Over the past 25 years, Bob Brookmeyer has worked tirelessly to develop as a composer, teacher and conductor. While his recent recorded works can be classified as modern classical, they retain a rich jazz orchestral feel and flow. What's particularly fascinating about Bob's recent works is their massive scope and honesty. The more expansive Bob's canvas, the more you actually learn about his moods, feelings and personality.
Bob's most recent recording, Music for String Quartet and Orchestra, is a fine example. The recording with the Metropole Orchestra and Gustav Klimt String Quartet is at once a classical and jazz work. But unlike many jazz-classical attempts that stumble into movie soundtrack territory, Bob steers clear of the cinematic trap, using the compositions to express his emotions, without growing cute or coy. Bob's jazz instincts and flair for dramatic expression are unmistakable, as each of the four pieces on this album shift restlessly between a reflective simmer and hallelujah exultation.
In Part 5 of my interview series with Bob, the legendary valve-trombonist and composer talks about his learning curve as a classical composer, his development as a teacher and his passion and excitement for conducting:
JazzWax: Your compositions always manage to combine drama with fun.
Bob Brookmeyer: I wouldn’t put composing and fun in the same sentence necessarily [laughs]. Sometimes drama happens, but it’s not planned.
JW: How did you become interested in 20th century classical music?
BB: Around 1979 or 1980 I was buying classical scores and going to concerts and buying LPs of [Luciano] Berio, [Karlheinz] Stockhausen and others. I also was beginning to tire of the same type of writing and started to integrate classical motifs into my work for Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra [after Thad had left]. But they weren’t quite suitable. I finally told Mel [pictured], “I think I’ve written myself out of the band. I think I have to go work for classical people.” So I left the band and went to Europe, to the radio stations in Cologne [Germany] and Stockholm [Sweden], and worked with their orchestras and producers. I even began writing electronic things and a double concerto.
JW: Were you comfortable writing in that idiom?
BB: Yes. But I remember calling J.J. [Johnson] around this time and telling him I wanted to shift to classical composing. He said, “You can’t quit playing jazz. You’re a monster player.” But I had no choice. It was a calling of sorts.
JW: In 1993, you recorded Airport Song, on your Paris Suite album. It’s so beautiful.
BB: Thank you. I wrote that while at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris waiting for a plane. I had music paper and my flight didn’t leave for an hour.
JW: I also love Monster Rally from Get Well Soon in 2002.
BB: I like that too. That’s one of our happiest pieces. I worked hard on that one. I usually don’t go back and edit because I’m often late in terms of deadlines. I also don’t tend to work on two and three pieces at once.
JW: Do you still practice very day?
JW: Do you write every day?
BB: I should. I teach that way. Talk is cheap, though [laughs]. I’m very slow and a terrible procrastinator.
JW: Do you love teaching?
BB: I’m a great teacher. I’m one of the best ones I know.
JW: What makes you so good?
BB: I think I explain things in a way that allows people to pick things up. After I bought my first house, I needed money. So I started teaching at the Manhattan School of Music in New York. Then in 1988 I was asked by Burt Korall to direct the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop with Manny Albam [pictured]. I stayed there for three years, and that experience really kicked up my love for teaching. So when I moved to Holland in 1991, I started a school there. I also had a workshop in Cologne [Germany] and in Copenhagen.
JW: Do you ever listen to your earlier recordings?
BB: No, not the earlier ones. I like the Jim Hall duo sessions. If Jan and I move to Berlin next year, I’d like to get a new quartet together. But I'm constantly moving forward in my thinking.
JW: Do you like to live with what you write for a bit or complete compositions as soon as possible?
BB: I usually work on one piece, and prefer to get it done. As I tell my wife, “I want to get this sucker out of the house.” Many composers and arrangers feel that way. If you have the piece around too long, you start obsessing about a section and worry about it for days. Then when you sit down to work, problems pop up like, “What should I write after this part?” and all that. For me, it’s not such a joyous procedure.
JW: No joy in composing?
BB: Sometimes there are joyous moments when I discover something I didn’t know, like with the recent Metropole recording and the string quartet. There are a couple of places there where I don’t know what happened. The whole second movement, for instance. I still love to listen to it, but I’m amazed. I don’t know who wrote it [laughs].
JW: Is composing that difficult?
BB: Yeah. It’s the hardest thing I don’t know how to do [laughs]. Frankly, I usually just want to get the damn thing done because there’s something else to write after that. It’s satisfying to finish a piece of music. I was having dinner with Donald Barthelme [pictured], the writer, years ago. A young guy was asking him if writing was hard. Donald said it was. Then the guy said, “But you’ve been at this for some time. It must get easier as you get older, no?” Don said, “No, it gets harder.”
JW: Why do you think that's the case?
BB: I think it’s a combination of striving for something new, perfectionism, and the fact that coming up with new ideas is hard. When you’re younger, you probably haven’t gotten your voice together yet. When you’re younger, you’re just trying to get known. Then you plateau as you become known. When you get older, you’re more likely to be writing more than playing, and you have to prove that you’re not too old, that you still have it. If you think too much about those things, the writing phase can make you nervous later in life.
JW: Which composition sounds most like your life?
BB: Probably On the Way to the Sky, which will be out on a CD soon. It was the first piece I finished after marrying Jan.
JW: Is it Jan’s favorite, too?
BB: Actually, my wife likes Ceremony, from Dreams, with the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra. For Ceremony, I sat down to write a love letter to Jan, but it came out as a Catholic liturgy. She loves it nonetheless.
JW: Who was most helpful to you when you began arranging and composing?
