Still Clinging To The Wreckage 01/21, part 1

    Bob Brookmeyer was a trombonist - and musician - of extremes, causing some listeners to defect as he radically changed direction

    Bob Brookmeyer. Photo © JJ Archive

    Sixty-four years have passed since I found myself in the most horrifying predicament of my journalistic career (even worse than the time that I published Dodo Marmarosa’s obituary and his sister phoned The Independent from the States to complain. Dodo was standing beside her at the time). Back then I was writing for this magazine, but I also contributed interviews with jazz musicians to the Melody Maker. In 1956 I had a full-page interview in that paper with Bob Brookmeyer, the then 27-year-old who was touring here with Gerry Mulligan.

    ‘Why do I play valve trombone? I found the slide instrument lacked the passion of the valve. And it’s easier to say the things I want to say with trumpet fingering’

    It’s fair to say that, in the early days of his career, Bob had stronger opinions about jazz than almost any other musician and was happy enough to express them to someone who was quick enough to write them down. Most of the stuff he gave me then was very vivid, but he told me later that I’d caused him great embarrassment. He’d been controversial on West Coast jazz (“Most of the musicians who play it are dilettantes and to palm it off as jazz is disgraceful. It’s insipid and passionless.”) and Eddie Condon: “Whatever instrument you play you must have passion for it, and you must play it passionately. Even if you aren’t good and keep making mistakes, you must have that passion. That’s why I’ve no time for guys like Eddie Condon. What does he do? He’s got some great guys in his band – Wild Bill, for instance, but they’re not great because of Condon, and he doesn’t add to their greatness. And I’d hardly say that he played the guitar with passion.

    “I used to play Dixieland a lot, you know. In fact I was pianist with Pee Wee Russell’s band. Now he’s a musician – a sort of prehistoric Lester Young. There were some great guys in that band. Lou McGarity was one of them. He’s a fine trombone player, very much influenced by Tea, but who isn’t? Tea is one of the greatest influences of all time. He was the second, and Bill Harris was third. I forget who the first guy was. But Harris has influenced me more than anyone. Then Dickie Wells and Earl Swope. I’m very fond of Dickenson, too. He’s a sort of shaggy dog trombonist. Jay Jay Johnson? Marvellous!

    “Why do I play valve trombone? I found the slide instrument lacked the passion of the valve. And it’s easier to say the things I want to say with trumpet fingering. The positions on the slide aren’t half so accurate and this way I can play what I like without having doubts about finding the technique to say it.

    “I can’t say I’m very fond of any of the jazz valve trombonists today. Brad Gowans was great, but there is so little of his recorded work available. Most of the contemporary guys sound too much like slide men trying to play valve, which is what they are.”

    Brad Gowans was the first notable player to use the valve trombone in jazz. He was a most effective player, adept and exciting in Bud Freeman’s Summa Cum Laude Orchestra, and achieving his most spectacular work on the later titles that he recorded under Eddie Condon’s name, Farewell Blues and Improvisation For The March Of Time, for Decca. On that session Brad plays the valide, a valve trombone with a short slide that he had designed himself. The horn sounded to have great possibilities, but Brad never followed them up. He had been a Condon man from 1938 onwards. He was also a good clarinettist and had recorded on cornet with Red Nichols. He died in 1953 when he was 50.

    The instrument had been popular throughout the latter half of the 19th century, but improvements in the building of the slide trombone led to widespread defection to that instrument. Apart from Gowans, Juan Tizol and Bob Enevoldsen were the only dedicated users of the valve, although people like Bill Harris and Kai Winding played one occasionally.

    Bob Brookmeyer worked as a pianist around his native Kansas City and stayed with the keyboard until the early 50s. But he’d learned valve trombone in high school, and returned to the horn in the late 40s, settling easily into what seemed to have become his own private corner of jazz. He occasionally played piano but otherwise was devoted to the valve trombone, building a strong individualism and character.

    Bob Brookmeyer’s jazz career divided sharply into separate sections. The music at each end was so different that it was as though he were several different musicians. Jazz musicians are notable for their individuality, and the way that Brookmeyer moved about within his own sections was often unsettling. His many listeners found it difficult to keep pace with him, and as he moved between extremes, many chose not to accompany him.

    For those of us who are devotees of Bob’s middle ground, it reached its climax in 1960-61 with three albums.

    The build up to this brief period coincided with his friendship with Jimmy Giuffre. Giuffre was a truly progressive composer and arranger. His trio, which usually included Brookmeyer, seemed to play a kind of jazz based on country folk music, but in fact it was more subtle than that. It was he who was responsible for the Four Brothers sound of the saxophones in Woody Herman’s 2nd Herd and from that innovation onwards he did indeed keep his light under a bushel during the years when he worked with other notable and more lauded progressives such as Paul Bley. He was briefly reunited with Brookmeyer in 1968 when they co-led a quintet. Jimmy died on 24 April 2008.

    Brookmeyer’s name is often linked with that of Stan Getz, or “Stanley” as Bob always referred to him, even though Bob spent far less time playing with Getz than he did with Gerry Mulligan.

    “People who tag Gerry Mulligan as West Coast are stupid. Gerry is a warm, swinging and inventive musician. I think in time he will rise to the stature of musicians like Duke Ellington”, said Bob.

    “Gerry is a composer on his instrument, as opposed to a stylist like Stan Getz. Sometimes, but not often, you get a musician who is both a stylist and a composer – Miles Davis, for instance.

    “Gerry is so full of fire and inspiration. It’s ridiculous to describe him as cool. All these words like ‘cool’ and ‘hot’ and ‘bebop’ are just cheap words. They don’t mean much.

    “Of course jazz is an art! And I don’t just mean modern jazz. Guys like Sleepy John Estes, Sidney Bechet and those fellows. Remember those Mezzrow-Bechet records? The feeling they had for each other’s playing? Well, that’s one of the timeless things in jazz. Gerry and I are doing the same thing in a different way.

    ‘Stan Kenton? He was the original rebel without a cause. Give me the Duke any day. Ellington’s always had the greatest band in jazz and I don’t see anyone to challenge him at the moment’

    “I would go so far as to say that you can’t have jazz without three things: honesty, integrity and talent.”

    “Stan Kenton? He was the original rebel without a cause. Give me the Duke any day. Ellington’s always had the greatest band in jazz and I don’t see anyone to challenge him at the moment. The Basie band is at the top, of course. But remember, they’re only doing the one thing, while Duke’s band does everything.”

    Although Getz became a ranking pop star, or perhaps because he did, his career was buffeted about like Bob’s, sinking at one stage to the point where it lost most of its character. This low point was when his record companies decided to tie his playing to the fashionable mains-powered music inflicted on us by the electric piano, organ and derivatives. The companies had already committed surgery on Stan’s playing by tying him to the anodyne and characterless (from a jazz point of view) bossa-nova movement.

    The quintet sides that Stan and Bob made for Norman Granz have retained their familiarity because they haven’t dated.  This group, held together and propelled by the extraordinary Basie-Bud Powell influenced piano playing of John Williams, was one of the finest improvising groups of its day (1953-55), and most of its recorded output can be regarded as classic.

    See Still Clinging to the Wreckage 01/21, part 2