Ben Ratliff - NY Times, Part 1
7/30/2015 6:58:05 PM - BOB BROOKMEYER: Raging, and Writing, Against the Jazz Machine
by Ben Ratliff
New York Times, May 12, 2006

To those listening closely, Bob Brookmeyer has become both the mature conscience and the hectoring elder of contemporary jazz, making late-period work that deals with the deeper emotions of living and raging against the business-as-usual of the jazz world. Yet Mr. Brookmeyer, the 76-year-old trombonist and composer, has largely absented himself from that world. He lives in rural Grantham, N.H., with his wife, Jan, composing new works for his own big band, the New Art Orchestra, based in Germany, and pieces commissioned for European radio orchestras.

The close listeners might include his students and colleagues in jazz education, as he has become a kind of guru at the New England Conservatory; those who knew him from Stan Getz's popular quintet of the 1950's, or as the formidable intellect of Gerry Mulligan's Concert Jazz Band and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra in the early and middle 60's; and the dedicated bunch who seek out his new work, even though he is seldom invited to perform it in America.

The first track on his new album with the New Art Orchestra, "Spirit Music," is called "The Door." It begins almost primevally, with a gravitas rarely encountered in jazz. First there is a single sustained chord played on synthesizer and piano, for a full minute; then two seesawing chords among four trombones and five woodwinds, E minor and D minor. After that, the record keeps opening up different vistas, areas of tightly written, color-rich arrangements.

Mr. Brookmeyer is the composer and conductor of the music, and only occasionally allows himself a trombone solo, as on the track "Alone": with his first notes a dark jollity suddenly enters the picture, a depth of accumulated life experience. His sound is broad and emotional, roomy enough for old-fashioned song and tonal abstraction. His music is deep and tense and stubborn and extremely tender; his talk too, which comes in complete paragraphs, is full of these tempers.

He does not give up easily, though at various times he has been tempted. In his 40's, while living in Los Angeles and working in recording studios, he reached a protracted bottom point with alcoholism and, he says, almost died from it. Soon after, in his 50's, he nearly quit jazz altogether to become a classical composer.

Born in Kansas City. Mo., in 1929, Mr. Brookmeyer had a largely unhappy youth that coincided with the killer years of Kansas City swing, when Count Basie was the North Star. He first heard Basie at the Tower Theater in 1941, at a Sunday matinee between showings of western movies, with his father.

"I melted," he said in his low, rumbling voice. "It was the first time I felt good in my life. I was not a very successful child."

Sitting in his basement studio, overlooking a wooded slope, we first listened to Basie's "9:20 Special," from 1941, and Mr. Brookmeyer immediately focused on the structure of the piece, particularly the ensemble work. "You hear the sax background?" he remarked, under Buck Clayton's trumpet solo. But when it came to Basie's own contribution, he had too much to say. We stopped the piece to talk.

"New Orleans was a whole other feel, but Kansas City was concentrating on the smooth, rhythmic 4/4," he said. "That was everything. There was what you might call a coolness that's an awful word a subtlety, and a strength that didn't hit you over the head. Long beats on the bass. Drums really concentrating on cymbals, making a smooth patina."

Basie himself was the key to all this. "He had supernatural powers," Mr. Brookmeyer said. "He didn't evince a lot of effort. Whereas other people seemed to take music and pound it into the ground bounce it off the earth Basie came from under the crust of the earth and through your feet."

A year after Mr. Brookmeyer's Basie epiphany, Charlie Parker left Kansas City, about to help invent bebop, and jazz changed. When Mr. Brookmeyer was working in the city's black clubs, first as a trombonist at 15, then as a pianist at 17, Parker was making his first significant bebop records in New York. These were critical for a young musician to absorb. He listened to them repeatedly at 16 r.p.m., on a Navy-surplus phonograph, transcribing Parker's lines by ear.

