Bob Brookmeyer has always been a man of strongly-held opinions and, after reading this interview from 1980 with Wayne Enstice & Paul Rubin from their Jazz Spoken Here: Conversations with 22 Musicians [New York: Da Capo Press, 1994, pp. 59-75], I’m sure you will agree that not much has changed in this regard.
In addition to explaining how he got started in music, he shares many revealing anecdotes about and the musicians and groups he has worked with, especially those from the 1950’s and 60’s, and discusses the Jazz scene in and around 1980.
Never one to shy away from expressing his views, he also “holds court” on such far-ranging subjects as teaching improvisational skills to the ‘current’ generation of Jazz players, going back to the source as the proper place to begin one’s education in a particular style of the music, and his views about what he personally needs to do in order for Bob Brookmeyer to have a future in Jazz.
Obviously, in the intervening decades since this interview was conducted, Brookmeyer has been doing what needed to be done and has been able to add many more years to an already distinguished career. During the past 20 years, Bob would move to Europe and concentrate on composing and arranging large pieces for some of the state-supported, resident orchestras in The Netherlands [The Metropole Orchestra] and Germany [The WDR Big Band]. He now maintains dual residences in the USA and Europe and is currently the director of the New Arts Orchestra based in Lubeck, Germany.
The following interview is [C] copyright protected, all rights reserved.
Deep‑toned and incisive, the playing of valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer is one of the most unmistakable sounds in jazz. The only important jazz musician other than Juan Tizol [played valve trombone in Duke Ellington's orchestra from 1929 to 1944 and again from 1951 to 1953] to concentrate on the valve trombone, Brookmeyer is also an accomplished pianist and composer‑arranger.
Born in 1929, the Kansas City, Kansas, native studied piano and composition at the Kansas City Conservatory. He began his professional career as a pianist in the early fifties, comping for various bandleaders, including Tex Beneke, Ray McKinley, Louis Prima, Claude Thornhill (with whom he played trombone and second piano), and Woody Herman. Brookmeyer started doubling on valve trombone in 1952, and in 1953 he did a year's stint with the Stan Getz Quartet that included the Paris Jazz Festival. It was not until the spring of 1954 when he replaced Chet Baker in Gerry Mulligan's West Coast‑style piano-less quartet, however, that Brookmeyer achieved national prominence.
Brookmeyer worked steadily with Mulligan's sextet and quartet until 1957, then finished the decade by playing with the Jimmy Giuffre 3 and free‑lancing as a player and a writer in New York for a year. He toured with Gerry Mulligan's Concert Jazz Band in 1960, contributing charts and taking key solos on trombone and occasionally piano. In 1961 he found a kindred spirit in trumpet player Clark Terry, and the two began a five‑year association co‑leading a popular and critically well‑received quintet. The series of recordings they made for the Mainstream label persuasively captured the solid, straight-ahead blowing, the fresh arrangements, and the contagious joy that were consistent features of this congenial unit.
Brookmeyer was a charter member of the famed Thad Jones‑Mel Lewis Orchestra in 1965, dividing his chores between arranging and playing, and he found steady work as a band member on television's Merv Griffin Show. Beset by personal problems, Brookmeyer left New York in 1968 to resettle in southern California. For the next decade he did some studio work but was relatively inactive as a jazz musician.
Bob Brookmeyer came out of jazz retirement in 1978. He returned to New York and in 1979 began a long‑term relationship as composer-arranger and musical director of Mel Lewis' retooled big band. Although Brookmeyer has concentrated on writing over the last thirteen years (the American Jazz Orchestra premiered one of his works in 1986, making him the first composer to be so honored), he continues to tour and is particularly popular with European audiences. Since 1979 he has also released some memorable small‑group recordings on the Gryphon and Concord labels, which demonstrate that despite this versatile jazzman's devotion to composition, his gifts as an improviser and his abilities as a technically dazzling stylist have not diminished.
WE: We enjoy the humor in your music. Do you hear humor in today's
BB: Well, I think there's been a slight change. To me, there's a broader way to look at it. In the times, say, from the late twenties through the thirties and the early forties, we had a period of great individualists. We had Lester Youngs, Charlie Parkers, Thelonious Monks, Duke Ellingtons, and Count Basies, and I guess the magic of the gift made them very innovative in what they did. I think probably if you're extremely different you become very secure in what you do. So I would think that a sense of humor would be implicit in a way to face and deal with life.
