Celebration: Remembering—A Tribute to Bob Brookmeyer
Trombonist and composer-arranger Bob Brookmeyer packed several lifetimes’ worth of music into almost 82 years of living. Now the rest of us have the rest of our lives to try to catch up to where he left off.
Trombonist and composer-arranger Bob Brookmeyer was born in 1929 in Kansas City, Missouri, ground zero for the original Count Basie Orchestra, which young Bobby B. first heard play live at the Tower Theatre when he was 11 years old. (“Basie gave me my first full-body thrill” was how Bob was fond of putting it.) He died on December 15, 2011, just three days shy of what would have been his 82nd birthday. He began playing and writing professionally at age 14, and remained active and vital right up to the end—his final recording, Standards, was released just two weeks before he left us. The album is a fitting coda to a rich musical life—it feels like the concentrated distillation of Bob’s entire career, a return to the classic American songbook tunes he loved, filtered through a lifetime of compositional exploration.
Brookmeyer first started attracting notice in the early 1950s as a member of groups led by Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan. His gruff, burnished tone and fluid, conversational phrasing on valve trombone made him an instant favorite on the jazz scene, a musician’s musician. At the same time, he was working as an arranger-for-hire out of copyist Emile Charlap’s office—among other things, he ended up ghostwriting a couple of arrangements on the album The Genius of Ray Charles. In 1958 he joined the Jimmy Giuffre 3, which featured the unorthodox combination of Giuffre’s saxophone and clarinet with Brookmeyer’s valve trombone and Jim Hall’s guitar—the group can be seen and heard during the opening credit sequence to Bert Stern’s classic concert film Jazz on a Summer’s Day . He was also an accomplished pianist, having held the piano chair in bands led by Tex Beneke and Ray McKinley, and in 1959, he famously went head-to-head with no less than Bill Evans, in a two-piano record called The Ivory Hunters. It wasn’t Bob’s idea—he’d assumed he would be playing trombone, and only discovered otherwise when he arrived at the date—but he more than holds up his end.
But it was in the 1960s that Brookmeyer came into his own. He became the principal arranger, lead trombonist, and “straw boss” (de facto music director) for Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band, a nimble 13-piece outfit that was in many ways the precursor for another important large ensemble, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, in which Brookmeyer played lead trombone, and for which he wrote five stone classics: the originals “ABC Blues” and “Samba Con Getchu,” and evocative re-imaginings of “St. Louis Blues,” “Willow Tree,” and “Willow Weep For Me.” During this time, he also co-led a popular quintet with Clark Terry—like the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band (but unusually for the time) the Terry-Brookmeyer Quintet had shared leadership between a black musician and a white one.
In 1968, depressed about declining opportunities in New York, Brookmeyer moved out to California. He kept busy playing on film scores and such in the Hollywood recording studios, but essentially abandoned any kind of creative involvement in music. He was drinking heavily and popping pills. He was 38 years old when he left New York, and did not expect he’d live much longer.
Instead, in 1977, something changed. He went into recovery and began playing jazz again, with Bill Holman’s Los Angeles-based ensemble. In 1978, Stan Getz hired him back for a European tour, and he made his first jazz record in over a decade—Back Again, with pianist Jimmy Rowles, bassist George Mraz, and his old friends Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. After Thad moved to Copenhagen, Mel invited Brookmeyer to rejoin the orchestra as composer-in-residence, ushering in a period of creative rejuvenation that surely ranks as one of the most incredible comebacks in American music.
He began studying composition with New York School composer Earle Brown and conducting with Joel Thome. He recorded two career-defining albums of new music with the Mel Lewis Orchestra, Bob Brookmeyer Composer-Arranger and Make Me Smile. He also started composing for and recording with several European state-sponsored jazz ensembles, including the Cologne-based WDR Band and the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra. He wrote spiky big-M modernist orchestral works, like his Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra, featuring Jim Hall with the Stockholm Radio Symphony, and a Double Concerto for Two Orchestras. He began teaching at the Manhattan School of Music, and co-founded the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop with Manny Albam. During this time, Bob also met the love of his life, Jan, who became his wife and partner—everyone who knows her knows what a positive, transformative influence she had on him.