The exercises did him good. "At that stage of the game," he said, "bebop was such a distant language that what I learned, I owned." But he preferred to play in swing bands. "They were more fun for me," he explained. "Some of the beboppers played very well, but they seemed to imitate the worst parts of progress: heroin, bad attitudes, cliquishness." (He was also viewed as a square, he suspects, once he started attending the Kansas City Conservatory of Music.)

In 1951 he endured six months of Army service in Columbia, S.C., under the scorn of an officer who looked unkindly on white aesthetes with black friends. (Trying to defend himself, Mr. Brookmeyer says, he was publicly dressed down for being prone to "homosexual fits.") He was given an honorable discharge. Back in Kansas City, he found a job with Tex Beneke's orchestra, which eventually led him to New York.

By this time Mr. Brookmeyer was playing the valve trombone a variation on the instrument's better-known form, with valves instead of a slide. (It has been his principal instrument ever since; the piano has only returned off and on.) He worked with Stan Getz, and in 1953 he took the trumpeter Chet Baker's place in Gerry Mulligan's quietly intricate quartet and sextet for a few years.

At the time he basically idolized only tenor saxophonists, not trombonists: Lester Young, Al Cohn and others. Bill Harris, who played trombone in Woody Herman's orchestra, was the only exception.

Harris was a brilliant, natural musician, a practical joker and a drunk; according to legend he once arrived at a hotel before a gig by driving his car up its steps and into its lobby. Mr. Brookmeyer never got to know him well, and he says he regrets it.

Mr. Brookmeyer chose a 1952 live version of "Lady Be Good," performed by one of Harris's small groups, a quintet including Eddie Davis, known as Lockjaw, on tenor saxophone. Harris's improvisation is extravagantly musical, bursting with melody he yanks it out of the instrument in a tangle of swing and bebop phrases.

Bill Harris had an overpowering voice on his own, I said. Was he too large a presence for a big band, too disruptive?

"I wouldn't say disruptive," Mr. Brookmeyer corrected. "He was influential. His sound was highly emotional. His personality was so strong that he guided the band a lot. As a trombonist in a big band, you're in the middle of everything. You learn how things are made. My old joke is that saxophonists get all the girls, trumpet players make all the money, and trombone players develop an interior life."
NEW YORK TIMES - Ben Ratliff
"Only a few of the acknowledged giants of orchestral writing still toil in the recording studio, and Brookmeyer stands among the best of them."

-- LOS ANGELES TIMES -- Howard Reich
"When the entire audience stood and responded with people cheering, shouting and clapping, I realized that this was a moment that will forever live in my memory as an artistic triumph for a great artist. I've experienced it with Miles, Sonny, Trane and now with the compositions and orchestrations of Bob Brookmeyer." [In response to Bob's performance at the IAJE Conference in Jan. 2004]

-- Benny Maupin
"This painterly material is played by not just a big band, but a real orchestra in every sense of the word."

-- JAZZ NOW -- Lawrence Brazier
"This is a musician who finds magic in the spaces, the phrasing, the pauses. For me, it just doesn't get any better than this."

-- 52nd STREET JAZZ -- J. Robert Bragonier
"The captivating New Work (Celebration) is remarkable evidence of the intricate musical language Bob Brookmeyer has crafted as a composer. In the realm of his own inner logic - informed by Sauter and Stravinsky as much as George Russell and even Boulez - Brookmeyer has conceived something that is as warm and passionate as it is cerebral and sometimes startling."

-- ALL ABOUT JAZZ - Douglas Payne
"As a writer, Brookmeyer calls to mind Bill Holman and Gil Evans, among others, singular artists who use the entire orchestra as a canvas on which to paint their elaborate and expressive musical portraits."

-- ALL ABOUT JAZZ -- Jack Bowers
Brookmeyer Celebration Concert
Ben Ratliff - NY Times, Part 1
Ben Ratliff - NY Times, Part 2
Terry Teachout Review
Spirit Music - Ben Ratliff's Top 10 of 2006
Bob Brookmeyer: Spirit Music
Spirit Music Review from
The Irish Times Review
Brookmeyer's Big Band: Hugely Rewarding
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