A life in two acts (or more)

Remembering Bob Brookmeyer

Volume 112, No. 2February, 2012

John Mosca

There are no second acts in American lives,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. I believe he got that one wrong. As proof, I offer the life and work of Bob Brookmeyer.

It was at the beginning of his amazingly productive second act, in 1979, that I first met him.

Bob’s decision to return to life, New York and active playing and writing coincided – some would call it fate – with Thad Jones’ departure from the helm of the band he started with drummer Mel Lewis, to pursue opportunities in Europe.

As a member of that band, I had been playing the great charts Bob contributed during his tenure as first trombonist in the late 60’s.

Of course his reputation was well established among musicians and fans for all his small group records: the great quintet with Clark Terry, the experimental trio with Jimmy Giuffre and Jim Hall, the writing and playing with Gerry Mulligan and the great big band record “Gloomy Sunday and other Bright Moments.”

(As that title suggests, Bob had a unique sense of humor and irony, along with a predilection for telling the truth.)

When asked what it was like returning to the scene after 10 years out west, he said, “The guys who were playing sharp when I left are still playing sharp.”

It was a natural mistake to assume he would bring in charts that resembled the ones we knew.

The new things were for the most part through-composed, meaning much less rest for the brass and less space for soloists.

He explained, “At this point, I’m not turning my career over to a tenor player.”

That was true…unless he decided to write for you, in which case you got acres of space, changes, cadenzas, vamps, the whole gamut.

As a result, the band was slow to accept the new music. We had to get hipper to get better.

Al Porcino told me long ago that no matter how good your band was, when Brookmeyer walked in, it was better. We had a long way to go, but Bob was incredibly patient with us.

There were personnel changes to be sure but mainly there was rehearsing – every Monday afternoon for quite a while, culminating in two live records at the Vanguard.

His confidence at least partially restored, Bob hit his stride, reuniting with Jim Hall, forming a number of different small groups, and touring with Mel and the band.

He also was a natural teacher, a walking jazz history course, and with his great friend Manny Albam, formed the BMI composers’ workshop.

His dictum on copying: “It should be clear to an intoxicated 10-year-old.”

It soon became evident that New York City and even America couldn’t contain him and certainly wouldn’t pay for all he had to give.

So with plans for a new conservatory in Rotterdam, and considerable disgust with America’s declining political culture, he went to Europe.

The conservatory didn’t work out, but a wonderful group of musicians coalesced around Bob. They are the New Arts Orchestra and for 15 years have been his principal outlet. He also wrote and recorded CD’s with nearly every major big band across Holland, Germany, Sweden and Denmark.

Returning to settle in rural New Hampshire with his wonderful wife Jan, he headed the Jazz Composition Department at NEC and was piling up frequent flier miles conducting his work in Europe.

Through all this work, he managed to make time for his friends and to help any number of people to get sober.

Bill Finnegan said Bob had called every day for months while his wife was ill and several musicians have said that they got calls every day while quitting alcohol.

On one of our occasional calls, he asked what I thought of his new work and I said I envied every page. He then allowed that it might be time to do something together again, and with a grant from We Always Swing, we were able to get the project going.

His and the band’s longtime friend, producer John Snyder, filmed rehearsals and the premier concert, so we will have something out this year.

My favorite moment came when we snapped off a passage and Bob pulled us up short with this: “That’s how a hot jazz band plays it – we’re not looking for that here.” He was still making us grow, 30 years later.

I treasure every moment spent with him as they were invariably filled with music and humanity. I believe his influence will grow as time goes by and that there are musicians not yet born who are indebted to him.