Before I interviewed Bob Brookmeyer several weeks ago, I was warned. "If you don't have it together, he'll take your head off," said one journalist friend. Another wagged a finger, saying "Bob can be very, very gruff." Well, I'm here to report that Bob Brookmeyer is one of the nicest guys in the world. We had three long conversations, and if I lived near his house, my wife would probably have to drag me home each day.
Bob is easily the greatest living jazz valve-trombonist. His powdery, punctuating style and swinging feel on the hybrid instrument is unrivaled. A child prodigy, Bob has played on dozens of significant recordings, including as a member of the Stan Getz Quintet, the Gerry Mulligan Quartet and Sextet, the Chet Baker Sextet, the Gerry Mulligan Concert Band and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. Bob also has recorded with virtually every major jazz artist, including Oscar Pettiford, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Ray Charles, Maynard Ferguson and Terry Gibbs. Bob's own numerous leadership dates are remarkable for their unmistakable confidence and heat. When I hear Bob on an album—any album—his instrument always sounds like a kid jumping for joy.
In Part 1 of my five-part interview with Bob, 79, the legendary valve-trombonist talks about his difficult years growing up in Kansas City, his embrace of jazz at an early age, how he came to play the valve-trombone, and his time on the road with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra:
Bob Brookmeyer: Yes, I’d say so. I wasn’t a delighted child, that’s for sure. Grade school was a nightmare for me. There were bad teachers and bad kids. I was an only child and rather antisocial, so I was bullied quite a bit. My folks were loving, but it was hard to get over the nightmare I’d face at school each day. You couldn’t escape it. I’d walk into the gym and someone standing there would hit me in the stomach as hard as he could. Or some giant of a kid would come up to me while I was eating lunch and tell me to meet him after school to fight. It was awful.
JW: Why do you think you were you bullied?
BB: I think because I was a bit of a loner. There was something in me that made me somewhat aloof. My kindergarten teacher noticed this and asked my mother in a note whether I played with other children at all. So there was something wrong with me in the way I didn’t relate to other kids. I wasn’t aware of it at the time.
JW: Was your family well off?
BB: No. When I was very young, we were pretty poor. We were so poor we lived with other people. Eventually we moved to a better area, and I went to a better school. From then on my life improved. We rented our first house. It was furnished. I remember when we moved in, I went down to the basement and found a doctor’s bag. When I opened it, I saw all these pills. My parents came down just as I was looking at them and brought the hammer down fast. But I clearly had an early fascination with drugs. They were really pretty [laughs].
JW: Did you hear Count Basie in Kansas City in the 1930s?
BB: I first heard him on the radio growing up. The music was so exciting. My father often took me to hear local bands. I was intrigued by live music. I went to the Tower Theatre where Basie came to play two or three times a year. The theater featured a Western movie six times a day and a stage show five times. I’d get there really early and sit way up in the balcony. When I went to see Basie, the band was behind a screen as they started to play their theme, One O’clock Jump. Man, when I heard that, I was a puddle. I was completely wiped out. I said to myself, “My god, if I ever get to do anything like that, I’d be so happy.” Harry “Sweets” Edison was there. He’d jump off the bandstand and rush to play a solo into the standing microphone. He was so excited to get there and express himself.
JW: What was it about Basie’s band that touched you so deeply?
BB: It was the depth. Years later, in 1959, I played with Basie in a small band at New York’s Town Hall. The group included Art Taylor, George Duvivier, Pepper Adams, Basie, John Coltrane and me. Before the concert, Basie and I sat around for about an hour having a drink and talking. That was great enough. Then we went in and played. I soloed last. Standing on the same stage with Basie, you felt like what he was doing was coming up through the center of the earth up through your shoes and up through your body. It didn’t hit you in the chest or head. It came from the ground up, through the crust, up through the stage and up through your feet. It was like you were rising up.
JW: You started on the clarinet?
BB: Yes. My father had a ukulele. He loved music. One day he brought me home a metal clarinet that turned to the right. I played that for a while. About two to three years later he bought me a wooden one. We lived across the street from a guy who taught clarinet. I’d go over there each day and sightread the Klose Exercise Book, the official clarient training book. Then I'd come home and play Benny Goodman’s Hot Licks. The teacher was stoned quite a bit. The drugstore would often deliver during my lessons [laughs]. He’d have a couple of knocks, lean there and turn the pages. Over a very short period of time I became a whiz sight-reader.
JW: When did you stop playing the clarinet?
BB: My teeth changed when I was 11 or 12, so I had to quit. My dream was to play drums. So over that summer I worked like a maniac as a day laborer, an usher and a stock clerk—just to save enough for a drum set I had picked out. The bass drum had a Polynesian island scene on it.
JW: Did you buy the drum set?
BB: No. When I returned home after spending the summer working, the school band director needed a trombone player. So I was sold down the river to be a trombonist [laughs].
JW: Why, didn’t you want to play the trombone?
BB: I wanted to play drums. But I didn’t really resist the switch. I had to take trombone lessons with an old German teacher who spit in my face teaching me to tongue the mouthpiece. He wrote music in a lovely hand—almost like calligraphy. I had never seen that before. He also had beautiful stacks of blank music paper. I still get a Jones when I see blank music paper. I see it and have an immediate urge to fill it up. Music paper is so pretty.
JW: Were you a tough kid?
BB: Not really. I wasn’t much of a fighter. Later on, if someone wanted to fight me, I wouldn’t do it because I was afraid I’d hurt my lip or break my teeth. So I decided that if I were ever pushed, I’d have to kill the person if they tried to hurt me. Fortunately incidents never got to that point. But thinking that way certainly was reassuring.