BB: Probably Manny Albam. He was responsible for me getting my early writing jobs and playing dates. He was a model of what a best friend should be. Playing jobs had slowed for me then. So he had a party one night in the 1950s and invited a bunch of record producers. I had been recording with Manny a lot. He had overdubbed me playing lead, second and third trombone chairs.
JW: What did he do with the recording?
BB: He sat the producers down, poured them drinks and asked them to pick out the valve-trombone on the recording. None of them could do it. When they found out it was me, I wound up with a lot more work once they realized that the valve-trombone can blend right in. Manny was a very loyal friend. A wonderful man.
JW: As a composer, did you also want to conduct?
BB: I was always fascinated by what made a superb conductor great. I saw Igor Stravinsky [pictured] conduct twice. Once in the mid-1940s, Woody Herman’s band came through Kansas City and performed Ebony Concerto. Stravinsky was the guest conductor. I remember when I saw that band, Ralph Burns was sitting on the side with a wooden board over his lap furiously writing arrangements. I saw Stravinsky conduct again years later in New York.
JW: Did you study conducting?
BB: I wanted to for years but had been scared to death. Then in the late 1970s, I decided to give it a try. So I began auditioning conductors and found Joel Thome, an acclaimed conductor. He had wonderful economical motions.
JW: Why conducting?
BB: I was a lousy conductor and had to conduct orchestras and bands playing my work in Europe.
JW: Is conducting hard? It looks easy.
BB: [Laughs] You couldn’t be more wrong. The subtlety, energy and enthusiasm required is what it’s all about. I was a conductor destroyer until I started studying the nuances and technique.
JW: Is a conductor really that important?
BB: A conductor is everything. You know as soon as a conductor walks in front of a band or orchestra whether or not that person is going to be good. I always wanted to be a good conductor. At the time I didn’t want to study composition. I just needed a conductor who could just give me the feel and technique. Joel recommended Earle Brown. So I called Earle, and he became my mentor.
JW: What did Brown teach you?
BB: As far as the mechanics went, he’d have good advice. He also gave me a first-hand account of classical music's development in the 1950s and 1960s, when [American composers] John Cage and David Tudor shook up the European scene. Working with Earle gave me confidence. Earle was incredibly supportive, as was Joel Thome.
JW: What did Brown and Thome teach you?
BB: To trust my hands.
JW: How so?
BB: Earle [pictured] would stand in front of me, and if I didn’t cue him properly with my hands, he wouldn’t make a sound. If I did it right, he’d say, “Beep.” We didn’t do anything with recorded music, just me conducting my pieces in front of him. That's the best way to learn and get your hands to move correctly. It took me three or four years before I got comfortable.
JW: What was your goal?
BB: My ambition wasn’t to conduct a symphony orchestra. That’s like playing slide trombone. There are too many great symphony conductors. I simply wanted to conduct my compositions and arrangements in front of orchestras and get the most out of the musicians and my work. When I conduct now, I’ll always ask my students, “Is that clear?” That’s all I have to say.
JW: What are the right hand and left hand doing differently?
BB: Your right hand is making the tempo and beats clear. The left hand is for shading, cuing and extra emphasis in places.
JW: Is conducting fun?
BB: Oh yeah. It’s great. That’s the way I want to go. Having a heart attack while conducting: 1, 2, 3, out. [laughs].
JW: What are the musicians looking for when you conduct?
BB: How well you know the music and express yourself and explain yourself. And how well you teach the orchestra what you want to play. That all determines how well they will play in concert or during a recording. How you handle yourself with the musicians counts, too. You don’t throw fits. You don’t yell at the band.
JW: Do you watch other conductors?
BB: Oh, sure. I have a large collection of conductor DVDs. I study how they do it.
JW: Do you ever conduct to music that’s on the stereo?
BB: [Laughs] Right now I’m moving my right hand just talking to you about conducting. It’s a natural part of me now. I’ll be 80 in December. I’m a survivor I guess. A producer in Copenhagen said recently, "What will you do when all your friends are dead?” I said, “Make young friends” [laughs].
JW: So will you be moving to Berlin next year for sure?
BB: Could be. Jan is booking a trip. Then we’ll come back and talk about it. If everything works out, she gave me two years over there. Then if it works out, we’ll stay. If it doesn’t, we’ll come back.
JW: When you think of Bob Brookmeyer, what do you think?
BB: Well, I think I’m an interesting trombone player, as far as language, soul and time goes. I swing well, I think, because it’s in me to do so. As for the writing—I've written some terrible stuff and I’ve written some good stuff. Writing is so hard. Johnny Mandel said recently in an interview that I was incredible. That surprised me. I work hard on my sound. I like my sound.
JW: How do you know that?
BB: I listen to myself.
JW: And that's how you developed your sound?
BB: When I’m teaching, the main thing I want to do is get the student to listen. If you listen and you don't sound good, you have to work harder to play better.
JW: Can a student do anything about a sound?
BB: I think so. Back in the 1990s I was riding back from Europe on a plane. There was a journalist there from Paris who had interviewed Harry "Sweets" Edison [pictured]. Sweets had told him, “When I was coming up, we didn’t worry too much about the notes and all that stuff. We were just trying to get our sound.”
JW: Did you push yourself to take risks when you were playing and developing your sound?
BB: Yes. I still like to get myself in trouble and then see how I'm going to get out of it.
JW: If you could go back and re-do parts of your life, would you?
BB: No. I couldn’t be me now if I wasn’t who I was then.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Bob's Music for String Quartet and Orchestra at Amazon as a download here or as a CD here. Bob's Get Well Soon with Monster Rally is available as a download at iTunes or at Amazon here.