Bob Brookmeyer, whose emotionally strained youth in Kansas City helped him become arguably the most soulful, peppery and lyrical valve trombonist of the 1950s and '60s, died December 15 in New Hampshire. He was 81.
In the 1950s, there certainly was no shortage of great trombonists—J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, Urbie Green, Carl Fontana, Frank Rosolino, Curtis Fuller and many others. But Bob was different for several reasons:
For one, Bob played valve trombone, on which a player must use valves instead of a slide to change notes. The resulting sound combined the regal tones of a French horn with the unmistakable insistent sass of a slide trombone. For another, Bob adored harmony and counterpoint, making him the perfect collaborator in the cooler jazz combos emerging on the East and West coasts in the early '50s.
In all, Bob recorded on more than 370 jazz recording sessions, according to Tom Lord's Jazz Discography. His first recording dates were with bandleader Tex Beneke in 1952, but he quickly became a highly respected musical voice in small groups that soared to prominence during the early LP era.
The speed with which Bob rose to jazz fame remains remarkable. In 1954 alone, he recorded as a member of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, the Chet Baker Sextet and the Stan Getz Quintet as well as the leader on his own quartet date. In 1955, there were recording sessions with Al Cohn, Manny Albam, Zoot Sims and other prolific and influential artists.
By 1956, Bob was firmly established on both coasts as the perfect foil to saxophonists looking for a sound that was richer than a trumpet but punchier than a slide trombone. Bob also had the ability to swing eager on uptempo tunes while reaching into his past for deep soul on ballads.
Bob told me during my June 2009 interview that much of his early passion for music came out of necessity:
"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."
For years, the story of how Bob came to play the valve trombone wound up being exaggerated—insinuating that he mastered the instrument's technique magically while in Claude Thornhill’s band:
"Yeah, right, I just walked into Thornhill’s band, picked up the valve-trombone and started to play it [laughs]. 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.
When I asked Bob why he didn’t favor the slide trombone, his reply was classic:
"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."
Bob also was a terrific composer, arranger, conductor and pianist. Perhaps his best-known album on piano was The Ivory Hunters in 1959 with Bill Evans. From my 2009 interview:
BB: "The album 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
What I'll remember most about Bob was his speaking voice and his kindness. His voice was similar in ways to his valve trombone playing. Thoughts came out directly and bluntly, but there was this warm sound to his voice and a slurring of words for speed that resulted from a lifetime of depressing valves to bend notes.
Bob also was noted for his stark humility. As he said just as we were ending our conversation:
"I'm just lucky I was hired by Duke Ellington and that Count Basie asked me when I was going to write something for him when we saw each other at Birdland. I mean these are the things I treasure. To be even asked to do something by my superiors, was really nice.
"You asked me how I felt about myself. I joke with [my wife] Jan, 'You realize, of course, that you're living with a jazz legend.' And we both laugh."
In June, I reached out to Bob. Curious about the origin of his song, Oh, Jane Snavely, which he first recorded with Stan Getz in 1954, Back came a simple email: "Fictional person -- bb."
I'm going to miss Bob's edge.
JazzWax tracks: Here's a handful of terrific Bob Brookmeyer recordings:
- Interpretations (1952) with Stan Getz
- Plays Bob Brookmeyer and Some Others (1955)
- Dual Roles of Bob Brookmeyer (1955) with Teddy Charles
- Pleyel Concert in Paris (1955) with Gerry Mulligan
- Tonite's Music Today (1956) with Zoot Sims
- Jimmy Raney, Featuring Bob Brookmeyer (1956)
- Traditionalism Revisited (1957)
- Gloomy Sunday (1961)
- Samba Para Dos (1963) with Lalo Schifrin
- Bob Brookmeyer & Friends (1964)
- Tonight (1964) with Clark Terry
- One Night in Vermont (2001)
Note: Most of Bob's studio recordings with Stan Getz in 1952-53 are on the newly issued and remastered Stan Getz Quintets: The Clef & Norgran Albums box (Verve) available at Amazon.
Brian Wilson. News on Friday of the Beach Boys' plans to reunite and tour was a big deal. The band, though, is going to have to work hard to beat the sound of Brian's band in London, just before I went out to Los Angeles to interview him in September:
Ray Charles. Here's another installment of Bret Primack's video coverage of Ray Charles: Singular Genius, The Complete ABC Singles box set (Concord)...
Robert Altman. In my Bobby Troup post last Wednesday, I posted a video clip of a Robert Altman-directed short of Troup singing Girl Talk. Director Raymond De Felitta picked up the trail in his blog Movies til Dawn and posts about Altman's shorts.
Free jazz lessons. Pianist Steve Nixon has a site offering free video jazz lessons. Looks worthwhile for budding Bud Powells.
CD discovery of the week. One more for the holidays—Bonnie Bowden's An Angel City Christmas, featuring the Angel City Big Band, a West Coast orchestra. The album features Bonnie warmly singing Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, Let It Snow and I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm among others. Two instrumental charts of note: O Holy Night by Ralph Carmichael and a swinging I'll Be Home for Christmas by Gregory Yasnitsky. Straightforward, uptempo holiday charmers sweetened by Bonnie's pop touch. More on Bonnie Bowden at her site. You'll find this one at Amazon.
Oddball album cover of the week. Al "Jazzbo" Collins was a New York jazz radio personality in the '50s and beyond who had an unrivaled ability to make late-night radio listeners in darkened bedrooms believe they were sitting with him in his make-believe purple grotto of a studio. On this cover, however, it seems as though we're getting a view through Collins' head rather than from it.