By the late 1950s, Bob Brookmeyer was one of the most dynamic forces in jazz. His reputation for playing the valve-trombone with enormous force and passion was established, and his writing was equally smart and engaging. But Bob also was emerging as one of the most sought-after orchestral arrangers in the business. Known for his inventive touch, Bob's charts took risks and consistently featured structured drama, linear tension and potent swing.
Bob's arranging skills had become so polished and advanced by this point that he was being called upon regularly to ghost many orchestral recording sessions. Bob had always had a singular, robust harmonic fingerprint—but he also was deft at emulating the unique sounds of top-brand arrangers like Ralph Burns and Bill Finegan.
In Part 3 of my interview series with Bob, the legendary valve-trombonist and arranger talks about his uncredited work on two signature Ray Charles albums, how The Ivory Hunters with pianist Bill Evans came to be, what made The Gerry Mulligan Concert Band so special, ghost-arranging for Bill Finegan, and a critique of Mulligan's piano playing:
JazzWax: When did you first meet Ray Charles?
Bob Brookmeyer: When Jimmy Giuffre, Jim Hall and I were doing the trio in early 1958. Nesuhi Ertegun [pictured] invited us up to the studio to hear Ray record Yes Indeed. I said, “Man, this is really good.” Giuffre was so excited that he went in and played tambourine with them on the record [laughs]. Giuffre could get carried away.
JW: You played valve-trombone on The Genius of Ray Charles in 1959.
BB: Actually, I did a little more on there. Ralph Burns, the credited arranger, wrote one chart for the album and got so drunk for some reason he couldn’t finish the job. It was a string date. So copyist Emile Charlap’s office called Manny Albam, Al Cohn and me to finish the album. We were all there working through the night to get the charts done and copied in time for the date, which was the next day. That was the first time I had arranged for strings.
JW: Which tracks did you arrange?
BB: I arranged Just for a Thrill and You Won’t Let Me Go. They turned out well. Later, Ray even had someone write my arrangement of Just for a Thrill for his big band, complete with my introduction. On Just for a Thrill, I had a choice—to score from the sheet music or Ray’s version with his chords. So I called Ralph Burns before starting that night, and he said to use the sheet music for the chords. But when I told Ray, he said no, that he wanted it arranged with his chords. Ray sat me down and took me through the chords he wanted to use. No one was supposed to know. Ralph typically worked off the sheet music for his arranging sound, but Ray’s chords—the voicings that produced his feel—were essential to his sound. When you’re hired to ghost for someone, you want to write in their style. No one is supposed to hear that the arranger was anyone but the person who’s credited. That was great fun working with Ray, who unfortunately was having trouble with heroin then. But the session came off well.
JW: Ray’s next album was Genius Hits the Road, in 1960. Ralph Burns is also credited with that one. Did you play a role?
BB: Yes. Ralph wrote Am I Blue and then called Al Cohn and me to finish the album. Ralph liked Ray's music so much that he’d listen to it and think too much and freeze up. I think the music was too powerful for him, too emotional. Ray was coming from the center of the earth with those songs. I think they hit Ralph hard, which made arranging them harder and slower. He also probably had too much arranging work on his plate. So Al and I took a tape recorder in to capture Ray’s chords.
JW: So which ones did Al Cohn arrange and which ones were yours?
BB: Al arranged Georgia on My Mind and a bunch of others.
JW: Which tracks were yours?
BB: I arranged Moonlight in Vermont, Basin Street Blues, Mississippi Mud, Chattanooga Choo Choo, Deep in the Heart of Texas, Alabamy Bound and New York’s My Home. We had a couple of weeks to finish the arrangements this time.
BB: I guess I did [laughs].
JW: How was Ray to work with?
BB: He was there rain or shine in the recording booth with a few other guys, friends of his. He was breaking himself up. It was very nice. I was worried whether everything would sound OK.
JW: How did The Ivory Hunters come about in March 1959?
BB: It was Jack Lewis’ idea. Jack was an eccentric producer at United Artists who had interesting ideas. It was supposed to be a quartet date, or at least I thought it was. I showed up at the studio with my horn. But when I walked into the studio, I saw two pianos pushing together, facing each other. Jack had heard Bill and me do a four-hand thing at an earlier United Artists record date and wanted to try it out for the record.
JW: What went through your mind when you saw the pianos?
BB: I knew Bill well. We had spent a lot of time together socially, so we were close. Bill had invited my wife then and I for Thanksgiving one year and played for us. So for Bill and me, it was just two friends who got dumped into a crazy idea. We looked at each other when Jack told us what he had in mind, and we said, “Hey, why not?”
JW: How did it work?
BB: We sat down and played I Got Rhythm, and it sounded pretty good so we kept going. There was no advanced planning, no playlist. We just walked in that day, and [drummer] Connie Kay and [bassist] Percy Heath were waiting for us.
JW: What did Bill think?
BB: Toward the end of his life, Bill told me it was one of the greatest things he had done. At the session, I just tried to hang on. We both had a good time doing it, and I did my best to make up for my lack of technique compared to Bill’s [laughs]. I played behind him most of the way, and he played a bit behind me.
JW: Did you exchange words during the session?
BB: Not really. You’re absorbed in the process as professional musicians. You wouldn't say, “Gosh, that was a wonderful phrase there, Bill. Yes, you, too, Bobby” [laughs]. I didn’t really feel too much anxiety. I had been playing piano for some time, and I wasn’t afraid to play. Though at the time of the recording, I hadn’t played in a little while.