In 1991, Bob and Jan moved to Rotterdam, where he laid the foundations for what he called the World School of Jazz, an ambitious undertaking that sadly never took root. But it helped plant the seed for Brookmeyer’s New Art Orchestra, a large ensemble he founded in 1995, using handpicked, mostly young, mostly European musicians. It was the first and only big band Brookmeyer would ever lead under his own name. Under his direction, they recorded five albums of his music. Meanwhile, Bob and Jan had returned to the United States and settled in New Hampshire. He began teaching at the New England Conservatory in 1997 and remained on faculty there for the next ten years, well into his seventies.
I had seen Bob Brookmeyer live with the Danish Radio Big Band at a jazz conference in 1994, but my first actual interaction with him happened online. Sometime in the late ‘90s, Bob started posting a series of commentaries to his web site. He called them “Currents.” Essentially it was a blog before there were blogs. He would opine on all manner of things—football and politics, but also music. Like any good blogger, Bob was keenly aware that it’s the most opinionated, critical posts that attract the most attention, and he was never one to sugarcoat. At one point, Bob posted something dismissive about a musician I greatly admire, and I must admit, I took the bait.
This would have been in 1999. I was 24 years old and living in Montreal. I’d begun teaching an introductory arranging class at McGill, and I wanted to discuss one of Bob’s scores with my students. I had many questions, so I emailed Bob to ask about various mysterious details in the music. And then, at the end of my email, I could not resist mentioning that I’d read what he’d written about so-and-so, and I didn’t think he was giving him a fair shake.
I don’t know that I really expected a response. But Bob got back to me right away (within a few hours, if memory serves), kindly answered all my naive questions about his music, and proffered an even more pointed and detailed critique of the artist than what he’d originally written. But after that, we got to corresponding, and eventually Bob suggested that I send him some of my own music.
I was terrified, of course, but how do you refuse an offer like that? I remember my hands were shaking as I put the package down on the post office counter. Included was a score and recording of a piece I’d written, Sang-Froid, a shameless carbon copy of Maria Schneider’s early work, with bits pilfered from Kenny Wheeler thrown in for good measure. At best, it was maybe a semi-competent bit of derivative juvenilia (and that’s being extraordinarily generous), but Bob must have seen the spark of something in it, because he invited me to study with him at NEC. Things were finally starting to go well for me in Montreal and I hadn’t planned on pursing a graduate degree, but now Bob had made me an offer I really couldn’t refuse.
I began at NEC in the fall of 2000, still terrified. But Bob turned out to be the most exceptional teacher I’ve ever encountered. Lots of jazz musicians take teaching gigs because they need the money, or they enjoy basking in the admiration of young people. Bob did not take up the mantle of educator lightly—he was as serious about teaching as he was about composing or playing. He had developed a repertoire of assignments, which he gave to all of his students—white-note exercises, intervallic exercises, rhythmic exercises—but as he learned what a student required, he would tailor his approach to each individual. He didn’t do anything by rote, and he judged everyone’s work by the same impossible standards he set for himself.
It’s funny, though. During our first several months together, Bob played his cards uncharacteristically close to the vest. I remember my fellow composition majors trading stories about how mercilessly he would dissect their work. But whenever I would bring in the chart I was plugging away at, Bob wouldn’t say much of anything! He would listen attentively to the recording and perform a detailed examination of the score, but declined to offer any sort of feedback, other than, “Okay…what comes next?” I began to fear that Bob considered my work so thoroughly unremarkable that he could not even be bothered to voice a critique! Finally, as we neared the end of the semester and I had completed the piece—a 13-minute blowout called “Lizard Brain”—and Bob saw the double barline at the end, then the dissection began. (It was gloriously merciless.) Bob later told me: “I could see that you were pushing yourself to do something different, something you didn’t exactly know how to do. But the wheels seemed to be turning okay on their own. I didn’t want to stop the bus before you got to wherever it was that you were headed.”
It’s impossible to imagine what my life would have been like without Bob. Certainly I would never have had the guts or the wherewithal to move to New York or start my own big band! After I left Boston, we kept in intermittent contact—I wasn’t as close to him as some, but I tried to keep him abreast of whatever I had going on. I have a treasure trove of concise but unfailingly encouraging correspondence from Bob: “Congratulations! Very pleased you are making a dent in the big city.” “Good news, my friend!!! Keep it up.” “I have been meaning to congratulate on the commission—read about it and am proud as always.” During his 80th birthday celebration concert at Eastman, I got to sit next to him in the audience as the students played their hearts out on perilously difficult material, like “The Nasty Dance” and “Say Ah.” I’d catch little sidelong glimpses of him beaming with admiration. It’s one of my favorite memories.
