The list of musical figures whose lives were cut short is a lengthy one. For some their lives ended in an accident, others traveled a more self-destructive path, and still others were overtaken by a tragic set of circumstances.
Booker Little seems to fall into the last of those categories. Little was one of the brightest young lions on the scene in New York in the second half of the 1950s. He was one of a couple young trumpeters that rose to prominence in the wake of the death of the great Clifford Brown.
Booker Little Jr. was born in 1938 in Memphis, Tennessee, studied at the Chicago Conservatory from 1956 to 1958, then arrived in New York City, where he took up residence with Sonny Rollins. Through Rollins, Little met Max Roach. Roach had co-led a quintet with Clifford Brown until Brown’s death in 1956, and was looking for a trumpet player capable of playing the way Clifford could. At only 20, Little stepped in to fill the enormous shoes left by Brown, recording on seven of Roach’s albums from 1958 to 1961.
Booker Little’s style of playing is clearly influenced by Clifford Brown in tone, articulation and phrasing, though his harmonic language is more advanced. Little became close friends with the multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy who was at the forefront of experimenting with harmonic and rhythmic dissonance. This friendship is evident in Little’s harmonic sophistication. The track “Mrs. Parker of K.C.” from Dolphy’s album Far Cry is a stunning example of Little’s virtuosic talent. His technical mastery of the horn is evident in his soaring flights into the upper register with seeming ease and his rapid fire sixteenth-note lines. Throughout his solo, he remains ever aware of the relationship to the melody, often quoting it in fragments.
The world was robbed of this brilliant young musician when he was struck down by kidney failure at age 23, but before he departed this world he left behind a wonderful collection of music for generations of listeners to really delve into. Along with four albums as a leader, seven recordings with Roach, and two with Dolphy, his list includes recording dates with John Coltrane, Slide Hampton, and Abbey Lincoln, among others.