Bob Brookmeyer's early childhood was bleak—until he discovered music and jazz. Then he threw himself into learning the clarinet and trombone, quickly becoming a whiz sight-reader. By age 14, Bob was already a professional arranger and musician, rushing off after high school to play on local recording sessions. Not a fan of the slide trombone, Bob began playing valve-trombone, mastering the instrument and the enormous energy needed to make it swing. After two years at the Kansas City Conservatory of Music, he also had mastered the piano. By 1952, Bob was a valve-trombonist waiting for a big break. It came when Stan Getz formed a new quintet.
The Stan Getz Quintet of late 1952 was in many ways the East Coast answer to the newly minted Gerry Mulligan Quartet, which had became a hit in Los Angeles. Both groups offered a drier, cooler sound, and both relied heavily on linear harmonies rather than pure bop configurations. When you hear Bob in the Getz quintet, his firm, yearning sound is already established. As I noted to Bob during our series of conversations, his approach sounds like someone reaching for something and grabbing it flawlessly. It's that suspense, tension and determination that most engages the ear.
In Part 2 of my interview with Bob, the legendary valve-trombonist talks about why Getz and he were fired from the Tiffany Lounge in Los Angeles, why he quit the Gerry Mulligan Quartet in Paris, why Jimmy Giuffre and Jim Hall squabbled, and why Bill Harris was his favorite trombonist:
JazzWax: Soon after you left Claude Thornhill, you joined the newly formed Stan Getz Quintet.
Bob Brookmeyer: Stanley was glad to have me. Drummer Frank Isola called me at the last minute and told me what Stan wanted to do. Soon after I started in the quintet, in mid-1953, we were at Zardi's in Los Angeles. Stanley said something to me on the bandstand that sounded like the word “ape.” I gruffly called him off the bandstand, and we went in the back. I was angry. I asked him what he had called me. He said, “I called you bubbala.” I was hot and asked him what that word meant. He said, “Calm down, calm down. It’s OK. It’s a Jewish word. It’s friendly.”
JW: What was Getz’s reaction?
BB: Stanley was sort of surprised and amused that his kid trombone player wanted to beat him up. He asked the piano player, “Does Brookmeyer’s parents have money? To behave like that, I can’t imagine he needs this job.”
JW: How did you and Getz get along after that?
BB: Stanley liked me a lot. He thought I was intelligent, musical, funny. So we never had a problem again. When Stanley and I were playing in Los Angeles in 1953, we used to go across the park from the Tiffany Lounge to hear Gerry [Mulligan] and Chet [Baker] at the Haig. That was one of the greatest bands I had ever heard. The records give you only a small hint of what was going on there. When you heard that band live, in person, it was a whole different perspective. The sound was so fresh.
JW: Must have been some trip to get to the Haig and back to the Tiffany Lounge.
BB: Actually, we were over there listening to Gerry and Chet so much that the manager of the Tiffany Lounge finally said, “If you like it so much over there, why don’t you stay there.” And he fired us. So in early ’53 I went back to Kansas City and began reading Emerson and Thoreau [pictured]. I was going to give up music. I took a job at hotels to save enough money to move to a rural part of the Ozark Mountains and live alone by a lake and develop as a person.
JW: But you didn’t.
BB: Stanley, [drummer] Frank Isola and [pianist] John Williams wouldn’t stop calling me to play. So I finally went back out to Los Angeles and joined them. Stan and I also began playing after work with Gerry and Chet. Just the four of us. Both Gerry and Stanley said it was the best band they had ever played in. But nothing came of it.
BB: Because they couldn’t decide who would be the leader. Then I decided to join Gerry’s quartet as the solo horn and arranger after Chet left. Stanley got pretty depressed over that.
JW: Did you go with Mulligan?
BB: No. Gerry wound up getting busted for drugs in September of ’53 and was held until December. So I went back to New York. Right after the first of the year [in 1954], Gerry called me up and told me to bring a rhythm section out to L.A. to start rehearsing. So I brought [drummer] Frank Isola and [bassist] Bill Anthony. But Bill didn’t work out, so we got Red Mitchell halfway through the tour.
JW: You went to Paris with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet.
BB: That’s right. But Gerry liked to fight. So did his wife at the time. I couldn’t stand that. It was wasted energy. So I quit the group in Paris right after the Salle Pleyel concerts in June and returned to New York. Gerry also was still having drug problems, which added extra stress.
JW: That concert at the Salle Pleyel is a classic recording.
BB: It wasn’t supposed to be recorded. The French concert producer swore it wasn’t being taped. But a year and a half later we got the tapes.
JW: What did Gerry say when he returned from Europe?
