Monday, February 29, 2016

Bob Brookmeyer: An Interview With Bill Coss

© -  Steven A. Cerra - copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Jazz author and critic Bill Coss wrote many articles for both Down Beat and Metronome magazines in the 1950s and 1960. He was for a time the editor of Metronome’s annual Yearbook, a compilation of drawings, anecdotes and articles on a variety of subjects including Jazz.

This is Bill Coss’ first visit to these pages and what makes it even more memorable is that he brings with him a delightful interview with valve trombonist, composer and arrangers, Bob Brookmeyer.

Conducted in 1961, in the years following the interview Bob would go on to develop one of the legendary careers in the Jazz world both at home and in Europe. Bob died in 2011.

“Bob Brookmeyer is a deceptively relaxed, tightly poised, carefully cynical young man whose social and musical comments are highly polished examples of opposites—the brooding playboy, the thoughtful imp.

"You say I'm playing better than I ever played before?" He smiles, lights a cigarette, coughs, explains that he hasn't a cold, "just New York bronchitis," to which he has "patiently adjusted" rather than follow doctor's orders to give up smoking. "I'd say," he finally does say, "that I'm playing just as bad as I ever did.

"Maybe there seems to be an improvement because I'm playing with a big band. Your solos are necessarily short in a band of any size. You have to stress consistency. No, it's not a thing you regret. It's a worthwhile sacrifice, a responsibility toward 13 or 14 other people, the other guys in the band. I know Gerry feels that way too.

"Am I being a disappointment? I remember one time when an interview got off to a flying finish as soon as I answered the critic's first two questions. You know, they were the usual ones: what is jazz and where is it going?

"I told him that jazz was a living and that jazz was going down the drain. That was a put-on, of course, but jazz is my living. That's about as far as I want to go on the subject. No definitions, thank you. It's my living and I do the best I can.

"I've stayed away from analyzing it. I stay away from all the tags too, this tabloid thinking that somehow got into jazz. All the words that are used are pretty silly. Jazz is a pretty silly word, for that matter.

"As I say, all I know about jazz is that you do the best you can. You learn that you can't cheat on the music; you can't even sacrifice the music for your home life.
"That's why I'm not especially interested in where jazz may be going. I'm only concerned with writing jazz, much more so than in the playing of it. And I can't get especially involved in the futuristic developments. Those people who do are certainly important enough, if only because you can learn things negatively from them. But the danger of living or working in the future is that you lose so much of present humanity that way. When people complain about some experimentalists, that's really what they are complaining about, or what they should be complaining about — the loss of humanity."

Jazz is a human voice, as one critic has put it. Most of our great instrumentalists would agree with that in one way or another, and with its application to their playing. As Brookmeyer would say it: "What you are producing should be a human sound. The metal instrument is just a thing you use. It shouldn't determine you or what you do. But it does for too many musicians today. That's why so many of the musicians sound alike.

"I grant you that most young trombonists wouldn't want to sound like Bill Harris. (You know he influenced me more than anyone else.) But my point is that they couldn't, even if they wanted to. They play the instrument, not themselves. Bill played himself on the instrument. When it wouldn't do what he wanted to say, he damn well stomped on it until it did. Jazz is a personal expression. A jazzman should be saying what he feels. He's one human being talking to others, telling his story — and that means humor and sadness, joy, all the things that humans have. You tell it freely and honestly, and sometimes you don't make it. It's a matter of percentages; like, telling a joke that no one laughs at. But you tell it, whatever it is, and it's yours. That's you, that's human, that's jazz."

That's the convinced and dedicated Brookmeyer speaking; preaching, if you will, and come naturally by the conviction, dedication and preaching, if your bit is environmentalism, because his early environment was in the jazz bedrock of Kansas City.

Born just five miles from its heart, across the viaduct on the Kansas side, on December 19, 1929, he has written expressively and charmingly about his experience there for a United Artists album cover:

". . . some lovely and lasting talk came out of there — some gentleness (genteelness, if you will), that could only be found around men who so fully knew what they did and wherein they spoke that relaxation was the only way to express it. When you're not sure, it gets very nervous, but that utter confidence in swing is hard to beat. . .