In the sixties we had some very outstanding musicians, but we didn't have quite the individuals that we had before. I've talked this over with some friends of mine who are writers and who are painters, and I think there is a general, if you want to call it, a cultural malaise. I'm not looking down my nose at it‑it's a comment‑that we have very fine musicians now‑great musicians‑but the character of the timber of the land doesn't seem to be suitable right now for producing the great individuals et twenty or thirty or forty years ago. And I'm not one who looks back to the good old days; to me, today is a good old day. I think that maybe that's one of the reasons that the humor might be‑if it is missing - might be missing.
PR: One reviewer once said that "of all the dropouts from the ranks of active jazz men in the sixties few left less conspicuously than Bob Brookmeyer or were more missed." How do you respond to that?
BB: Well, when I moved to California I was in the process of dropping out of life. I was fairly ill at the time, and I went to California a sick man. I spent ten years there, and I got my health back. So it wasn't "I'm fed up, I quit." It was a confused "I wonder what's going wrong" or "what's going worse," and everything seemed to go worse. When I got my health back, things began to dramatically improve, and I am glad that they missed me.
PR: What was it like when you returned to New York?
BB: When I went back to New York I hadn’t been active there really for about fifteen years as a functioning jazz musician. So it was a new world to me. There were a whole generation of people around town who were playing and working that I had to get to know again, and they didn't care what I'd done. They wanted to know what I could do.
PR: Could you give us an example?
BB: I think the best example was Mel Lewis' band. They were all new to me. And I came down, and I was the old geezer who'd written some of the fifteen‑year‑old arrangements that they were playing. They could look at me and say, "Well, he did that," but that was no wedge for me in the door. I had to spend the first year and a half in New York getting to know them and saying, "Well, now look, here's what I do, what do you think of that?" So it was really reestablishing credentials, because not many people of the younger generation would say, "Gee, that's really great you played with Gerry Mulligan or Stan Getz." They couldn't care less, you know. If I'd played with maybe Herbie Hancock or Chick Corea or John Coltrane‑those were people who were important to them. So it was a different set of heroes and a different set of judgmental values.
WE: Did the response of those young band members strike you as narrow‑minded?
BB: No. When I first started playing my life was Count Basie and Bill Harris and Woody Herman. I didn't like Duke Ellington. I thought the man was sloppy and out of tune. That's how much I knew when I was m my late teens. And so I had firm opinions. I used what attracted me. I didn't say, "Well, I should like I heard Stravinsky, and I liked that first, then I learned to like Bach, and then I learned to love Bach, and I learned to like Mozart and like Haydn, you know. You can't say to somebody, "This is the right way, read this Bible and you will feel better tomorrow." They have to find for themselves what they want.
WE: What do you think of young players that you meet in clinics?
BB: The general rap that I heard before I began to do any clinic work – and I've not done a great deal‑ is great ensemble, no solo. That has been somewhat borne up by my experience. Once again, I'm speaking from a very small frame of reference.
What I think is most needed now are some traveling improvisational teachers who can teach people to begin to play a song on a C‑major scale or make up a melody with four notes and make up another melody on four notes. To learn to instruct your mind to become an improvisational organ. You know, it's a skill. And then, when you start writing songs, you would naturally, I think, go around Lester Young and graduate to Charlie Parker to hear how things get refined and broken up.
WE: Do you think that improvisation has become a lost art?
BB: Well, it isn't a lost art, really. I think people imitate what's before them, that they find attractive, and what is being imitated now is a refinement of a basic. I have some friends in New York in their early thirties I advised to stop listening to Cedar Walton and Bill Evans and to Richie Beirach and whoever, and go back and listen to Bud Powell. This person wanted to be a hot piano player, "hot bebop piano player," end quote. I said. "Well, go back to where it began." If you listen to all of these other people they are reflecting what they heard in Bud Powell. It's like listening to Phil Woods to try to find out how Charlie Parker played. Phil Woods is a fantastic saxophone player, but we all listened to Charlie Parker to learn that lesson. So go back to the source.
PR: Let's turn to your early years. Since you were born in Kansas City, did the jazz scene there have any influence on you? BB: I was about eight or ten years old when I first heard Count Basie, so I wasn't gettin' around town too much then. My limit was about four or five blocks away from the house. The radio did [influence me], because we heard a lot of big bands. And I liked all the big bands. That was the closest thing to jazz music we could hear. I liked dixieland on the radio from Chicago.
When I got old enough to get around in the clubs, there was, I think at that time, a Kansas City sound from rhythm sections. It was a very smooth, fluid sound, much like Count Basie had. And I knew a few players that had been, say, with Lionel Hampton that played that way, and they were magical to play with. The younger, white players tried to play like Max Roach or Buddy Rich. But from the black musicians that I was around a lot, I got more of a good feeling about the music.