When Secret Society was invited to perform at the Newport Jazz Festival last year, on George Wein’s suggestion I invited Bob to play a piece with us, one that I would write to feature him. When he accepted, it was beyond terrifying—writing for Bob! At Newport, no less! What the hell was I thinking? It was without a doubt the hardest thing I’d ever had to write. But when the festival weekend came around, Bob fell sick and wasn’t able to make it. He told me afterwards that he owed me a recording, but unfortunately we were never able to make that happen. I also desperately wanted him to hear a recording of the music from Brooklyn Babylon, the multimedia production I co-created with Danijel Zezelj and premiered at BAM last month. Sadly, he passed just days before we finished mixing.
The most important lesson Bob taught me, the one I hope will last me a lifetime, is the importance of patience. You’ve got to give each musical idea time and space not just to be heard, but to be appreciated. Bob’s best music is full of moments of tremendous power that are only possible because he’s set them up so patiently. In life, Bob was not always an entirely patient man, and he was not always fully appreciated. He never really got his due—his music is not widely known outside of a small community of devotees. (Several of his most influential recordings, including Make Me Smile, have languished out of print for years.) But amongst musicians, his status is properly legendary. Bob packed several lifetimes’ worth of music into almost 82 years of living. Now the rest of us have the rest of our lives to try to catch up to where he left off.
Jim Hall was the guitarist in the innovative bass-less, drummer-less edition of the Jimmy Giuffre 3, which included Brookmeyer on valve trombone and Giuffre on saxophones and clarinet. One of Bob’s most beloved recordings was Live at the North Sea Jazz Festival 1979, which documents a duo concert with Jim Hall. In 1984, Jim premiered Brookmeyer’s Guitar Concerto with the Stockholm Radio Symphony.
In New York in the ’50s, the scene was pretty amazing, especially around Greenwich Village. There were jam sessions at artists’ lofts, hosted by painters like Ray Parker, Willem De Kooning…Gil Evans was around, and George Russell, Jimmy Rainey, Bill Crow. That’s where I really got to know Bob. We did a lot of playing together at those late-night sessions, with all different configurations of instruments.
Somehow, the trio with Giuffre seemed pretty normal to me. Bobby just could fit in anywhere; it was very easy making music with him, actually, in a duet or a trio or anything. In Giuffre’s trio, we went through several different bass players, but then we got to hanging out with Bob, and it worked so easily that it just seemed natural to get him in the trio.
[On Brookmeyer’s Guitar Concerto] I had never fooled around with any foot pedals on the guitar. I sort of stayed away from those, but Bob had it written in my part that he wanted this effect and that effect, so he broadened my feeling about the guitar. That’s the kind of musician Bob was: if there was something there to be done, he’d find a way to do it. And it was really a thrill to play with a symphony orchestra.
He was an incredibly bright, inventive, creative guy, with a great sense of humor, really. In a way, I think of the painters from those loft parties, Parker, De Kooning…an artist needn’t get just frozen in one place. I’m sure that’s kind of the way Bob felt about it. It certainly is the way I do as well.
Bill Holman is a contemporary of Brookmeyer’s, a composer-arranger living in Los Angeles. His tribute to Bob, “Septuagenary Revels,” opens Madly Loving You, an album celebrating Brookmeyer’s 70th birthday.
When Bob made his first record with Stan Getz, I read a review that said he’d played some “erudite solos.” I wanted to see what an erudite soloist was like, and he was coming to town, playing at the Lighthouse, so I went down to meet him… with some trepidation, not quite knowing about erudite people. Within in a few minutes, we were at a liquor store buying a bottle of scotch, so you know, we got together very quickly, and we’ve been good friends ever since.
Years later, when he first went into recovery, everyone was so glad to see him straight, you know? He came in to my band and made several rehearsals and some gigs—I was recovering myself, so I was trying to get my writing going again. And then those first two albums he did for Mel Lewis’s band [Bob Brookmeyer Composer/Arranger and Make Me Smile] really killed me. I knew he’d been getting back together as well, and I was really anxious to hear the result, and they were great.
But then he kind of repudiated the things he’d done before—he disowned them, practically. He didn’t want to have too much to do with the jazz business. He was very eager to get his contemporary chops going. When he wrote the [Gerry] Mulligan tribute [Celebration Suite, composed 1994], I think he kind of reconnected with jazz during that time…I think his music lightened up quite a bit after that. He was allowing himself to hear all those things he’d heard before.