"When I was one of the youngest jazz fans in the country, my dad and I would cheat on the parson a Sunday or two and stay by the radio to wait for the 15 minutes of Basie, 10:45 over KCKN (now a country and western station, bless their souls). Then too, Basie would be through town at the Tower theater, five, six times a year and I got to be a real pro at forging passes from school to catch three shows and two bad Westerns before there would be some salt from the home kitchen. First time I ever heard any really close up was around my 13th year. A kiddy band I toiled with was waiting their turn at old Garrett hall and we came upon Oliver Todd's six-piece band—they would make anybody's jaw slacken up a bit with Little Phil (Edward Phillips, now hopelessly a mental patient, due to our lovely and humane local 'apartheid'), and some of the easiest, longest time I had ever seen. My, that was a sight that I shan't forget. When I was old enough to sneak into the night clubs and dives where the good bands played, it was always the same feeling, to my heart anyway. Smooth, deep, rich, mellow, like a fine cigarette, if you will. But with a 'cleanup' local government, the end of the war, and the advent of the ofay bopper, that pretty well washed up swing music in KC. There are still a lot of my friends about who went to school with Bird, danced to Basie at the old Reno club, loved all that the easy jive stood for, but you can't hold a wake all your life, so—nothin' shakin' back home—Wolfe was right —Home in a pine box. . ."

If you feel a resemblance to F. Scott Fitzgerald in the movement of this writing, even in Brookmeyer's care for words, accept the thought and file it carefully. Unfortunately, he doesn't feel that he has time for the written word. Fortunately, he feels he has the time for the written note, about which more later in this essay. Fortunately, too, there is every possible resemblance between the Brookmeyer love of the old Kansas City and his musical, personal expression of it today.

What Leonard Feather has described as a style which is bop-influenced, but definitely in the mainstream, "resembling a valve equivalent of Bill Harris," got off to a strange start. Bob began his career as a clarinetist, added trombone and piano, and studied at the Kansas City Conservatory before he went into the Army. After military service, he rejoined Tex Beneke as a pianist. "I still played slide trombone, though, but just now and then. But when I auditioned for Claude Thornhill, I tried the valve. That was in 1952. I found the slide instrument lacked the passion of the valve, and it was easier to say things I wanted to say with trumpet fingering.

"In those days, there was so much prejudice against the valve trombone. It was thought of as a doubling instrument. Several bands had trumpeters who would suddenly change chairs and make the trombone section sound bigger for certain arrangements. It's different now, but I still see conductors look at me weirdly. Still, they pay you, so what's the difference?"

Beneke and Thornhill, and bands led by Ray McKinley, Louis Prima, Terry Gibbs, Jerry Wald, and Woody Herman, brought him to 1953 and a one-year affiliation with Stan Getz, which finally called him to the attention of the jazz world here and abroad. Jimmy Giuffre asked to be quoted, especially for this article, stating that "that band with Getz and Brookmeyer is my favorite of all the jazz groups I've ever heard."

Bob was being quoted widely by that time. To one interviewer he explained: "My style is composed of everything I've heard that I've liked, and even, I'm afraid, some things I haven't liked." Or. "There's something timeless about all the great things in jazz. Something that cuts across years and styles. I've listened to and collected what I could of old Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Sidney Bechet, and Mezz Mezzrow, along with lots of others. There's strength and simplicity in them."

Once, when he was questioned about what seemed to be retrogression, he said: "In the past two or three years, especially . . . now that I've settled down in my playing, all this interest in the past and in the folk influence around me has become reactivated . . . I'm going to start doing more research. I don't mean I'm going to make bathtub gin, but I'm going to listen and find more sheet music . . . I'm not afraid of being called retrogressive. Music can be like love and painting. Just because a song and a spirit have been around a while doesn't mean it's diminished in value."

