Missing In Action: Jazz's Debt To A Few Of The Revered Dead
The passion one brings to his appreciation of music is often reserved for particular gestating forms that, arriving at the moment of birth, lose their appeal, and the listener moves along to something else. This type of listener tends to hop from genre to genre. That's not necessarily bad, for, along the way, the musical taste tends to broaden and the consumer of music has a bigger banquet to enjoy.

Another type of listener is the one who, having discovered something that excites him, never leaves it, never samples anything else and ultimately looks for musical nutrition in the equivalent of beans and hot dogs for every meal.

Somewhere in between is the most rewarding position, of course. If a listener investigates a genre from scratch, he inevitably runs across innovators who contributed mightily to the category, but who never made it to the finish line for the payoff.

This week, I've spent a lot of time thinking about a few deceased musicians who, though we don't hear much about them anymore, made major contributions to jazz. I offer a few suggestions here of recordings that might help jazz neophytes along the way to understanding how our music arrived in its present place.

And, as always, I welcome suggestions of others who are missing in action.

First up is Clifford Brown, in the opinion of many the greatest jazz trumpet player ever and, without argument, a front-line horn man in the spectral band. Though shy of his 26th birthday when he died in a 1956 car accident, Brown left a rich recorded legacy that preserves his performances with ... well, just anybody who counted: Max Roach, Dinah Washington, Lou Donaldson, Lionel Hampton and more. It is a comprehensive resume for a man who didn't live past his mid-20s.

His tone was distinctive and sweet, and he moved from style to style with the ease of padlock innards well-lubricated with graphite. For a sampling of his artistry, the multi-CD "Brownie: The Complete Emarcy Recordings Of Clifford Brown" [Polygram] is highly recommended, if you can find it these days. But any Clifford Brown will do.

Another trumpet man who died young was Theodore "Fats" Navarro, who was claimed by tuberculosis in 1950 at the age of 26. In recognition of his meaty, tasty tone, Navarro was known among his musician friends as "Fat Girl" and he, like Brown, was a major contributor to the rising popularity of be-bop. Though his recorded legacy is not nearly so comprehensive -- health problems coupled with persistent narcotics abuse kept him pretty much out of the studio during the last five years of his life -- his catalogue is worth a listen.

Recordings on Blue Note from the late 1940s include "Fabulous Fats Navarro" in two volumes, and the sublime "Prime Source," with Tadd Dameron, Howard McGhee and Bud Powell. And "Fat Girl" [Savoy] is considered essential Navarro listening.

If we step to another area of the bandstand and a few years into the past, we'll stumble across Charlie Christian, widely credited with turning the amplified guitar's function from mere rhythm instrument to precision solo scalpel in his work, mostly notably with Benny Goodman.

Only 25 when he, like Navarro, died of TB in 1941, Christian remains to this day a huge influence on guitarists ranging from jazz to rock to Latin to fusion to smooth to fern bar. His recordings are criminally scant, but the best I've found is "Genius Of The Electric Guitar" [Columbia], recorded between 1939 and 1941 mostly with Goodman and various combinations of his sidemen.

Finally, there is bassist Scott LaFaro, who, I admit, is something of a cipher to me and about whom I can find little information. But I know this: Before he died he laid down some of the most innovative bass lines I've ever heard on record, and that's what really counts. I know his work only by his recordings with pianist Bill Evans, but the scant list of sessions he left sounds fresh, even today, nearly 40 years after he died in a traffic accident in the early 1960s. He, too, was in his 20s.

LaFaro's influence on Evans was such that he functioned as a kind of compass, especially in the trio that included drummer Paul Motian. In accord with his understated, melodic and gentle battening of the musical hatches, LaFaro still had a hand on the tiller, a rarity among bassists. His work is right up in the pantheon with that of such masters as Ray Brown and Ron Carter.

My favorite recording featuring LaFaro is the Evans trio on "Sunday At The Village Vanguard" [Riverside]. But look for him elsewhere and, if you find some more of his recorded work, let us know here at SkyJazz. Any LaFaro is too good to miss.

And if you have other suggestions for MIAs who died before reaping the acclaim they deserve, write me by filling out the response form at the bottom of the commentary page so we can dig some roots together.