Clifford was indisputably one of our greatest trumpet players, but it's not his playing that explains the hold he has on our psyche, especially compared to the emotional connection we feel to other greats from the late 40's to late 60's era, like Fats Navarro, Sonny Berman, Kenny Dorham, Blue Mitchell, Lee Morgan, Booker Little.
We have plucked Clifford out of this group because we want to celebrate the fact that in Clifford, musical genius managed to coexist with an open, humble and yes, sweet personality.
In a recent post, I said that Clifford didn't have "it," as defined by a player's reputation outweighing his musical contribution. But observing the Clifford phenomenon, it becomes clear that he sits in a singular category of "it-ness;" one not rooted in flashy personal style or the charisma of the bad boy. He was the rare soul in jazz who could play it straight and still be the best; who wouldn't let the harsh road and escapes from same (drugs, booze, promiscuity, overbearing ego) run roughshod over his innate gentleness.
The fact that this seems to be a rare personality constellation in the most elite realms of music-and art in general-is vaguely disconcerting, summoning up as it does all those hoary adages about the tortured genius. We'll not soon escape that labyrinth of romanticism (one corner of which is "it-itude"), so for the moment let's just celebrate a joyous spring of relief from such burdens: