Tuesday, July 15, 2008

An Interview at Mid-Career with Bob Brookmeyer - Part 2

WE: About 1960 you joined Gerry Mulligan's Concert jazz Band. How did that come about?

BB: Gerry came by early in that year and had a week at Basin Street East and wanted to know if I'd write an arrangement for him. We hadn't played together for a couple of years. And I think he was kind of de­pressed that I quit‑I quit in '5 7. So we got to be a little tighter, and the one week at Basin Street East turned into a band. I saw the opportunity to be part of a band that I'd wanted since I'd been a kid. The band I couldn't find when I first came to New York. Every band I played in was dumb. I mean, this was not the way it was supposed to go. The bands I played in when I was a kid were OK, but they should have been better, and we always had final points we couldn't go beyond.
This was a chance to work with a supreme musician‑Gerry is a great writer and player and a great leader‑and it was a ready‑made circum­stance. So I really tried to keep his interest up as much as I could, and I got some people for him to listen to. We finally wound up with a great band‑we had Mel Lewis, and Buddy Clark, and Nick Travis‑a really excellent band. And that was an achievement, I think. We stayed together for about four years.

WE: Were you and Mulligan co‑leaders of that band?

BB: I wasn’t a co‑leader. I played first trombone, and I did some of the writing. My investment was emotional. I wanted that band, more some­times probably than Gerry did. That's what I lived for in that year. I wanted to keep that going.

WE: So it was a spiritual co‑leadership.

BB: Yeah, I wasn't going to let it die.
WE: But the band folded in the mid-sixties. What happened?

BB: I think a lack of work and a lack of interest, and Gerry's interest was getting ‑ it's a helluva responsibility to be a big‑band leader. It's a mess. And my interest was getting scattered around. My personal life was cha­otic ‑ up and down. So with both of us kind of in and out emotionally and with the work situation getting hard, I think that we just decided to concentrate on the quartet.
We never talked about it much. Maybe we felt that we had gone far enough with it, I don't know. My feeling was that I wished we had gone further. After 1960 I wanted us just to keep on expanding and get new music from George Russell, get Gil [Evans] to write for us, and do all this stuff, you know. I'm quite childlike and enthusiastic about that, I guess. But realities kept surfacing. So we did four years, and that was our time.

PR: Gary McFarland wrote for the Concert jazz Band. What do you recall about him?

BB: Well, Gary was just different. He was one of those people that just seemed to hear everything and translate everything differently. He called me in early 1961. Gerry's band had just started, and he wanted to know the personnel, and he asked me if it would be OK if he brought something in. I said sure and encouraged him to please do that, and he brought in t first piece, an arrangement of "Weep."

PR: Was he known at the time?
BB: I'd never heard of him. Just a little bit through John Lewis and the [Lenox] School of Jazz, where I taught for a couple of years. He brought it in and it was quite successful and very different. So he did another for us, and people began to hear about him, and Creed [Taylor] heard about him at Verve and took the chance on McFarland's first album.
I think it was How to Succeed in Business. So that was it, and he was off. He was a very nice man; I liked him very much. We miss him now, be­cause in my estimation what we're still looking for the most are good music writers. We have good soloists and good ensemble players, but we're still short on really good writers.

PR: Do you think that McFarland's recordings turned commercial dur­ing the last years of his life?

BB: I wasn't seriously around Gary after about the middle sixties. We shared some office space with a couple of other guys for a long time. He liked to socialize very much. He liked the Cary Grant‑type of life ‑ the cashmere coats and the cocktail hour and all that ‑ as we all did but in varying degrees of assiduously persevering on it. He might have gotten turned, I think, a little bit to being something that would be a hit.
You know, it's a helluva thing. We were talking the other night with somebody about being true to what we do. If somebody were to come to me and say, "Here's a hundred thousand bucks, we'd like you to do this project," my only answer is that I've gotten myself down to such a place that I really wouldn't know what to do with the money. It would be nice to have, but it wouldn't change what I do. I've become, not monkish, but I've become pretty austere in my personal life. But it's a big decision.
If they say, "You wouldn't have to be that much different. Just do some of this, and just like that, just this one shot." And of course, that's a se­ductive drug-like atmosphere ‑ you find all these things are possible. You can go to here and there and wear this and bank this and drive this, you never could before, so just one more. It's the Las Vegas syndrome. I know people in Las Vegas that have been there twenty years that just went for six months to get some money together.
But it's a real‑life situation, and you can't say that somebody denies their art to do it. It's too complex for that. A lot of people remain true to their art because nobody likes what they do [laughter]. But they keep doing what they do, and later on ‑ a hundred years later ‑ somebody finds out, hey, they were really good. They were pure artists. Well, I think that might've been rot. They just couldn't sell anything they wrote. So it's once again a real‑life process, I think.

WE: You were signed with the Verve label in the sixties. There were so many Verve recordings in those days with basically the same roster of musicians. Were you all over-recorded? BB: I think we recorded too much then, probably. The band you heard was what they called the "A band" in New York. They had the best jazz people, that they thought were the best, anyway, that they would get for all the records. One thing we had then that we have a severe shortage of now, we had some very good producers: Creed Taylor first at ABC Para­mount, and later on at Verve, Bob Thiele did some good work. We had Jack Lewis in the early fifties and the middle fifties who did some great things at Victor and later on at United Artists. We had people to start projects for us and who had the funding. We have some people now with good ideas that have trouble getting money because the record business has become so catastrophic and such a really big business venture. But the producers then were really instrumental in giving us ideas. They'd think of a project and say, "What do you think of this?" And we would be off on it, so that was a great help.

WE: Have you done much studio work?.

BB: Yeah, all my life until about two years ago.

WE: Did you find it stifling?

BB: Well, I'll tell you, in the fifties it was fun because they had jazz‑type backgrounds. We had a Bobby Darin date, Al Cohn and Ralph Burns would write the arrangements. And we had a forty‑five‑piece band you could pat your foot to. But by the sixties, when rock & roll really began to hurt ...
As I went to California, I really felt I'd sunk into something because I went everywhere and nobody smiled, nobody joked or laughed, you never drank on a date. You never snuck out and got high or anything, you know. It was really serious business, and you were supposed to really act like you respected what you did. And for me, with my personality, it was just mur­derous, so I couldn't do it; I failed the studio work. A lot of people can do it ‑ work all day with earphones and do rock & roll and come out at night and play for five hours. They have my admiration and gratitude. I couldn't, you know. I just do what I do, that's all.

PR: In the sixties, we'd go to New York's Half Note one night to heat the quintet you co‑led with Clark Terry and return the next night to take in the John Coltrane Quartet. Did you and the members of your band ever exchange views with Coltrane?
BB: Not really, not between John and us. My recent experience tells me that people who are now about thirty‑five have a very reverential attitude towards those days, toward John and his music, because John is their hero, you know. The day after John died they ran a radio interview in New York, and Bill Evans was speaking of Miles's band and Miles's attitude towards Coltrane, which was supportive. Bill said the rest of us used to wonder why Miles hired him, because he wasn't playing too well. But Miles heard the true Coltrane.
So therefore, when I'd hear John, he'd play one tune for forty‑five minutes, and he'd play an awful lot of notes. I'd enjoy it up to a point. So my ears were responding ‑ I didn't feel reverential. He was another man in the same business. I probably should have been more reverential, but there wasn't cross‑pollinating between us because John was much more advanced than either Clark or I were. He was consciously trying to ad­vance as an artist, and Clark and I were doing what we did.
PR: Were there jam sessions in the sixties when younger players could get on the bandstand with you and test their mettle?

BB: No, I don't think so then. There weren’t the chances. When I first came to New York, I was twenty‑two years old, I played piano at a place on the Lower East Side, and it would loosely be called the Dixieland Place. And some nights the four or five horns would be Coleman Haw­kins, Pee Wee Russell, Harry Edison, Buck Clayton, and maybe Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz. One night we had a rhythm section of George Wallington, Baby Dodds, and Pops Foster, and I played trombone. So I got to play with a lot of different people.
My observation on somethin' that was true then that may not be true now, I think, could be interesting. When I was in my early twenties and middle twenties I became friendly with the guys in Duke Ellington's band because we did a couple of tours together. I was with either Mulligan or Getz. They were very warm and supportive, and I established, I guess, what the psychologists would call a "father‑son relationship," not quite that heavy. But they were fully grown up in my eyes: they were men, and they played like men and lived like men. I was very young, and they would come down gratuitously and say, "Now look," and we'd talk about stuff, rarely music. But we'd talk about the way to live your life or "Where you gonna settle in L.A.?' We'd rub each other, and we'd get warm over the process. So it was an older generation warming up a younger one, saying,
"It's OK, I approve of you, and I support what you do. Now, go out and do it."
They could have hated the way I played music, but they acknowledged me to be in their business, as John [Coltrane] and I, without saying any­thing, acknowledged [that we were] in each other's business. We didn't have to love each other's playing, but we were in the same area. There was no "He can't play," "He should play this way," or "He can't play at all." We were in the same business, and the guys in Duke's band taught me that, and Count Basie's also.

WE: Do you think that some of the younger so‑called avant‑garde play­ers today, like George Lewis, are extending the jazz trombone tradition?

BB: Well, sure. I just heard a bit a couple of years ago of a solo trombone album. Obviously the man can play. I don't, as much as I used to, say "Gee, he really can't play, I don't like that." I don't care what I don’t like, it's not important. I try to support what I do like, and what I do like are people who are trying to make things better, trying to find ways to ex­pand the language.
In George's case, he is working hard at what he does. People could sit down and say that he doesn't swing. I say, well, OK. There are some jazz musicians who don't swing, and I'm among'em sometimes, but what else does he do? Jazz is a language. It's now a way of thinking and writing. I'm beginning to write music for jazz orchestra that doesn't bear an awful lot of relationship to 4/4 swing, and it's going to get more and more that way. And I'm going to fight to have my music considered music by a jazz composer. 'Cause that's what I am.
If I were a classical ‑ this is varying it a bit, but I think it's explana­tory ‑ if I were a classical composer coming in to write jazz, obviously I would be unsuited. I would say all classical composers are unsuited to write jazz music. That is not their experience. That is not what their feet say. My feet say jazz music, so anything I write I think would come that way because that's what I am.
If somebody comes along in my world and wants to make jazz music better, I say go ahead. I don't have to like it, but I do have to encourage them to keep on doin' it, I think. That's my job, because out of that, you we ‑ I'll maybe explain something that I've come to feel, that all artists kinda work a general field, however big you want to make it in your mind. It's a field of earth. Our job is to go out every morning and work that field all day doing what we do. Once in a while, the musician, whoever it is, comes and drops a seed, and we get a Coltrane or a Charlie Parker or a Jelly Roll Morton or a Louis Armstrong. But the rest of us go out there and plow every day anyway. That's our job.
PR: Is your playing a way for you to find out more about your own identity?

BB: Yeah, well, it is for me, because I need to keep on top of things, you know. I'm a sober alcoholic, and I've been sober for about four years, and my penalty for not living my life in some kind of reasonable and advanc­ing way is probably not living.
So my choices are clear‑cut. I'm fortunate: I either live or die every day. It's not dramatic like that, but everybody's choice is life or death. So far, anyway, I opt to live, and my choices toward music are that way. And I've been, fortunately, given a clear‑cut choice. A lot of people have the pull between "Shall I be rich today and rich and famous tomorrow" and then "Thursday I'm gonna cut out this nonsense and settle down and really work hard for a couple of days." It's not important because I'm almost fifty‑one, and my time has become finite, as everybody's is. When you’re twenty‑one your time is finite, you know.
Yeah, I'm seeing things clearly, more clearly now for many reasons. That's why I explained the other thing ‑ the alcoholism thing. So a lot of things are clear and getting clearer. I'm in a very fortunate position hav­ing been where I have been to get where I am. I think that was worth it. So yes, I try to get more control over me, because that's going to give more control over what I do. Like Lee [Konitz] was talking about. That's why I admire him very much, because he's been an artist and some people are born that way, They just see artistically. It's taken me a long time to even get close to that. Now I'm working probably to where he's been, mentally.

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