When Charlie Parker left, the soloists were all gone. Right before I left, I worked a bit with Ben Webster. He had come back to town when I was about twenty. He came back for a few months. But it was pretty quiet by that time, and it's been, I think, fairly quiet since then.
PR: We read that you began on clarinet and played some piano before picking up the trombone.
BB: Well, it's a little out of sequence. I went from clarinet to trombone. I was shanghaied into playing trombone by my parents and the band director that needed a trombone player. I wanted to be a trumpet player or a drummer, for which I'd saved money. So after being sold down the river, I didn't really care that much for playing slide trombone, and I learned quickly how to finger like a trumpet. That was my second choice of instrument, drums being first. I began to play the baritone horn all I could. And as soon as I could, I got a series of exotic valve trombones and finally, when I was eighteen, got an official one from Reynolds. So I wanted to be something else than a trombone player. I still do, but I would like to look like Robert Redford and sound like Walter Cronkite. So I'm a trombone player. That's my voice, I guess.
The piano came by accident, kind of. I wanted to write music also. When I was about thirteen I began to teach myself how to write. And by the time I was fifteen, I was selling arrangements to a territory band company in Omaha, Nebraska. I sent them a copied arrangement every other week for twenty bucks. And I then finally got a piano just before I was sixteen, so I began to learn officially how a piano went. And since valve trombone players didn't work too much in Kansas City, maybe one night a year, I began to learn how to play piano so I could support myself playing piano ‑ which I did. I supported myself in New York for my first year largely by playing piano.
WE: Your trombone playing abounds with vocal references. What's the source for that?
BB: The biggest impact on me as a trombone player was Bill Harris. He was a very emotive vocalese‑type player. That's the way I tried to play on slide trombone, and that has hung over. I would tell anybody that if you want to play something through an instrument that you should be able to sing it with some conviction and authority and pleasant feelings in your heart as you do it before you can play it. I think it's still a melodic singing process. Beating on something and singing are the things that we start with before we approach an instrument or a chord.
PR: Early on, you played with the Claude Thornhill and Tex Beneke bands. In your estimation, were those dance bands or jazz bands?
BB: I would consider Claude Thornhill very close to being a jazz band. Gil Evans had written almost the entire library, and we had Gene Quill and Brew Moore in the band, Teddy Kotick was the bass player, so we had a very good band. Tex Beneke was obviously a Glenn Miller‑type dance band. I was playing piano, Mel Lewis played drums, and Buddy Clark played bass, so we had fun. We had a band within a band. I did a lot of other dance band work. My first road job was playing piano with Orrin Tucker for six months. I got to travel, and I was in Chicago for three months, and I met an awful lot of people there.
PR: How old were you at the time?
BB: Twenty. And in California I met some people, so my philosophy was then to take the first job you can get leaving town, and when you're on the road get out and play all you can. That's what we did.
WE: Let's talk about J. J. Johnson. He is credited in the media as having been the translator of bop for the trombone. Is that true?
BB: I'm a friend and fan of J. J.'s. Yes, he was the man, as probably Dizzy Gillespie was, and Charlie Parker. The transition to playing bebop on trombone was very difficult, and J. J. solved it, I think, probably about as good as you could at that time.
Obviously, you don't have the upper range that is still desirable as you do in trumpet and alto. The timbre of trombone is dark and muddy and gets swallowed up by the overtone series of the drums and the bass. So it’s sometimes a fight for total survival ‑ acoustic survival ‑ down there. But he found really a good way to do it. J. still plays that way, and he plays better every year, so he found a true vein. He was an innovator. He’s the Charlie Parker of his instrument, I think.
PR: You played with Woody Herman.
BB: Briefly, yeah. All these big band stints were brief. In my first year in New York were stints with six or seven bands, I think. I went through a whole bunch of bands in a hurry. I didn’t like any of them. They were all bands past their prime, and I was looking for something, I guess. I'd had a chance to join Woody Herman a little earlier when I was in Kansas City, and that was the kind of band I wanted to be on ‑ the one with Doug Mettome. The bands I was on were not that good, so I quit. I figured I'd find something else. And I did.
WE: In the early fifties, didn't the melodic emphasis in your playing and Stan Getz's run counter to the bebop mainstream?
BB: The group in New York, of which Stanley became known as the leader, I guess ‑ he received the greatest notoriety ‑ would be Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, and Herbie Steward. They were the saxophone players I liked, because my instrument was very close to the tenor, so I heard as a tenor player. So I became, I guess, a Lester Young‑type player. Because that's what I liked. That's the way I liked to speak.
