Website: Bob Brookmeyer
Bob Brookmeyer (by Jim McNeely)
April 8, 2022
We all know that Bob Brookmeyer made his first major impact in jazz playing the valve trombone. He also played piano very well, enough to record a duo album with Bill Evans. But for me and so many of my colleagues the most inspiring aspect of Bob’s career is his gradual evolution into one of the music’s preeminent composer/arrangers.
His 1960 release, Portrait of the Artist, included his four-movement Blues Suite, written for a medium-sized ensemble. It opens with a big, bold “F”, the whole band in octaves. Bam! “I am here!” Gloomy Sunday and Other Bright Moments in 1961 further established him as a serious force in the jazz arranging world. He wrote for the Terry Gibbs Dream Band. He was ghost-writing for Ray Charles, the Sauter-Finnegan Orchestra, and many others. In the early ‘60’s he was “straw boss” for Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band, writing many of the band’s arrangements. And 1966 saw the debut of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. Bob was a charter member, playing trombone and contributing a number of now-classic arrangements.
His struggle with alcoholism took him off the scene in 1968. But he came back to New York in 1978, sober and revitalized. When Thad Jones left Thad and Mel, in early ‘79, Mel invited Bob to be musical director. He told journalist Marc Meyers “Writing and arranging for Thad’s band had forced me into a new kind of language. In that band, you were tacitly invited to be more than you could be, to try new things.” With Mel’s band he picked up on that spirit and went into overdrive. Two ground-breaking albums followed. The first was Bob Brookmeyer, Composer, Arranger. There were two pieces in which the band completely stopped, leaving it to the pianist—me—to improvise freely, “without a net”. It was sink or swim! The second was Make Me Smile & Other New Works by Bob Brookmeyer. The “A” side was a marvelous suite featuring Dick Oatts, Tom Harrell and Joe Lovano. He was stretching his concepts of form, harmony, and the role of the soloist.
He studied composition with Earle Brown and conducting with Joel Thome. His music was becoming more astringent and dissonant, the forms more blurred. In a major career shift, he turned his attention to Europe. First with the WDR Big Band in Cologne, then groups like the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra, the Metropole Orchestra, and the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra. He widened his scope to include 20th century classical music, rock, and electronics. He said he was writing music “to make your teeth hurt”. And with the New Art Orchestra, he finally had his own ensemble, who were more than willing to play his music his way. The result was a series of important albums including New Works, Get Well Soon, and Spirit Music. The forms were extended, the harmony complex. Yet in the end he never forgot the Kansas City kid who had been so moved by the Basie band.
Bob was, is, and always will be an inspiration, not only for his music, but for his spirit of exploration. He could have continued being “Bobby Brookmeyer”, the marvelous valve trombonist from the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. But that wasn’t enough. He said, “I wrote my way out of Mel’s band”. He was willing to risk losing his old audience, in order to be true to his inner voice.
Bob was also important as a teacher and mentor. He influenced so many younger composers like Maria Schneider, Darcy J. Argue, J.C. Sanford, Dave Rivello, Mace Francis, Ayn Inserto, myself, and countless others. He will certainly be long remembered as a major figure in the history of jazz composition. But he will be remembered equally as someone who inspired and encouraged so many composers to find their voice, and then have the courage to stay true to it.
Jim McNeely is a prolific composer, arranger and pianist, who has received 12 Grammy nominations throughout his career. In 1996 he re-joined The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra as pianist and Composer-in Residence. He is also chief conductor of the Frankfurt Radio Big Band.