At the same time he began to be analyzed by jazz writers, the very thing he says he most abhors, although his own words are indicative of a very careful analysis. Ira Gitler remembers that during his visits to Kansas City in the late 1940s, "the musicians around town spoke warmly of him. The one thing that they all had in common was an enthusiasm for the playing of Bob Brookmeyer."

Composer-arranger Bill Holman reflects that "obviously he has a lot of academic knowledge, but he never lets it interfere with his concept of what jazz should be.

He's used his knowledge of techniques to get across his thought, yet without destroying the thought itself." Nat Hentoff writes: "Brookmeyer has opened himself to jazz of all eras. He has absorbed, tested, and selected from the whole reservoir of autobiographies in sound that is the jazz language, those elements he felt relevant to his own experience in living and telling his story in jazz. He has listened and imagined farther back than Jelly Roll Morton and beyond Charlie Parker. He has not limited himself to any one era, school or attitude, preferring to filter all of jazz through his emotions rather than remain a parochial hipster."

The most concise of the reports on Brookmeyer is from critic-drummer Jack Maher: "Brookmeyer pours all he has learned of the past and the present into his playing. Harmonically and rhythmically, its source is a compressed history of the jazz heritage with a heavy emphasis on the wonderful rolling swing that was so much a part of the Basie contribution. Much of what Bob plays has a smooth, punching percussiveness to it. His ideas evolve out of basic phrases that are extended, restructured and re-accented rhythmically. This puts him in a distinct empathy with drummers. All kinds of inventions and improvisations come to the minds, hands, and feelings of the drummer as he listens to Bob. Harmonically, he has that unique ability to blend with other instruments. Besides unison, he can interweave ideas with another horn without yelling the other instrumentalists off the bandstand. He's articulate whether in group therapy or when he's carrying on a bit of self-analysis. His solos exist as entities in themselves. They build simply and slowly, increase in intensity and close out at the instinctive dramatic moment. . ."

The subject of all this (and the great deal more) is amazed at all the words, but pleased in a low-key kind of way. He likes readers to beware of long quotes attributed to him ("My God, the things I've said"). He wants, most positively, to be accepted on his own terms, and he is a positive thinker.

About playing: "Whatever instrument you play, you must have a passion for it, and you must play it passionately. Even if you aren't good and keep making mistakes, you must have the passion."

About a record of his own, he gives a set of directions that stand for almost any Brookmeyer album: "Just grab a nice glass of Dewar's Finest, one big, old and very easy chair, turn the volume up, and listen. Why, by neddies, you can even dance, if it's allowed in your town on Sunday. But above all, you're supposed to have a good time with it, otherwise you missed the whole point, and you can't do that." About adverse criticism: "You can tell Buddy (Rich, that is, who wondered critically in print for another publication) that the reason that we do what we do is because it's fun." "Can you imagine? Some writer in the middle-West said we had Billy May style arrangements.

"Anyway, I've begun to believe that there is one sure way of knowing whether you belong in a club or not. When the waiters treat you impossibly, you know that you've had it.

"I'm convinced that we are too much at the mercy of everyone. Unlike artists in almost any other field, we have no one to protect us. We need some kind of buffer. Martha Glaser is the best example of that; what she does to protect and advance Erroll Garner. She should probably be Secretary of State. She's had the experience."

About his current experience with the Gerry Mulligan Band: "I already said that the feeling of working with so many other people is a good one; everybody working for something believed in. I don't regret not playing in a small group. Arrangers and composers need a big band. There isn't anything quite like it. That's so for all musicians. Ask Mel Lewis. Look at all the things he gave up on the west coast to come with this band, just because he knew that he should play with a big jazz band."

About the future: "The immediate future, that is. The band is good, but we've never had a quiet time. Everything has been pressure and more pressure. That's no way to prepare for the present or the future. Gerry's very wisely about to call a halt to the band for about two months. Not a vacation, mind you; just a time to work, to write in peace and quiet, to relax and create. You know what I said about jazz being a living. Think about it that way. Just after the first of the year, we will shut down to retool. We'll bring out the spring line along about March some time."

January 19, 1961
Bob Brookmeyer: Strength and Simplicity

Down Beat

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