JW: When people listen to this recording now, what do you want them to think?
BB: I hope they can hear how much fun we had. We wouldn’t have done it otherwise.
JW: The Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band that lasted from 1960 to 1963, what was the mission?
BB: We used the quartet as the basis and built up from there. We wanted to produce masses of sound and intensity through performance and writing rather than just power. It was supposed to be a light extension of our quartet of the mid-1950s.
JW: You arranged most of the book.
BB: I was the house arranger and straw boss. Writing for that band was fairly easy as I recall. What I enjoyed at the time was that I could have a band without standing in front of it. I hired all the musicians, and the musicians were looking at me and playing for me because I was the person doing the hiring and firing.
JW: Was it difficult to fire musicians?
BB: A lot of people had trouble firing musicians but I didn’t. I didn’t like to do it, but it had to be done. If you’re going to be a leader, you have to deal with that stuff to maintain the quality of the end result. A band's sound is important to me. The Concert Band was just great. It was one of the loves of my life. I didn't have to write new compositions, just arrange.
JW: Was writing and arranging hard back then?
BB: Yes, of course. It still is. If you’re the kind of person who takes creative risks and likes to push yourself into new things, it’s tough stuff. The only person I knew who didn’t think about writing and arranging was Bill Finegan [pictured]. We talked every day, and he was writing almost until the day he died [in June 2008] without worrying about a thing. He had so much music in him. Yet he told me that he never thought he was good enough. Bill Finegan? Can you imagine?
JW: Was Bill’s writing style an inspiration for you?
BB: Oh my goodness, yes. In fact, I ghost-arranged for Bill around this time  for the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra. I arranged That Old Black Magic and You Can Depend on Me [both appear on Sauter-Finegan Orchestra Revisited]. Bill and I never talked about music—not until I came back from Europe many years later. Then we discussed music in almost painterly terms.
JW: If you didn’t discuss music, how did you learn so much from him?
BB: By osmosis. I don’t know how else to describe it. His musicality was so strong and his personality was so ordered and giving that both soaked through my body just by being around him.
JW: In late 1961 you wrote and arranged Gloomy Sunday and Other Bright Moments. How do you feel about this album?
BB: I consider it my pride and joy. I took many creative risks here, most based on the heels of working with Bill [Finegan]. I used woodwinds, double reeds and other instrument configurations I hadn't used before. My attitude toward the orchestration was really a big step forward in my development. Working with Bill gave that to me. Bill was magic stuff.
JW: When ghosting for Finegan, did you ever fear you’d lose your own identity and sound?
BB: Oh, if I had lost Bob Brookmeyer to Bill Finegan I would have said goodbye to Bob Brookmeyer [laughs]. Bill was an absolute hero to me, and for good reason.
JW: Did you enjoy recording Gerry Mulligan’s Night Lights in 1963?
BB: Not really. That Chopin prelude he kept playing over and over again got on my nerves. I finally just left. As I was heading out, Gerry said, “Where are you going?” I said, “I’ve had enough Chopin for tonight.”
JW: Was it the Chopin or Mulligan’s piano playing?
BB: [Laughs] Both. When Gerry sat down at the piano, my toes would curl in a bad way. He had a touch like a rocket-propelled grenade. He wasn’t a piano player. His hands weren’t made for it. He was an arranger’s piano player, someone who used the piano to write, not play. I studied piano for three years and had a sense of how it’s supposed to go.
JW: Did Mulligan like to play piano in public?
BB: One time we were working opposite Art Tatum in New Jersey. We were there for a weekend. I had never been around Art Tatum before, so I’m sitting in the back, and the crowd is watching and listening intently. When Tatum finished the first set. I said to myself, “Gerry will never play piano with Art Tatum here.” Well, as soon as Tatum got up, Gerry went over to the piano and sat down. That took some nerve.
JW: Did you play, too?
BB: Yes, but not because I wanted to. On the next set, Gerry said, “Go on, go play the piano.” So I went over and sat down. I was amazed. The piano worked so beautifully right after Tatum had played it. He was such a strong player that he had warmed up the keys and action. The piano played beautifully. Just the power of Tatum’s artistry and humanity and whatever else he laid on it was beautiful. I sounded great. Heck, even Gerry sounded good on that instrument.
Tomorrow, Bob talks openly about his terrible struggle with alcoholism, his move to the West Coast in the late 1960s, playing in the Hollywood studios, overcoming his alcohol addiction, and the joy he experienced meeting his wife Janet.
JazzWax tracks: Bob's album with Bill Evans, The Ivory Hunters (United Artists) is a highly unusual recording for both artists. Once you get beyond the fact that this isn't a traditional Bill Evans album and realize that both pianists are winging it, the results become more fascinating. It's available here.
The Mosaic Records box The Complete Verve Gerry Mulligan Concert Band sadly is out of print. But you can find it for about $150 at Amazon. Or for a taste, you'll find individual CDs of the band's recordings at iTunes and Amazon.
Gloomy Sunday and Other Bright Moments, Bob's orchestral breakthrough leadership album, has been teamed with Gary McFarland's How to Succeed in Business, the Jazz Version, on one CD here.
The Ray Charles albums that feature Bob's arrangements can be found at iTunes and at Amazon. The songs also can be found on many Ray Charles compilations.