In 1952, Bob Brookmeyer wasn't yet quite the aggressive valve trombonist and dynamic arranger who would emerge in the mid-1950s. Prior to 1952, Brookmeyer played piano in Tex Beneke's band, played some slide trombone, and by his own admission had very little contact with jazz musicians. Brookmeyer at the time had plans to spend his life as a composer and music teacher. [Photo: William Claxton]
The turning point came during an audition in 1952 for Claude Thornhill's [pictured] band, when Brookmeyer tried his hand at the valve trombone. The instrument is a hybrid, featuring trumpet-like valves mounted on a slide-less trombone. The valves make the instrument quicker on the trigger, producing a more distinct break between notes than the slide. Brookmeyer took to the instrument instantly, realizing that it was perfectly suited to his spirited and punctuating attack.
In March 1953, Brookmeyer joined the newly formed Stan Getz quintet in Boston. The valve trombone was the ideal foil for Getz's dry-ice tenor saxophone, delivering a sound that was warmer than a trumpet but more declarative than the blurring tones generated by a traditional slide trombone. A week after joining Getz, Brookmeyer took a six-week hiatus to play with Woody Herman's band. The opportunity was too good to miss.
When Brookmeyer rejoined Getz in Boston in the late spring of 1953, the quintet traveled to Hollywood. In May, July and August the quintet recorded for Clef and Norgran records. But as Getz's drug habit intensified on the West Coast, his health and gigs went south. So Brookmeyer returned to New York to record. The new 10-inch LP format was in full swing, and labels were looking for jazz artists to fill out the longer discs.
In New York, Brookmeyer recorded three LPs in early 1954—one as part of the Teddy Charles Quartet and the other two as head of two different quintets. The first album was recorded in January for Prestige with Teddy Charles on vibes. It showed off Brookmeyer's skills as a swinging valve trombonist and pianist. Nancy Overton, Hall Overton's wife, provided a beat narration on one track. Brookmeyer's second session in January was a quintet date featuring tenor saxophonist Al Cohn. The third session in April included tenor saxophonist Phil Urso and pianist Horace Silver.
In March 1954, Gerry Mulligan called Brookmeyer and asked him to replace Chet Baker in a newly formed piano-less quartet. The band played George Wein's Storyville in Boston before heading off to Paris, where a concert performance at the Salle Pleyel was recorded. But Brookmeyer was unhappy that the resonating basso sound of his valve trombone was so close to Mulligan's deep baritone saxophone. There just wasn't enough creative contrast between the horns. Brookmeyer left the group and returned to the States to compose and arrange.
But within weeks after Brookmeyer arrived back in New York, Dick Bock of Pacific Jazz Records called asking him to record. In July 1954, Brookmeyer recorded The Bob Brookmeyer Quartet, with John Williams on piano, Bill Anthony on bass and Frank Isola on drums. Sessions with Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Bud Shank and Gerry Mulligan followed on the West Coast. Then in December 1954, Brookmeyer recorded The Modernity of Bob Brookmeyer for Norgran Records in Los Angeles with Jimmy Rowles on piano, Buddy Clark on piano and Mel Lewis on drums.
Brookmeyer's two 1954 quartet albums are remarkable for their lyricism, swing and advanced playing and writing skills. Too often during this period of enormous session activity Brookmeyer was featured as a component—a member of a larger ensemble or teamed with other horns. As a result, you don't get to hear nearly enough of his technique or idea development.
But on these quartet dates, Brookmeyer is all yours, swinging away with just strong trios behind him. Even more fabulous is Brookmeyer's playing. It's fascinating to hear the tension he created pushing and restraining his instrument. Like someone walking two strong hunting dogs. Brookmeyer is both in control and at the mercy of the valves. His warm sound is a product of this struggle.
Instead of going all out and converting the instrument into a beefy trumpet, Brookmeyer uses the valves to replicate the natural softness of the slide trombone. At the same time, he adds just enough staccato on the notes to make them distinct, veering away from the rubbery slurring of the slide. These are performances of mellow grace, powerful nuances and artistic dexterity.
Among the high points on these sessions include a purring What is There to Say, a snappy He Ain't Got Rhythm, and two sterling originals: Sticks and Stems and Jasmin. The other instrumental delights on these sessions are the piano solos by Jimmy Rowles and John Williams. Brookmeyer, of course, would go on to become one of the great arranger-players of his generation. But in 1954, Brookmeyer still had to prove himself, and on the quartet sessions, you hear him emerging with enormous confidence and beauty.
JazzWax tracks: The Bob Brookmeyer Quartet and The Modernity of Bob Brookmeyer have been combined on one CD called The Modernity of Bob Brookmeyer (Fresh Sound) here. Or you can find the first 1954 album for Pacific Jazz along with later leadership dates on Mosaic Select: Bob Brookmeyer here.