Jim McNeely was the pianist in the Mel Lewis Orchestra when Brookmeyer returned to the band in 1980 and became the group’s composer-in-residence—a position now held by Jim, who also holds down the piano chair in the group, now known as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.
The first arrangement Bob wrote for Mel was “Skylark.” I remember Bob saying to me, “If this doesn’t work, I’m just going to not bother anymore.” The first time we played it, I was absolutely blown away. I thought, “Geez, this is an amazing piece of writing….I guess this means he’ll be around for a while.”
Then he started to bring in the rest of the music that would be on his first album with Mel’s band [Bob Brookmeyer Composer-Arranger]—”First Love Song” and “Ding Dong Ding” were the first time I’d ever encountered that kind of thing, where the band stops and you’ve got to just play—the elevator door opens up and there’s no elevator waiting for you!
The music from the next record, Make Me Smile, really opened my ears up; it made me think about form in a different way. There was also what I thought of as a dry kind of tension in his harmony that I really liked. Being a dutiful young jazz pianist in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, I was into some of the newer kinds of harmonies, especially major 7th sharp 5 chords, and Bob was really intrigued by all that. So the piece he wrote to feature me [“McNeely’s Piece”] was full of ’em—I mean, god, there was a whole sequence to play over, moving up in fourths….He kind of called my own bluff, you know? “Oh, yeah, you’re into that chord? Well here, try playing on this!” It was really hard!
We never played that piece too much after we recorded it. I dug it, but I think it was a little too acerbic for what Mel wanted to be doing with the band. Bob was studying with Earle Brown and getting into a lot of postwar contemporary orchestral and chamber writing….He wrote one called “XYZ,” there was one called “The German Hit Parade,” there was “Ezra Pound”…. Mel tried to hang in there with it as long as he could, but I think for people coming to the [Village] Vanguard…they weren’t responding. Bob said that he “wrote his way out of Mel’s band,” which is pretty close to the truth. It was amicable when they parted ways. Mel realized that Bob’s gotta do what he’s gotta do, and I think Bob realized, “Well, I’ve got to find another place to work out this stuff, ’cause it’s not going to work at the Vanguard.”
I remember telling Mel, “You know, he’s going to learn a lot doing this stuff, and I think some day he’s going to come back and meet somewhere in the middle”—which I think he did. The last number of things he wrote were rhythmically pretty straight-ahead, but his sense of form, and the storyline and the shape were just magnificently structured. And I think everything he was doing in his last few years with the New Art Orchestra, it was all informed by what he had learned in the process of really sticking his neck out there for a while.
Saxophonist Joe Lovano, like McNeely, was a member of the Mel Lewis Orchestra during in the 1980s. The two of them were also members of Brookmeyer’s ’80s sextet, a group which also included Dick Oatts (alto saxophone), Michael Moore (bass), and either Mel Lewis or Adam Nussbaum (drums).
My dad [saxophonist Tony Lovano] had a great record collection. Jim Hall was from Cleveland too, and was a friend of my dad’s, so we had the Jimmy Giuffre 3 recordings with Jim and Bob…also the Stan Getz band, and the stuff with Gerry Mulligan—I heard all those things growing up. And Bob just touched me immediately, with his tone and beautiful approach…so melodic, you know? And that way of playing, that contrapuntal improvisation, became what it was all about for me. The roots of that, of course, are in New Orleans, but the modern jazz players of Bob’s generation really set the pace for the whole creative flow of the music. That way of playing became really important for me.
I was also really into the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band, those early records with “Willow Weep For Me” and all those pieces Bob orchestrated and wrote. The band came to Cleveland when I was a senior in high school, and that was a big thing. I was like, “Man, how do I get myself together to play in that band someday?” It was something to reach for.
Ten years later [in 1980], I joined the band, right around the time Bob came back. We went to Europe, and Bob fronted the band on that tour. He was conducting and playing his ass off! He would lift the entire band with his ideas, his rhythm, his phrasing…that was the first time I really played with him, stood toe-to-toe with him.