BB: He came by my apartment in New York. Gerry asked me if I really wanted to quit. I said yes. All the drama and temper was too much for me. His wife told me he was really upset during the whole trip after I quit. As a piano player, I knew I could always make a living, whether it’s a club gig or a Greek wedding. And I played a few of those in Astoria, Queens [laughs]. I told myself, “It may not be the New York Philharmonic but I’ll eat."
JW: What was your next move?
BB: I relocated to California in late 1954. There was more work out there.
JW: What did other West Coast trombone players think of you as a valve-trombonist? What did Maynard Ferguson, a valve-trombonist, think of you?
BB: I don’t know. We never talked. I wrote an arrangement for him but he never said, “You sound good.” I think the valve-trombonists who were closest to my style were Bob Enevoldsen and Rob McConnell.
JW: Did slide players feel you were cheating?
BB: Slide trombonists make notes with a straight air column. If you’re a valve-trombonist, you have to go to Madagascar to get a tone out of it. So it’s actually much harder. My only predecessors were Juan Tizol [pictured] with Duke Ellington and Brad Gowans with Paul Whiteman and other bands in the 1930s and 1940s. I was the third one.
JW: You played with Zoot Sims in 1956. What made Zoot swing?
BB: God only knows. We were both playing in Gerry Mulligan’s sextet for about a month. We were getting really good. Zoot would be stoned at 5 am. His head would be on the floor with just room for the saxophone, just playing away. I don’t know where the feel came from but it was tremendous.
JW: What’s your favorite Zoot story?
BB: Zoot was playing on tenor in a San Francisco jazz festival in the mid-1950s. Zoot [pictured] had been hanging out with his buddies and was pretty tied. When he was blowing, he suddenly fell backward and continued playing from the floor, without ever missing a note. The next day he was mortified. So Zoot showed up sober for the next concert loaded with orange juice and coffee. When he played, they booed because he didn’t fall over and play on the floor. The audience thought that what they heard happened the night before was part of the act [laughs].
JW: In 1958 you were part of the Jimmy Giuffre 3 with Jim Hall.
BB: Wow, those two personalities didn’t get along at all. I always had to play the intermediary. I called myself the Ralph Bunche of jazz [laughs]. I’d be having a martini and Jim would come up and complain about Jimmy. Then Jimmy would come up to me and complain about Jim. Jim’s big complaint was having to play too much rhythm guitar behind us rather than solos. I was always so busy de-fanging the situation I didn’t have time to evaluate who was right or wrong.
JW: Who was your biggest trombone inspiration?
BB: Bill Harris. I loved his large sound, his over-emotional thing, and his humor and facility with the instrument. Bill was so opposite of me. Brash and aggressive. He thrilled me.
JW: Come on! Are you saying you were timid?
BB: I couldn’t do what Bill did.
JW: But you were so musically confident at such an early age. What was so impossible about Bill’s playing?
BB: He played slide trombone with enormous punctuation. I loved him, and Earl Swope. Both had enormous technique and a special sound. The first job I had at Birdland was playing piano on Monday nights behind Bill Harris. That was a thrill. Later, when I was with Mulligan in Las Vegas for a quartet concert in 1963, we went on at 1 am. Bill was working with Charlie Teagarden somewhere in town, so when I'd finished, I went over and hung with Bill for an hour. When he went onto the stand to play, the first sounds he made sent a shiver up my back. Nothing had changed. He still had that hold on me, from 1945. He hadn't lost any of his power.
JW: When you were developing your sound, did you have Bill Harris in mind?
BB: Maybe. Early on, I’d go up to Chicago from Kansas City to play. I was at the Blue Note jamming one night. Woody Herman was in there. As I was walking out, I passed Woody, who said, “Hey Butch, you like Bill?” I said, “Yes.” Funny, Woody could hear Bill Harris in my playing on the stand.
Tomorrow: Bob talks about ghost-arranging parts of Ray Charles Genius and Genius Hits the Road for Ralph Burns, putting together Gerry Mulligan's Concert Band, why he walked out during Mulligan's Night Lights session, and the joy of playing a piano that Art Tatum had just finished performing on.
JazzWax tracks: Bob Brookmeyer's recordings with the Stan Getz Quartet can be found on a number of different CDs. One is Bob Brookmeyer: The Complete 1953-54 Quintet Recordings with Stan Getz here. Bob's work with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet is on The Gerry Mulligan Quartet: The Complete Studio Recordings here. One of the group's finest live dates was at George Wein's Storyville in Boston, which is on The Gerry Mulligan Quartet at Storyville, here. One of Bob's finest early leadership quartet recordings is on The Modernity of Bob Brookmeyer here.
A must-own collection of Bob's 1950s leadership sessions is Mosaic Select: Bob Brookmeyer here. Included in the box set is one of my favorite albums by Bob from this period called The Street Swingers. On this set, you'll hear just how frighteningly brilliant Bob was in the 1950s as a writer, arranger and valve-trombonist.