Despite sharing an instrument and a hometown with trumpeter Clifford Brown, Gerald Chavis didn't discover Brown's music until he was in his late teens. "That's a shame, but my parents weren't jazz people," he says, almost apologetically. When it did finally reach Chavis' ears, however, the sound of Brownie's trumpet had an immediate and lasting impact.
"The first time I heard a recording, I couldn't believe a trumpet could be played like that. His playing was so fast and so clean. He could fly through the notes but you could hear everything. That was inspirational. I tried to imitate what I was hearing, which didn't go too well."
Chavis soon had one more thing in common with his idol: a teacher. He sought out the man who had taught Brown the trumpet, Robert "Boysie" Lowery, and started taking lessons. If his intention at the beginning was to sound more like the bebop great, who died in a car accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike at age 25 in 1956, his newfound mentor soon changed his mind.
"He wasn't trying to make me sound like Clifford," Chavis recalls decades later. "He wanted me to sound like me. That was revolutionary. I'd never studied with anybody who made me discover things for myself. It was personal development as much as it was musical development."
Chavis will pay homage to both of these influential men at the head of two different ensembles at this year's DuPont Clifford Brown Jazz Festival in Wilmington, which kicks off its four-day run at Rodney Square on Wednesday evening. He'll launch the events that night with a newly assembled tribute band playing music associated with the festival's namesake, featuring renowned Philly saxophonist and fellow Lowery alum Jaleel Shaw. Then on Saturday, Chavis will lead an afternoon set by the Wilmington Youth Jazz Band, which he's served as director for the last two years, passing on the lessons he learned from Lowery.
"People like Gerald are really important to jazz specifically and the arts in general," says Tina Betz, cultural affairs director for Wilmington. "He has a very high interest in making sure that the genre continues to live."
During the 12-year administration of Wilmington Mayor James Baker, Betz was a well-known presence at the Clifford Brown Festival. She was out of office during the four years of the Dennis Williams administration, when the festival took an unfortunate turn toward a concentration on smooth jazz.
She returned under new Mayor Mike Purzycki, bringing with her a strong lineup heavy on female artists and musicians from around the world. Though Betz insists the latter focus was a "wonderful accident," she says it "helps demonstrate the impact that jazz has had globally."
Standouts on this year's program include Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez, best known as a member of the revered Wayne Shorter Quartet; Mexican-born/Cuban-rooted pianist Arturo O'Farrill, leader of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra; French harmonica player Frédéric Yonnet; and entrancing singer Somi, who split her upbringing between her native Illinois and East Africa.
The lineup also includes innovative trumpeter Theo Croker, Philly-born pianist Sumi Tonooka, singer Alicia Olatuja, and violinist Regina Carter paying tribute to Ella Fitzgerald for the legendary singer's centennial.
At a time when funding for the arts is under constant threat of elimination, Betz says the free outdoor festival "has become a calling card for the city. It's scary when you're reminded constantly that some people don't recognize the benefit in supporting the arts, no matter how much data is collected that shows the value of the arts not only as a way to entertain but for quality of life and education for our young people. It can get a bit frustrating to keep having to say it over and over again, 'This is important.' The jazz festival is the arts on display in a big way."
Clifford Brown Jazz Festival
Rodney Square (1000 N. Market St.), Wilmington Del.