Bob Brookmeyer: Trombonist hailed as one of the finest in jazz


It's hard to think of anyone who gave more to jazz than the valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer. He was the finest player of his instrument, and was regarded as one of the most imaginative of trombonists. A brilliant writer and orchestrator, he ran the venerated Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band to such an extent that it was really his band rather than Mulligan's.

He was one of the most potent teachers in jazz and, particularly in his last 20 years, one of its most creative writers. He knew his own worth, but he was unassuming and frank in the conversations that I had with him: "We took Benzedrine to get excited when we went to work and play. We took alcohol to be sociable," he told me.

Brookmeyer was born in Kansas City, the home of the Count Basie school of swing, and his father gave him a clarinet when he was eight. "It became a trombone at 13. But it led to an infatuation with blank music paper. So, at 14, I became a professional arranger/copyist, writing for local dance bands."

In 1941 he heard the Count Basie band "with Lester Young, Jo Jones and all the greats" at a local theatre. "Many years later I played in a small group at New York Town Hall with Basie and John Coltrane. I have had some drugs, good sex, read good books, seen some great plays, but nothing in my life has prepared me for such a visceral complete thrill as playing with Basie engendered. You cannot imagine in your wildest dreams what it felt like with Basie in a small band – the energy peak of all time."

When he was 15 Brookmeyer heard Stravinsky and Debussy for thefirst time and decided that composing was the thing to do. He studied at Kansas City Conservatory for three yearsand on graduation moved to Chicago to play jazz.

"After a short stint in the army (a six-month mistake on both our parts), I joined Tex Beneke as a pianist. Eventually I stopped in New York to become a house musician at the Stuyvesant Casino. I became a full-time valve trombonist in 1952 when I joined Claude Thornhill's band."

Leaving Thornhill after a few months, he spent six unhappy weeks in the Woody Herman band, leaving to join Stan Getz in early 1953. The Getz Quintet was one of the classic groups of the period, and its records are reissued to this day. In January 1954, Brookmeyer and a rhythm section he chose for Mulligan formed the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. They toured for six months, winding up at a jazz festival in Paris. During the stay in Paris Brookmeyer met and played with Thelonious Monk.

"Monk and I played for kicks in a Paris club. After a couple of nights they were advertising it – whilst charging us$8 for a packet of cigarettes. Very good! Typical French. So Monk and I wentto parties instead and played theretogether. We remained friends everafterwards."

Brookmeyer left the Mulligan group and settled in Los Angeles, but toured Britain with a reformed Gerry Mulligan Quartet in 1957. Then in 1958, he became part of clarinettist Jimmy Giuffre's trio with guitarist Jim Hall. After a rewarding year with them, Brookmeyer made the great mistake of leaving to become a studio musician in New York. He loathed the work.

One night in March 1959 when they were drunk, he and Bill Evans sat down at a piano and played duets together. The results were so impressive that a few days later a studio was hired and they made an album of remarkable piano duets called The Ivory Hunters.

"In January 1960 Gerry dropped by one day and the Concert Jazz Band was born," he said. "It was a dream come true for me: to have a band that I could influence, write for and be proud of. We lasted until December 1964, closing the original Birdland in style – Scotch, cocaine and Santa Claus!"

Clark Terry was in the Mulligan Concert Band and he and Brookmeyer started a hard-swinging quintet to play regularly at the Half Note in New York. The quintet lasted until 1968.

"Duke Ellington had hired me to play with his band in 1962. We were friends and it had been assumed for some years that I would join him but I was unfortunately getting a very difficult divorce, so couldn't go." Late in 1965, Brookmeyer became a founding member of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band; some of his finest arrangements were written for them.

In September 1968, Brookmeyer moved to Los Angeles to became a movie and TV studio player, "with a little jazz on the side. I'd pretty much given up on life and stopped writing, getting ready for the downhill ride into total alcoholism. That lasted until 1976, when I got sober."

He returned to Getz to tour Europe for three months in 1978 and in 1979 played with Jim Hall as a duo for a year. The partnership with Hall was one of his finest and it was revived frequently until the last years of his life.

From 1981, Brookmeyer wrote for and directed the Mel Lewis Orchestra and commuted to Europe. Beginning in 1981, he worked with orchestras in Cologne and Copenhagen, forming his 18-piece New Arts Orchestra in Cologne.

He and his fourth wife Jan settled in New Hampshire in 1994 when he took charge of the Jazz Composition Department at the New England Conservatory in Boston. He returned frequently to Europe to work and, in 1995 toured Britain with the saxophonist Tony Coe.

In September this year his last album, Standards, was released. It was true to the high musical standards he had maintained throughout his life.

Steve Voce

Robert Edward Brookmeyer, musician: born Kansas City 19 December 1929; four times married; died Grantham, New Hampshire 15 December 2011.

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