Friday, 2 June 2017

... and nothing but the tooth...


Did a punch thrown by Duke Ellington put paid to the career of trombonist Lawrence Brown? 
That is the astonishing claim made in the UK magazine Jazz Journal published in April 2015.

In 2015, the magazine published a profile of Lawrence Brown. Of Brown’s leaving the band in 1970, the piece asserts:
“His retirement was not voluntary. After more than 30 years of fury with Ellington, things had finally come to a climax and the two men had had a fight in a European airport. Ellington knocked out two of Brown’s front teeth and he was never able to play again.”
Someone on the Editorial or production team at Jazz Journal felt this assertion was important enough to box out and highlight at the top right hand corner of the page.

    The earliest reference I can find in print to this alleged incident is in Duke’s Bones by Kurt Dietrich (Advance Music, 1995).
Dietrich writes (p.182):
“Around the turn of the year 1970, Lawrence Brown, after almost thirty years with the Ellington organization, finally left the band for the last time. Resentments between Brown and Ellington that had boiled beneath the surface for decades finally erupted, and difficult as it may be to believe, it is now common knowledge that Ellington punched Brown in the mouth, knocking out several teeth.”
    Crucially, Dietrich nowhere makes the assertion that it was as a result of this incident that Brown never played the trombone again.
    To find that inference, we have to look at Terry Teachout’s biography: Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington Gotham Books 2013. Teachout says (p.346):
   “Now, too, came the terrible and crushing losses, the first of which was the departure of Lawrence Brown, who quit in December of 1969, claiming that he had “lost all feeling for the music” and had no desire ever again to play the trombone … the real reason for his sudden retirement, which he chose not to reveal save to friends, was that after decades of feuding, he and Ellington had finally gotten into a backstage fistfight, and his boss had knocked out his two front teeth. Brown never played again.”
    Whilst Teachout cites Dietrich as the source for this incident, Teachout’s own account is at variance with the evidence in Duke’s Bones: Dietrich claims that Brown lost several teethwhilst Teachout states explicitly “his two front teeth.” 
    Teachout does not claim that Brown gave up the trombone directly as a consequence of losing any teeth but that is clearly the inference that the reader might be expected to draw from the way Teachout has organized his ideas in that paragraph. 
    What is Teachout’s evidence for claiming that Brown “quit in December 1969”? The way this is phrased also leads to misunderstanding. It may be that Brown served his notice to quit in that month but Teachout’s prose gives the impression Brown was gone before the new year. In fact, Brown was still working with the Orchestra during the first week of January, 1970.
    What does Teachout mean by ‘backstage’? Is he talking metaphorically? If so, this only adds to the confusion. If he is talking literally, there is no ‘backstage’ in a recording studio.
    Was Teachout’s biography the source the Jazz Journal gossip writer was citing, uncredited, in his piece in Jazz Journal in April 2015? It is a possibility. Certainly the writer of the piece seems unaware of Dietrich’s work since, when reviewing the Teachout biography for Jazz Journal, the ‘eternal triangle’ which was alleged to have existed between Ellington, Brown and Brown’s wife Fredi Washington was news to him. It would not have been, had he read Duke’s Bones.
    Here again, Jazz Journal’s account creates a third version of these events. The magazine claims that the altercation between Ellington and Brown took place “in a European airport”. I can find no source amongst the Ellington literature I have for this assertion.
    Duke Ellington and his Orchestra departed from New York for a tour of Europe on 27 October 1969. Perhaps the most famous souvenir of that particular tour is the album Duke Ellington’s 70th Birthday Concert, a compilation of two live engagements the band played towards the end of the tour at Colston Hall, Bristol on 25 November and The Free Trade Hall, Manchester, 26 November. In the original liner notes to the issued album, Derek Jewell wrote:
    “His swing through Europe in 1969 was incredibly gruelling, the band roaming from Scandinavia to Italy on a hectic series of one-night stands.”
    Jewell creates a sense of the scope of the band’s travels concisely and eloquently. In which of these countries’ airports did the alleged punch-up take place? The puzzled music lover, taking his copy of Duke Ellington’s 70th Birthday Concert down from the shelf and listening, in particular, ironically enough, to Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me will hear the trombone of Lawrence Brown, recorded at The Free Trade Hall on 26 November. The punch up which meant Brown “was never able to play again” must have taken place after this concert, then. The next airport the Orchestra would have occasion to find themselves in after this would have been in London for their return flight home. A “European airport” is a decidedly odd way for a British writer to refer to an airport in London. It would be the last time Brown would find himself in a “European airport” with Ellington whilst a practising horn player.
    And if the blow meant that Brown “was never able to play again”, how can we explain the fact that a week later on his final engagement with the orchestra, Lawrence participated in recording three titles. The Kissing Mist remains unissued, but of the two other titles, Tippytoeing Through The Jungle and Noon Morning, on the former, the smooth, sonorous trombone solo towards the end of the track is instantaneously recognizable as belonging to one Lawrence Brown. 

The recording session took place in Las Vegas, Nevada on 7 January, 1970, a month after the Orchestra had returned to the States from their European tour.
    Perhaps the writer of the Jazz Journal article didn’t read his Terry Teachout closely enough. The New York critic’s prose on this point is somewhat slippery. Only by inference can we conclude from Teachout that Ellington was responsible for ending Brown’s career in this way. 

    This piece in Jazz Journal is the only article I have read on this subject which makes the connection directly: “His retirement was not voluntary... Ellington knocked out two of Brown’s front teeth and he was never able to play again.” This assertion is presented without qualification as fact. It is not a fact. It is an assertion. No evidence is offered in its support. The writer has been asked directly for evidence to support the claim that Brown was “forced” to retire.

No response has so far been received. 



  1. Thanks for looking into the chronology here and casting light on what looks like a pretty unlikely claim. Let us know whether you receive a reply.

  2. Thanks, Michael. Distinguishing between fact and opinion has never been more important, I would say (in my opinion) and assertions should be supported with evidence. That's what I didn't like about this particular article.