The rise of the studios in the late 1950s and early 1960s created enormous opportunities for jazz musicians. With the proliferation of visual media such as movies and television along with TV advertising, more instrumentalists were needed who could sight-read music perfectly the first time. But while live and recorded studio work provided jazz musicians with a steady paycheck, most had to strike Faustian bargains. Individualism and creativity had to be tabled, replaced by dull, rote performing. For artists like Bob Brookmeyer, the wooden work was hard to bear.
To make matters more complicated, Bob was slowly being consumed by alcohol. Whether Bob's dependence was hard-wired into his system at birth or the result of performance strain and the emotional pain of his youth, his condition and attitude in the 1960s was deteriorating. You'd never know that Bob faced such personal demons from his jazz recordings and performances of this period. But they were there, and growing more destructive by the year.
In Part 4 of my interview series with Bob, the legendary valve-trombonist talks about his battle with alcoholism, working in the East and West coast studios, writing for and playing with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, overcoming his dependency, touring with Stan Getz in Europe, and meeting his current wife Janet:
JazzWax: When did you start playing in the TV and movie studios?
Bob Brookmeyer: In 1958, when I was working with Jimmy Giuffre and Jim Hall. Trombonist Chauncey Welsch hired me to play lead trombone for about a month with the Andy Williams Show in New York when Chauncey went on vacation.
JW: You were doing a lot of TV in the 1960s, weren’t you?
BB: Yes. I also was in the Merv Griffin Show band, which was the worst thing I ever did in my life.
BB: It was terrible. The band was good but had nothing to do. We had a bad bandleader. Once again I used my cleverness and hatred to cause trouble. My name was well known among most musicians at this point. But I disliked the lack of adventurous creative thinking on the band. So I did things to cause trouble. For instance, I’d make believe I couldn’t read the charts. I’d put on my glasses and look studiously at the part, telling them, “I’ll get it, I’ll get it.” I made quite a reputation for being an asshole. That’s the way I survived.
JW: Why were you doing this?
BB: At that point in my life, I was drinking heavily. I wasn’t me—the me I am now.
JW: What do you mean?
BB: I divide my life into two parts—the drinking part and the sober part. Actually, sober is a terrible word to use since I’m loonier now than I ever was [laughs].
JW: Do you remember the first half—or is it just a blur?
BB: No, I have a great memory. I clearly remember being a drunk [laughs]. I had an amazing capacity for alcohol, and I was great at appearing sober. I used to drink a couple of fifths of scotch a day along with wine and drinks with dinner. After a while I couldn’t depend on alcohol. It wouldn’t work. So I needed other things.
JW: You left New York in the late 1960s.
BB: In 1968 I had a chance to move to California to stay with a lovely woman who took care of me. I took on studio work out there.
JW: Did you continue drinking?
BB: Absolutely. I was an alcoholic. I had been drinking hard since the 1950s. I was eating and sleeping enough to keep drinking, which kept away the emotional pain. In California, I became busy in the studios as a valve-trombone player. I worked with Lloyd Ulyate, Dick Nash [pictured], Charlie Loper and other heavy-hitting studio trombonists.
JW: Why didn’t you try to stop drinking?
BB: I had friends who drank as much as I did and just decided to quit. But it was hard for me. The woman who was taking care of me finally got me to go into a hospital for treatment. I stayed there for about three weeks in the mid-1970s. When I came out, I foolishly didn’t do any of the things that they recommended to ensure I’d remain well. I didn’t go to group therapy. I didn’t volunteer to help others. I thought it was all unnecessary.
JW: What happened?
BB: Three months later, on a Sunday afternoon in 1976, I went down to the corner and got some vodka. I went home and drank for days. A week later the woman I was with had to call the hospital to have them come get me. I was angry at first and wouldn’t go. Finally, I went. The day before I was to be released, something magical happened. I finally realized that I was the one who drank, that it was my choice to stop. So when I got out, I went to therapy, I volunteered, and guess what—I stopped drinking and haven’t had a drink since.
JW: How did you play so well during this period while drunk?
BB: Well, it’s not drunk the way you think of a drunk on TV. I had alcohol in me, but I had a great tolerance for it. So the effects were less visible. And taking Dexedrine soaks up the nuttiness of alcohol. I also used to smoke dope and consume scotch and pills.
JW: But how did doing all of that not affect your music?
BB: I don’t know. In New York I'd have a briefcase that I’d take with me. I’d go down to the Half Note and get a bottle of scotch. I’d have hashish or dope and pills in the case as well. I'd go up to my office. I’d arrive there around 3:00 or 4:00 p.m. and stay there maybe a day consuming all of it. I was accustomed to doing that and then playing perfectly.
JW: Did you ever face a problem?
BB: Occasionally. Normally I got through everything OK. I’m still amazed at how I survived in California given the pace and how the studios were structured. Everybody knew who I was, but I didn’t know anybody. In California, the contractor was the king. He could banish you to Las Vegas if he wanted to, and you’d never be seen again. In New York, the contractor wouldn’t dare come into the studio. Musicians ran everything. So I was working at all of these studios in Hollywood. They just assumed I was funny and had a bad mouth. Contractors kept hiring me, and for the life of me I don’t know why. I wasn’t writing. I was just playing. I was a valve-trombone player.
JW: Did you play on a lot of movie soundtracks?
BB: Quite a few. I was on Lovers and Other Strangers  and was featured on there playing the main theme. I also was on Paper Lion  that [pianist] Roger Kellaway wrote.
JW: When were you finally clean?
BB: In 1977. That was my first totally sober year. I was going to be a counselor at an alcoholism clinic. I went to school to learn to be a volunteer and was all set to give up music. I played with Bill Holman a little, but I wasn’t happy with my playing.