JW: How old were you when you started earning money as a musician?
BB: I was 14. That’s when I became a commercial arranger and copyist.
JW: How did you pick it up so fast?
BB: I was already playing with dance bands, and I sort of knew how harmony went. So at age 14, I was writing for a professional dance band. The first chart I brought in was Do You Ever Think of Me? And it worked out OK. From that point on I had a contact in Omaha who would order the arrangements.
JW: How busy were you?
BB: I’d write a chart a week, copy it and send it off and get paid $15 bucks. I don’t know how I pulled that off. I was arranging for three tenors, three trumpets and a rhythm section. The band was too poor for a violin [laughs], which was popular then. That was my steady gig for a while. Eventually the volume they needed got so large that it required someone else to copy the parts from my charts.
JW: How was high school?
BB: Much better than grade school. I became a member of clubs and was well known as a kid musician. I was playing professionally by that point. The high school bandleader, to his dying day, would shudder at the sound of my name. I was more advanced than most professionals then. He’d call for a band rehearsal, and I’d have to tell him that I couldn’t make it because I had a recording date.
JW: You sound as though you were pretty driven?
BB: I was. I was unhappy as a younger kid. Grade school wasn’t happening, friends weren’t happening, sports wasn’t it. Music was the first thing in my life that made sense and gave me self-worth. It filled the hole, and I jumped at music with enormous passion and focus.
JW: How did you come to play the valve-trombone?
BB: The stories about me starting to play it cold with Claude Thornhill’s band are wrong [laughs]. Yeah, right, I just walked into Thornhill’s band, picked up the valve-trombone and started to play it. The truth is I started playing the instrument when I was 13. I didn’t want to play slide trombone, so I found some old baritone horn in the band room and learned to play the valves. Then friends gave me an old Czechoslovakian valve-trombone. I learned to play the instrument by watching trumpet players.
JW: Why didn’t you like the slide trombone?
BB: Who likes the slide trombone? Sax players got all the girls because they were seated in the front row. Trumpeters got all the money because they were driving the band from the back row. Trombones sit in the middle and develop an interior life [laughs]. Trombonists didn’t get the money or the girls.
JW: How did you wind up with a real valve-trombone?
BB: In 1948, the first-chair trombonist in the Kansas City Symphony ordered a valve trombone. But he discovered that he didn’t want it. He knew me and gave me a call. I raced right down and took it. It was a great, professional-level instrument that I used until 1958. By 1948, I had already learned to play the piano after attending the Kansas City Conservatory of Music, where I won the Carl Busch Prize for Choral Composition.
JW: Which was your first big name band?
BB: I started on piano with Tex Beneke, then played piano with Ray McKinley’s [pictured] band, with the Eddie Sauter book of arrangements. Those charts were like sight-reading Bartok. Oh, man [laughs].
JW: When did you switch to valve-trombone?
BB: With Claude Thornhill’s band in the early 1950s. The other trombonist, Ace Lane, had a Conn 78H ‘bone that was too large for him. So I sold him my smaller King and used my other instrument, the valve-trombone.
JW: Did you enjoy playing with Thornhill?
BB: It was alright, especially when we played college dates. The last two hours would always be one long dance medley. You’d play that session, smoke a little dope, and it was dark, so everything was comfortable. I think Gil Evans wrote some things for the band that were pretty complex. Claude [pictured] was very proud of the band. I remember him sitting with some people at a hotel. He asked me to play Snowfall, the band's theme. Then he’d tell his friends, “How about that. I got two for the price of one. He plays my theme and writes some arrangements.” When we were on the road, if Claude wanted to leave early, I’d also play the piano.
JW: Was it an easy gig?
BB: Playing wasn’t bad, but the road was grueling. Claude’s band in the early ‘50s was a hard drinking band. You had to drink, given the pace. There were times on the road when we didn’t check into a hotel for six days. You just rode the bus from gig to gig to gig. Buses didn’t have toilets then, and the food on the road was terrible. When we traveled, there were two groups on the bus—one would sleep while the other was up semi-loaded and talking. Then the guys who were sleeping would get up, and the others would go to sleep. It was pretty rough.
JW: Did touring like that finally get to you?
BB: At one point the group that was awake agreed that we couldn’t go on doing that. We agreed we wouldn’t play the matinee in Blacksburg, West Virginia. Instead, we'd rest. So when we finally got to our hotel there, we checked in. I was rooming with [alto saxophonist Gene] Quill at the time. Soon after we put our bags down in the room, the band’s road manager bashed on the door and said it was nearing time to play the matinee. Quill said he was going down to play. I said I’m not going. I said, “I thought we all agreed not to play the matinee? I’ll play the evening, but not the matinee.”
JW: What happened?
BB: Everyone played the matinee but me. It was ridiculous what Claude was doing to us. The whole band agreed not to do it, but they did it anyway. I needed the rest. So I got fired. I barely saw Claude at that point anyway. Even on the bandstand, you’d just see his hand over the piano cutting us off when a song ended [laughs].
JW: What did you do?
BB: Well, this was probably the spring of 1952. I went to New York. I met a guy there named Bob Maltz who ran the Stuyvesant Casino on Second Avenue. He took a liking to me. He often had great musicians playing there, like Buck Clayton and Harry Edison. I remember playing valve trombone there one night with a rhythm section that included Zutty Singleton, Pops Foster and George Wallington. You want a rhythm section? [laughs]. [Pictured, from left: Ray McKinley, Lou McGarity, Lee Castle, Pee Wee Russell at the Stuyvesant Casino]