When we went in for the first rehearsal of the Make Me Smile charts, we didn’t know what Bob was bringing in….It was incredible to play through that music. “The Nasty Dance” was a feature for me that had a lot of free, open spaces in it, and also amazing harmonic sequences….It had many things within that form. It was something he wrote for me, he gave me a lot of trust, so right from the get-go, it was like, wow, I have a lot of room to be myself—and yet, I have to deal with playing this structure. There are a lot of open moments where it’s up to you as a soloist to tie things together and to play with a sense of orchestration. That was the beauty of Bob’s writing: he was a collaborator. He created environments and atmospheres in his music for others to create within.
In 1985, Maria Schneider received an NEA Apprenticeship Grant to study with Brookmeyer, before going on to become the most acclaimed composer and bandleader of her generation. Through it all, she remained close to Bob and was instrumental in persuading him to record what would be his final album, Standards, for which she also wrote the liner notes.
When I first started studying with Bob, I was kind of baffled by him, baffled by all the questions he would ask me, “Why is there a solo? Why do you have chord changes there?” He would ask me about things that, to me, were just the most obvious and only solutions. And then slowly, what I started to distill from everything, subliminally, was, “Wow, I guess there are a lot more choices. We don’t have to write jazz big band music as if we’re putting up a prefab house, here.”
This was also exactly when I met Gil Evans, so I was working for Gil and studying with Bob Brookmeyer at the same time. What was interesting is that Bob used to express a little bit of intimidation about the mystery of Gil, he so admired him…and Gil was the same way about Bob. I had mentioned to Gil that I was studying with Bob, and Gil started saying, “Oh my god, he’s so amazing, he’s so intellectual…” and I could tell that Gil sort of shrunk in his confidence. Not that either of these two people were competitive in that way. It wasn’t that so much as just this admiration that made them wonder if somehow I was comparing them to each other. And I thought it was so beautiful. It was like, wow, here’s two men whose music is so different from each other, yet both so powerful, and they both have such tremendous reverence for each other.
In our lessons, Bob would throw his arm in the air with the pencil, almost like he was conducting something, using the body to show how he wanted you to get strength and power into the music, to not sit there and just be all in the head—to make the music physical.
We became close friends, but you know, I was always still a little scared of Bob—he was so intense, I always approached him with a little bit of fear. But for being so intimidating and scary, when you needed support and kindness, there was not a more generous soul and heart on the planet than Bob.
John Hollenbeck was the drummer in the New Art Orchestra, a handpicked group of mostly European musicians (Hollenbeck was the exception) which Brookmeyer assembled in 1995 and continued to lead for the rest of his life. The following is excerpted, with John’s kind permission, from the extensive Brookmeyer tribute he has posted to his website—I implore you to read the whole thing.
The New Art Orchestra evolved out of The Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival Big Band, which was initially run through the auspices of this northern Germany Festival. We performed as the S-H MF Big Band at the Festival and in subsequent years, we’d get on a bus afterwards and head out to perform in other cities as the New Art Orchestra. Bob used to joke that once we drove far enough out of town, it was time to change the sign on the bus to the “New Art Orchestra.”
From the beginning, Bob taught NAO how to be a band. He had this educational talent that is unique, mainly due to his exhaustive experience and dedication. His musical life was a personal trip through jazz history. We worked persistently on sound, phrasing, and ensemble playing. He told me, as the drummer, what he loved about Mel and Elvin too, but mostly Mel, the drummer/magician who had the unique gift to make a band sound great with grace and coolness. But he also said: Do not even bother trying to copy, because no matter how close you get, you will never be Mel. But knowing what Mel did that Bob loved was extremely helpful. He told me to play with perceived abandon while never forgetting about the groove or setting up the band, but making it all sound like a happy coincidence. He always wanted a lot of activity on the snare drum so that the band could always feel the beat. Cracking the code on how to play drums in a big band is what I imagine learning to drive an 18-wheeler is like. Bob coached me for years until I got to the point where I could easily conjure his advice in my head and integrate it as I was playing.
The New Art Orchestra meant a lot not only to the players, but also to Bob—to have a band of young, enthusiastic people who loved him and listened intently to every word he said was a gift that Bob sincerely appreciated and he told us this often. We learned so much about music and how to make exceptional music with a large group of people.
Kris Goessens was the pianist in the New Art Orchestra, and also performed and recorded with Brookmeyer in more intimate groups, including a duo that became one of Bob’s favorite playing situations.