It's what we were attracted to. And I think most of the alto players that I was around liked to play like Charlie Parker. Very few Johnny Hodges alto players or Ben Webster tenor players in those days. We all, as now, we all rode the crest of what was popular. Those were the voices that we heard that we liked and understood. Much more than we'd have heard Chu Berry or Coleman Hawkins and said, "Oh, that really turns me on. That physically excites me." Lester Young physically excited us, and that process of making music was what physically excited us.
I was about ten years old when I first heard Count Basie live at the Tower Theatre in Kansas City. I heard six shows a day and saw a rotten movie five times [laughter]. It was the only time I ever cut school in my life: four or five times a year I spent seven days a week there. And in the morning for the first show the band would be behind the screen. And to hear the first note ‑ it was the severest physical thrill I think I've ever had. Drugs and sex and all that stuff ‑ it was just the most powerful thing. Playing still gets that way. It's still just viscerally the most thrilling thing that I can do, and most guys, I think, feel that way.
So this is to say that when you pick somebody to play like, it's not a selection process, like you sit down rationally and choose a car, it's what really moves you, and that man's playing really thrills you. And that's all there is to it ‑ it's like falling in love. That's the woman you must have at all costs. So it's the same process.
WE: That seems to contradict something Lee Konitz told us. He said that he consciously avoided listening to Charlie Parker because at first the music was too hard and then later because Parker's influence would have been too strong.
BB: I'm speaking for most of us. Lee is an exceptional man. He's a great artist, and there is a big difference. Lee has been aware of the process most of his life, I think. Jim Hall is another one. Jim Hall is aware of what goes into his music, and he treats his musical life much as a classic artist would. He keeps going back, enriching and working on fundamentals.
PR: In the fifties, the term chamber jazz emerged in reference to, for instance, the piano-less groups of Gerry Mulligan and Chico Hamilton. Was that term just a media invention?
BB: Yeah. Bebop is a shorthand; chamber jazz is a meaningless phrase.
PR: We figured as much. We know that you worked with Jimmy Giuffre with no piano and ...
BB: No drums and no bass. Just Jim Hall and Giuffre and I. We liked it. We stuck with that for a long time. The first three months we almost didn't make it. We were really scuffling in New York, and finally the booking got better. What I look back now and find is that we didn't know it then, but we were a truly avant‑garde band. We played everything from folk‑sounding music, which Jimmy was writing then, to ‑ we used to improvise all the time. We had free improvisations every set.
And sometimes I played piano, and we'd sound like twelve‑tone musicians. Sometimes we sounded like, I guess, a lot of the free music today, ‑ [we'd] bash and clatter about. There were different ways we liked to play. And not different ways we contrived to play so we could sound like somebodv ‑ these were just ways that we would play if we were let alone to play. So that was it. It was nice. There was no word for it. They just said we were the guys with no bass player and no drummer [laughter]. But the words like chamber jazz don't mean much.
PR: Are there any good recordings from that period?
BB: We made two records‑ one when we first started [The Jimmy Giuffre 3, Trav’lin Light, Atlantic, January 1958] and one just before we broke up [The Jimmy Giuffre 3, Western Suite, Atlantic, December, 1958]. If we'd have had tape recorders then like we do now, we would have had a lot of good tapes. But we don't.
PR: Was that a popular band?
BB: We did pretty well. My fondest memory is when we began to work in New York with the band we did eight straight weeks at the then Café Bohemia. And we started off, I think, against Wynton Kelly's Trio, and Wilbur Ware had a quartet, and somebody else ‑ the dynamite was getting hotter. And the last two weeks Miles [Davis] was there with a roaring band with John [Coltrane], and Bill Evans had just joined. And we thought, "We're really going to get killed because they're goin' to scream through us," because we at times were very soft, and "They're just gonna love Miles." Max Roach was down one night, and we were talking. He was saying that everybody talks through Miles and listens to you guys and it was the damnedest thing we ever heard.
I guess we were so soft and we were really serious about what we were doing that they'd stay quiet, I think, out of curiosity probably. But yes, I think people liked it, and they liked it not because we told them that we have a new way to play. They liked it because we sat down and played for them, and they appreciated what they heard. They weren't warned in front that it was going to be different. There weren't so many severe labels like they got to be later on. Like "this is really an eclectic experience" and "this is gonna blow your mind." Rock 'n' roll hadn't come into the merchandising yet. So we were still just a jug and country and string band gonna be in your town next week.
WE: About 1960 you joined Gerry Mulligan's Concert jazz Band. How did that come about?
…. To be contuned in PART 2