high school football games and parties, I went to nightclubs using a fake ID and managed to hear some of the greatest trumpeters still around in the Seventies: Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, and Ziggy Hines.

But none of them on stage matched what I heard from Clifford Brown on vinyl. He played with this winding, grooving pace that fired on all cylinders. I imagined him climbing an endless spiral staircase, then abruptly sliding down the banister with a paradoxical mix of confidence and absolute abandon. And the climbing would start all over again. Clifford pumped the valves meticulously, but seemingly without calculation. At first shocking, then joking. Questioning, until finally resolving the phrase with a tight and satisfying finish. When I first heard his classic Joy Spring not long after Dad died, I felt this new sense of tranquillity. I didn't really know what to do with the feeling, but I tried to hold on to it. Then I attempted to match what Clifford had done in this piece because it felt so right to me. The sound I made was deeper and more somber, but when I tried to play with the same soulfulness Clifford had, I found it impossible.

The weeping that came from my playing under the tracks that day reminded me of the emotion needed to play the blues. I had denied any heartfelt expression when playing and knew that I could no longer blow the trumpet with only my head behind it. So the next time I played, I reached deep into my diaphragm and didn't allow the wind to bypass my heart on its way to my horn. I shut off my brain and tried to stay grounded, allowing the feeling to permeate. Then I had trouble controlling the sound.

My first gig after that was awkward and I got dirty looks from Curtis and the rest of the band, but I knew I had to fall before I could walk with confidence. Every note sounded tentative and raw and unpolished. The stage lights grew especially hot and the audience looked bored. Fortunately, our rhythm section helped me stay on track, and after the set I felt spent and knew I had a lot more to learn.

A few nights later Maxwell arrived sometime during our first set. When he introduced himself at the break, his pudgy face and big belly provided a sharp contrast to the impression I got over the phone call. A disconnect between what I heard and who I saw.

"What was that last piece you were playing, Nick?"

We had finished the set with a Charlie Parker arrangement and I could play it no other way than my own. "Something the guys and I've been working on. What do you think?"

"It's fine, fine." Maxwell did what he could to show enthusiasm, but he didn't like it. "I want to hear Clifford Brown tonight. Show me that strong wind I've heard so much about."

We opened the next set with a rousing version of Jordu, a tune I knew would blow him away. I felt confident, loose, and totally in control again. To my left and close to the stage, Maxwell sat leaning forward, elbows on the table, and I could sense his concentration. I became more interested in playing for him than the rest of the audience, or even myself. He became the focal point, and the tempo, solo length, even the licks I laid down, reflected exclusively what I thought Maxwell wanted to hear. I did my best to match Clifford Brown's phrasing.

When I finished my solo, I nodded a quick response to Maxwell's smile. But on the other side of the club, a harsher critic and one more closely aligned with my conscience came into view. Immediately, I wished Ziggy hadn't come because he could see me falling back to my old ways and his disappointment crippled my confidence. The promise he heard in the first set disappeared in the very first song of the second. I had shirked from potential growth to follow an easier route to success. Ziggy could see that this trumpeter would not reach greatness, choosing imitation over integrity.

Though my decision was clear, I wanted to put off making it or at least find compromise in some middle ground.

Next, I chose a ballad to help me find my center. I closed my eyes and tried to stop thinking about anything. I let myself get caught up in the melody. I focused not on the notes, but on the spaces in between, or what I liked to call the still time. It's that place in music where time seems to hold still and the piece is given a chance to breathe, to ferment. In my mind, I pictured my father's eyes: radiant, yet melancholic. They evoked a time when I was still young and thought of him as the smartest man in the world. He was my first mentor. The model for who I wanted to be and what I would try to live up to. Those benevolent brown eyes projected hope and confidence. In what was probably the happiest time of his life, I remembered my father guiding me. Told me to follow my dream and if I wanted to make music, I had to put everything into it. Practice needed to be as natural as eating and sleeping. And then he said, don't sell yourself short. Stay true to what's inside no matter the pressure from those around you. He told me all of this, and it was only then I realized that this man of language had always used only his guidance and manner to demonstrate his love and affection for me.

The way I played that ballad as well as the rest of the set reflected the courageous turn I had chosen to take. I ignored Maxwell, and, when I needed strength to continue, I focused on Ziggy and on the still time. I played what was inside of me and trusted the silences. But the set was met with only polite applause and I knew I was far from what I had been reaching for. My playing had not matured enough for public consumption. Neither Maxwell nor Ziggy would be impressed. I stepped down from the stage and immediately sought refuge with the band in back.

"Well," Maxwell began when he stepped backstage. "All I can say is uneven. You started off fine, but if you're gonna play that free jazz, there's no room for it on our label."

"I understand."

He stared back expecting more, expecting me to cave and give him what he wanted, give him what I had been playing my entire career. But he didn't want Nick Reeves; he wanted Clifford Brown.

I couldn't give it to him and the audition failed.

In time I came to understand just how much I had succeeded. There would be other Maxwells on my path, but like Ziggy and like my father, I would stay true to what was inside of me. And maybe like Clifford Brown, I would find my way to great.

Many years later my playing did mature, becoming less tangential and more connected. To my surprise the sound was no longer vibrant, but subtle, and, to my relief, not so much Clifford Brown as it was Nick Reeves.

At last night's gig I remember how clear I felt during the ballad All The Things You Are. With lips pursed against the metallic taste of the mouthpiece, eyes dropped closed, I leaned into the microphone so that it entered just inside the bell section of my horn. I blew a soft, full raspberry into the tube and let it linger and sweeten before I slowly pressed the front valve to modify its pitch. I could feel it ripening to maturity, patiently awaiting that optimal moment of release. But there the note hesitated, first looking back into the tunnel, as if reconsidering its impending birth into the room. I carefully adjusted the tension of my lips to urge it forward. Then I reached deeper for sibling notes, huddling them together in formation, and letting them climb up on their own terms until finally into the incubator of my horn. I delicately fingered the valves to further modify the pitch and began a sonorous solo. The music flowed effortlessly. And then I was gone.


  1. That was awesome. Thank you so much for writing it.

  2. Fabulous, Mark--bravo! I know little about music, but didn't have to know. You touched on what we all know, a search for our true identity. You skillfully delivered your melancholy but hopeful tale. Thank you so much.

  3. You write a vibrant story.

  4. Great read. I like jazz and have gone to clubs in NY. Your descriptions of playing were done very well. Thank you.

  5. I have to echo Nancy, above: I know little of music but as with writing, i know what I like--and i like your story. I'll check you out the next time you're in print--for you certainly will be. Bill Tope

    1. Thanks so much, Bill. You can find more of my work in a recently published collection titled "I Remember Clifford and Other Stories" available on Amazon in both print and Kindle versions.

  6. I love this - Chicago jazz clubs are a great backdrop for a story like this one, and you describe them well! As an outsider, this rings true. The dialog and characters both are great and really drew me in.

  7. Interesting story with the music theme. I worked in the field of music therapy and can relate to the protagonist's search for his identity and meaning in music. Jazz is inherently improvisational which makes it a suitable genre for this story.

  8. You can feel the music in the words, and the emotions coming out of it. Thanks for a good one.

  9. Excellent! I thoroughly enjoyed your story. The Chicago setting and dialogue rings true for me. I look forward to reading more of your work.