He was an incredibly intelligent man, able to express and grab the essence of things in just a couple of words, just as he did with his music. I’ll never forget the time we were playing duo for a week in La Villa in Paris. One of those nights, we ended the concert with “In Your Own Sweet Way.” As we never planned anything in advance, we ended up playing single lines together for about six, seven minutes, or maybe even longer, as an outro. We were skating, a very nice blend in sound, time, and contour of the melodic lines. When we finished, it was clear by the audience’s reaction that they had just experienced what we had. As we got off stage Brookmeyer turned and said, “They believed us.”
I was lucky to have spent time with Bob and his amazing life companion, Jan, while they were living in Rotterdam. We spent a couple of years playing in duo for hours at my home, three times a week, listening to and talking about music and life, to always end up playing chess.
During that period, he founded his New Art Orchestra, for which he wanted to engage young musicians. He knew exactly which ingredients he needed for his band. One could apply to audition by sending a recording, and I remember that Bob would know in a few seconds who he wanted, why, and on which chair in the band. Hardly any changes have been made ever since. Playing his music with these musicians is like playing in a large ensemble with the feeling of small ensemble.
I know Bob loved Jan a lot. His words were, “It’s hard not to…” and this I can only confirm. I think Bob and the guys would allow me to say that she is an important member of the band. The lady who breathes love. Without Jan it would have been very difficult to keep the band going and make the recordings and concerts we did.
Bill Kirchner is a jazz musician, producer, historian, and educator. He contributed the liner notes to the Mosaic Records box sets The Complete Verve Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band Sessions and The Complete Solid State Recordings of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, among other important documents of Brookmeyer’s work. His composition Variations On A Theme By Brookmeyer was recently premiered by the Manhattan School of Music Concert Jazz Band.
Bob Brookmeyer’s growth as a musician, especially as a composer-arranger, was one of the most extraordinary evolutions in jazz history. He began as a distinctive and progressive, but still rather mainstream, jazz musician in the 1950s and ‘60s. But from the late ‘70s onward, his writing in particular took on a more unusual flavor, inspired considerably by his interest in such contemporary classical composers as Witold Lutoslawski and Earle Brown. He also became more interested in expanding the possibilities of form and development in jazz composition. As he told his students, “Don’t introduce an improvising soloist until you’ve exhausted every other possibility.”
Dave Rivello is a composer/bandleader based in Rochester, New York, and was Bob’s longtime copyist, confidant, and friend. He organized the 80th birthday tribute concert at the Eastman School of Music.
Back in 1995, on [arranger] Manny Albam’s recommendation, Bob contacted me and hired me as a copyist for the piece he had written for Clark Terry’s 75th birthday. It was a four-movement suite, and I never copied so fast in my life! Pages were coming in by FedEx every day…. When I was calling him with copying questions, I mentioned that I’d really like to take a lesson with him sometime, and he told me, “Okay, we can work that out. You can come here and bring some of your music, and then you can decide if you want to work with me and I’ll decide if I want to work with you.” And I remember thinking, well, half of that equation is already figured out!
So for my first lesson, I flew to Hanover, New Hampshire [from Rochester, New York]. He picked me up from the airport in his Camaro, we had our first lesson, he drove me back to the airport, and I flew back to Rochester, but I had a four-hour layover in Philadelphia, so it was like a 23-hour day by the time I got home…and I couldn’t remember anything Bob had told me! I didn’t bring a recorder, either! But over the course of the next several days, it all sort of sifted out in my brain….It was the beginning of 15 amazing years that I had with Bob.
I consider my time with him a doctorate without the piece of paper. What he taught me and what he gave me, I’ll still be figuring out when I’m 80 years old.
I first met composer Ayn Inserto when we were both students at NEC. She was instrumental in organizing the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, a student ensemble directed by Bob and dedicated to performing works by NEC jazz composition majors. She currently leads her own Boston-based jazz orchestra.
I remember when I was going through a tough time emotionally during my second semester at NEC, I said to him, “I don’t know if I’ll be one hundred percent at my lesson,” and he told me, “You need to come up here this weekend!” So I went up to his home in New Hampshire, and we just hung out and listened to music. He took me and Jan to dinner, and then at the end of the night, he gave me this look and asked, “You wanna get some ice cream?” So there was Bob Brookmeyer, in the middle of Ben and Jerry’s in mid-February, counting change and buying me ice cream, as if he was, like, “Uncle” Bob!
