Lawrence Brown

Trombonist, Born in Lawrence, Kansas on 3 August 1907, Died in Los Angeles. California, 6 September 1988. Lawrence Brown, who joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra as a trombonist in 1932, changed the way Ellington played jazz trombone. Only a handful of trombonists like Jay C. Higginbotham and Jack Teagarden had managed to escape the circus-like sounds that had been accepted as the horns’ metier until Brown’s arrival. The trombone had been given a new style by these three players, and it had gone beyond the basic role that had been assigned to it by Honore Dutrey and Kid Ory. Brown introduced jazz to the trombone with a new kind of eloquence based on sweetness and purity in tone. He was also a great blues player. The controversy surrounding his inclusion in the Ellington band lasted for many years. On Ellington’s first English tour, in the early Thirties, audiences were furious when Duke included Lawrence in a lugubrious rendition of “Trees” and the popular “Rockin’ in Rhythm” songs. This was actually one of the earliest jazz ballads, but it was not jazz to jazz fans of the time. Brown was born in Lawrence, Kansas in 1907. His father, a minister, raised him with strict principles. Brown remained a calm man and was unaffected by the Ellington band’s modus vivendi of boozing and gambling for thirty years. In the Ellington band, his nickname was “Deacon”. He said that he never smoked, drank, or gambled, but that he didn’t shy away from people who did. My main meeting place is still at the bar. I buy my friends a whisky and a Coke. Lawrence Brown learned piano, violin and tuba from the Brown family in California, which they moved to in 1914. Because few people played it, he was attracted to the trombone and tried to replicate the sound of the cello in his trombone sound. He said, “It was my idea.” “Why can’t the trombone melody be played as sweet on the cello as it is on the trombone?” I wanted a large, wide tone and not the shrill tone of tailgate. A solo trombone played by Brown on a 1926 Pasadena broadcast was heard by Aimee Semple MacPherson. This led to Brown playing in her Los Angeles temple. Lawrence stated that Miff Mole was the musician he liked after he started playing professionally. His work was both artistic and technically excellent. To achieve the smoothness I desired, I tried to rounden the tone more than keeping it thin. My playing has become way too smooth, much to my regret. Brown was known for his constant denigration of his own playing throughout his entire life. However, he was considered one of the best jazz trombonists by Bill Harris and Tommy Dorsey, whom he greatly influenced. Lawrence and Merrill, his older brother, wanted to be professional musicians when he was 19. Merrill dropped the idea but Lawrence insisted. His father issued him an ultimatum. “Either behave and stop disgracing my son, or get out!” Lawrence was able to get out. His father believed that Lawrence would end up in prison. Brown was such an excellent player, that he got a job at a Los Angeles dance hall within two weeks. He soon moved to Sebastian’s Cotton Club where Lionel Hampton was his drummer and Louis Armstrong was the main attraction. Armstrong’s playing had a profound impact on the trombonist. He was the only musician that ever influenced me. Armstrong and Paul Whiteman are my two greatest musical influences. Hampton and Brown remained in the club as the backing band for Armstrong until Brown got into an argument with Armstrong’s manager who had called a rehearsal for Easter Sunday. Lawrence visited his parents every Sunday and then left the band after a dispute. In coincidentially, Ellington was in town. Ellington’s manager Irving Mills had seen Brown play “Trees” in the club and asked him to join Duke. He accepted and stayed with the band for the next 19 year. Ellington was a master at using his musicians, and Brown’s legato sound was used as a main voice in the band. This was in contrast with Tricky Sam’s trombone section character, Nanton. Nanton created the “jungle sound” with plunger mutes, which was a unique style of trombone playing. Ellington searched for successors to Tricky’s style, and found them in Tyree Glenn or Quentin Jackson. When Lawrence was reunited with the band in the Sixties, Duke requested that Lawrence use the mutes to play the role of Tricky. Brown’s playing relied on precise and delicate lips. Lawrence resented Duke’s insistence on him playing in Nanton’s style. He also claimed that he had damaged his trombone style by insisting on a certain lip technique. The Ellington band was always in financial trouble. The Duke paid each man on an individual basis. There were jealousies about who was getting more than his colleagues. Johnny Hodges was a pioneer in the field, and he was very avaricious. Johnny left Duke in 1951 after he refused to listen to his demands. He took drummer Sonny Greer, Lawrence Brown, and Lawrence Brown along to form his small band. The Hodges’ band was extremely successful. Lawrence’s blues solos were as powerful as the leader’s drive and swing solos. Brown stayed with Hodges until the band’s dissolution in 1955. Although they were boring jobs, the jobs in New York’s recording studios were extremely well-paid and difficult to find. Lawrence left Hodges and was able to replace Warren Covington, the trombonist in Columbia Broadcasting System’s studios. Lawrence initially loved his job, especially because he could do jazz jobs in the evenings. Although the musicians working in the studios were top-notch, any differences had to be sorted out. Lawrence said, “There’s something peculiar about studio musicians.” They all sound the same. They are great musicians, and anyone can sit in the chair of another and not notice a difference. My sound was too unique and I couldn’t control it properly. He quit because of boredom. After working in jazz clubs for a while, he was called by Ellington and he returned to the band in 1960. He was a lonely man who wasn’t convinced of his abilities as a jazz musician. He told me that he couldn’t play jazz like the rest of the band. “All the other guys can improvise great solos without any second thought. I am not an excellent improviser. This assessment was completely wrong, as countless jam session recordings show. In 1970, he retired with the typical morose comment: “You have to realize that being popular is more important than producing any value. He worked as a consultant in business and was a part of Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign in the Seventies. He took up a position with the Hollywood branch American musicians’ union before his final retirement. After leaving Ellington, he tried several times to get him to play the trombone again. He said that he had finally left Duke and called his Auntie in Cleveland to check on him as he was returning to California. I left my trombone in her rocking chair. It’s still there, as far as I know. It could stay there.” Steve Voce from

Leave a Comment