JW: What changed?
BB: Roger [Kellaway] called and gave me a Movie of the Week date to record with Sarah Vaughan singing the vocal track. Well, I couldn’t turn that down. So I went to a guy who played trumpet in the L.A. Philharmonic and took two or three lessons. I practiced my head off for two or three weeks and got through the session OK. Stan Getz was around then in California.
JW: What did he say to you?
BB: He wanted me to play with his band and go to Europe. This was around the spring of 1978. I was nervous about that. I was a scared human being. But Stanley kept on, so I agreed to go. And it turned out to be the best thing for me. We were in Europe traveling for five or six weeks, and I was able to stay sober, play well and save some money.
JW: How did it feel to have some savings?
BB: Great. I came back with $4,000 or $5,000. I was dear friends with John Snyder, who produced many of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra albums. I had been with the band for two years before I left. When I returned from Europe, John sent me a check for $1,000. I said to Mel [Lewis], “What’s this for?” Mel said, “You probably can use it.” He was right. I opened a checking account. It was one of the most renewing days of my life. I was 47 years old and finally had some stability. Up until then I had been living by my wits.
JW: What was your plan?
BB: My idea was to move back to New York from California and rent a room in Nyack, N.Y., just north of New York City, and write things for Thad Jones’ band. I had small ambitions then. I just wanted to get by.
JW: Was the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra different 10 years later?
BB: Yes, somewhat. That earlier band was a lot like Duke Ellington’s. I was doing quite a bit of writing before I left. My arrangement for Willow Weep for Me originally was written for Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Band. But Gerry didn’t like it. Then he came down to the Vanguard and heard Thad’s band play it. He said, “Wow, that’s a nice arrangement.” I told him it was the same one he rejected [laughs]. Writing and arranging for Thad’s band had forced me into a new kind of language. In that band, you were tacitly invited to be more than you could be, to try new things. And I did.
JW: Specifically, what did you do differently in the mid-1960s?
BB: I used more chord clusters. For example, on Willow Weep for Me, I changed the form. The arrangement didn’t have a last eight bars. I had used the first eight bars of the next section in their place. That kind of thing. I was fooling with form. I also used a G minor chord with C sharp below it. I had never dared do that before, either. The harmonic things I added also were things I had never done before. I was getting more courage to try new things.
JW: When you returned to the band in the late 1970s, you had overcome your alcohol addiction.
BB: Yes—but I wasn’t writing much. Before I rejoined, Jim Hall and I played nothing but duo for a year. I had a bedroom fixed up as a studio. Jim would come over and run his hand over the score paper and there would be an inch of dust on it [laughs]. I finally got Skylark out in1980. It was the first arrangement I had written in about 10 years. Then I continued arranging for the band and conducting.
JW: How did that go?
BB: The band wasn’t keen on having me. They wanted Thad. I didn’t know how to conduct nor did I have presence in front of the band. They wondered who is this guy. They made it rough for me. When I went on tour with the band to Europe for the first time, it was successful. When I came back, I had more confidence.
JW: What changed in your writing?
BB: I didn't have to lean on the band for whatever support they could supply. Dick Oatts, John Mosca, Mel and Jim McNeely were great to me. Some of the others guys, not so much. When I became musical director, I had to fire some people. I was a founding father. I had been with the band when it started, and no one had fired anybody. I fired a trumpet player and got Tom Harrell [pictured]. I fired a trombone player and got Ed Neumeister. I fired the tenor player and got Joe Lovano. It was shocking to them.
JW: How did you meet Janet, your current wife?
BB: We met in 1985, in Kansas City.
JW: Was it love at first sight?
BB: Close. I was dating a daughter of a great trumpet player. She told me about her sister-in-law, Jan, and how terrific she was. So one day the three of us had lunch. From the moment I saw Jan, I felt that I was with the wrong woman. Jan and I had a great conversation that day, and after I left Kansas City, I kept in touch with her. When I returned a short time later, we had dinner. One thing led to another, and here we are.
JW: Is she your life partner?
BB: Oh, absolutely. Jan loves what I do and has a great ear for music. She’s the one I try out compositions on [laughs].
JW: Were you both apprehensive about the relationship?
BB: Not too much. When I met Jan, she had a big job with an oil company that was planning to move from Kansas City to Houston. Big money was involved. But we decided that a long distance relationship was out of the question, since it wasn't likely to have worked.
JW: What did you do?
BB: Jan agreed to move to New York. Two of her sons from a previous marriage thought I was OK, but the other two weren’t sure. Now, of course, we all love each other [laughs].
JW: She was taking a big risk.
BB: I told her that if it didn’t work out, I’d give her everything I had—the house and everything because she had given up everything to come here. We lived in Goshen, N.Y., and it was nice and quiet. Manhattan had gotten way too noisy to think by then.
JW: It seems your life turned around when you met Janet.
BB: That’s true. When Jan moved East, my house finally became a home. I fell in love for the first time. We had both been to “school” with divorces and bad times. I had been married three times before Jan. We’ve only had love and happiness since being together. I guess the lesson here is, “Don’t get married until you turn 58 [years old]” [laughs].
Tomorrow, Bob talks about learning the art of conducting, his albums Paris Suite (1993) and Get Well Soon (2002), the composition that sounds most like the story of his life, his most recent album Music for String Quartet and Orchestra (2006) with the Metropole Orchestra, and his likely to move to Germany next year.
JazzWax clip: Here's Bob's moving arrangement of St. Louis Blues for the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra in the mid-1960s. That's Bob playing and soloing on valve-trombone...