His voice is always still in my head—my favorite thing that he says is: “You can’t get attached to your tune; you’ve got to be able to able to take it apart, or throw it away.” He would talk about “taking your ear and putting down on the table”…meaning listening as if you’re not you, as if you hadn’t written it.
Saxophonist and composer Matana Roberts is another friend from my NEC days. In addition to his private teaching and his stewardship of the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, Brookmeyer also used to teach improvisation workshops, which is where Matana first encountered Bob.
I remember I was afraid to go to this workshop because I knew it would be me and a bunch of really amazing traditional bop players, and I was worried I would stand out uncomfortably. Anyhow, Bob immediately welcomed me and, after my first solo, made the whole band stop and lectured the other guys good-naturedly on how important it is to find an original voice in this music. I was floored by his kindness. He also made some hilarious, slightly off-color jokes about white folks that I greatly appreciated, being the only black person/woman in the room. It made us all laugh at the ridiculousness of difference.
He was really open to modernism, but still dedicated to traditionalism in a way that was so refreshing—which is not something I can say about everyone of his generation. I don’t know where he got it from. I think it might have been because he came up around so many innovators…and also was thankful just to still be out there.
But above all that, he had a deep, critical integrity towards his own work, and I hope that’s his lasting legacy. He inspires me to have high critical standards towards my own approach. He inspires me to keep asking questions.
Composer Ryan Truesdell also studied with Brookmeyer at NEC, and in recent years became one of Bob’s most valued associates. In addition to working as his assistant, copyist, and archivist, he actively persued making Brookmeyer’s scores and parts available from his website, and produced his recent radio recording with the Hamburg-based NDR Bigband.
There aren’t too many people around who have the kind of history that Bob had—and he was completely and utterly clear about all of it, too. He remembered what he had for lunch on some day in 1945. It was incredible!
These last few years were tough for him; he would have these bouts of fatigue and his health would kind of roller coaster up and down. But throughout all of that, he always had this laundry list of things that he wanted to do. He was very ambitious with his planning. Whatever his health situation was, Bob was always looking for the next new great project that would challenge him and offer him some sort of education within his own writing.
I was fortunate enough to see Bob rehearse a lot of bands: student bands, European groups, the Vanguard band. And leading up to the rehearsal, he might not have been feeling well; he might have been sick in bed for the past week. But whatever his mood was beforehand, the minute walked into that rehearsal and sat down on a stool in front of the podium, he was in his element. It was like he was twenty-five years old again.
He loved working with young musicians, even though it was exhausting for him, because he would just pour out every bit of energy that he had to share. I know that he was still buying CDs like crazy; anybody’s new CD that would come out, he’d give it a listen. Probably nine times out of ten he didn’t like it—but he was always interested in wanting to hear where music was going and what people were doing.
Trumpeter-fluegelhornist Clark Terry is one of Bob’s oldest and dearest friends. In the ’60s, they were both members of the Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band, and co-led an influential quintet. Over the years, Brookmeyer wrote a number of pieces to feature Clark, including “El Co” from Bob Brookmeyer Composer/Arranger and a 75th birthday suite, the first movement of which is viewable on YouTube. The following is reprinted, with permission, from Terry’s 2011 autobiography, Clark.
Bob Brookmeyer and I had a “mutual admiration society,” loved playing together, so much so that we got a little group together in the early ‘60s. We named it the Clark Terry/Bob Brookmeyer Quintet and got a nice gig going at the Half Note—Eddie Costa on piano, Osie Johnson on drums, and Joe Benjamin on bass. It was one of the best groups ever. [N.B. later it was Roger Kellaway (piano) Bill Crow (bass), and Dave Bailey (drums).]
The harmony that Bob and I had was super. I was digging the valve trombone that Bob played because that was the first instrument I was given in high school, but the way its sound married with my flugelhorn sound was something special. We could feel each other’s next moves and enjoyed the way we managed to play simultaneously throughout the changes. We called it “noodling.” Usually one player wants to outshine the other, but we had a way of blending together that allowed both of us to shine. We really tried to make each other sound beautiful.
Terry, who just celebrated his 91st birthday, is currently recovering from major surgery. His wife, Gwen, has released the following statement via his website :
Clark was very, very saddened when he heard that Bob had passed away. After he gained his composure, he said, “We had a very special friendship. We knew that we loved each other.” He wasn’t able to say much more.
Not much more needs to be said. Rest in peace, Bob. We loved you madly.