They Said Goodbye To Brookmeyer

Wednesday night’s memorial service for Bob Brookmeyer attracted friends and admirers from many compartments of his productive life. The valve trombonist, composer and arranger—influential in jazz since the early 1950s— died at the age of 81 last December 15. The memorial was at St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan, long a site of worship services incorporating jazz, and of events commemorating the music and its makers. The Rifftides staff thanks saxophonist, composer and bandleader David Sherr, who attended the memorial and sent this account.

The program included music and reminiscences by family and long-time friends and associates—speakers and musicians who had known Bob Brookmeyer for years, in at least one instance since he was a teenager.

Featured throughout was the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, with which Brookmeyer had been associated since its formation in the 1960s as the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. Bill Kirchner organized the event and gave “special thanks to John Mosca, Maria Schneider, Judy Kahn, Douglas Purviance, Elizabeth Mosca, Nancy Oatts, Kristy Kadish, and Bill Prante.”

In addition to Kirchner, the speakers were drummer Dave Bailey, bassist Bill Crow, record producer John Snyder, author and critic Terry Teachout, Greg Bahora (one of Brookmeyer’s stepsons), the poet and drummer Michael Stephans, trumpeter Jimmy Owens, Brookmeyer’s student Darcy James Argue, Joel Thome, Ed Dix*#151;in whose band a teenage Brookmeyer was featured—trumpeter Clark Terry, who spoke via audio tape; and guitarist Jim Hall. There was a video presentation by composer and Brookmeyer colleague Maria Schneider, Ryan Truesdell, and Marie Le Claire with recordings, photographs and film clips going back more than 60 years. The video presentation, edited from still photos and film clips, will soon be posted on YouTube.

Between speakers were performances by the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and various other ensembles. The Orchestra began the program with “Hello and Goodbye,” composed and arranged by Brookmeyer. Rich Perry, tenor saxophone, and Scott Robinson, baritone saxophone, were the soloists.

After Bailey and Kirchner spoke, a small ensemble played two Brookmeyer compositions, Open Country and Remembering. Along with Robinson (pictured) and Perry were Oliver Leicht, clarinet; Ed Neumeister and Christian Jakso, trombones; Kenny Werner, piano; Brad Shepik, guitar; Martin Wind, bass and John Hollenbeck, drums.

Bill Crow and John Snyder were the next speakers, after which the full Orchestra played Hoagy Carmichael’s Skylark in Bob Brookmeyer’s arrangement. Dick Oatts was the alto saxophone soloist and spoke briefly after the performance.

Terry Teachout, Greg Bahora and Michael Stephans spoke, and Stephans offered a poem in memory of Brookmeyer. The Orchestra followed with “First Love Song,” composed and arranged by Brookmeyer and featuring Jim McNeely as piano soloist and speaker.

Jimmy Owens spoke and played an unaccompanied flugelhorn solo in tribute. He was followed by Darcy James Argue, a composer who introduced himself to Brookmeyer online and wound up studying with him.

Joel Thome’s remarks were from a different perspective; he had been Brookmeyer’s composition and conducting teacher. Joel had a stroke in the late 1990s and was in the hospital for seven months. During that time, Brookmeyer called him daily. I have known Joel since before the stroke and have always found him to be a relentlessly positive person. But he said that during the seven-month hospital stay he considered suicide. I’m not sure I believe that it was a serious consideration but he credited Bob’s wisdom and sense of humor for getting him over the idea.

Bill Kirchner played a beautiful solo version of “Body and Soul” with Steve Kuhn, piano, one of only two pieces on the program with which Bob Brookmeyer had no connection. It was followed by “In a Rotten Mood,” composed and arranged by Brookmeyer and played by John Mosca, trombone; Steve Kuhn, piano; Bill Crow, bass and Michael Stephan, drums.

Ed Dix, who knew Brookmeyer when they were teenagers, spoke next. Bob had played both piano and slide trombone with Dix’s band in the middle 1940s.

The final two musical selections were “Seesaw,” composed and arranged by Bob Brookmeyer and featuring John Hollenbeck on drums with the Orchestra, and “I Remember You” (the only piece other than Body and Soul with which Brookmeyer had no involvement) played by Lee Konitz, alto saxophone, and Kenny Werner, piano. Brief remarks by Jim Hall (pictured) ended the program.

Throughout the evening, every speaker made reference to Brookmeyer’s wonderful playing and writing, his biting wit, his honesty and his wisdom.

Shortly after the memorial service Bill Crow, who played bass with Brookmeyer in the Gerry Mulligan Quartet and Mulligan’s big band—among other mutual associations—sent this:

The Brookmeyer memorial tonight was a great program. Vanguard jazz ork sounded beautiful, and played the S out of Bob’s compositions. Lots of good memories from the speakers, including me, Dave Bailey, Jim Hall, and one of Bob’s stepsons. A recorded encomium from Clark Terry was played, and Maria Schneider put together a film presentation of photos through Bob’s life accompanied by music from his early Kansas City days through the last CD with the New Arts Orch. Very touching. I played a couple of tunes with Steve Kuhn, Bill Kirchner and Michael Stephans, Lee Konitz did a duet with Kenny Werner, and Scott Robinson led an octet in a couple of Bob’s tunes. It was good to see so many old friends, and a few young ones.

They read your nice contribution at the beginning.

My contribution, requested by Mr. Kirchner, was this:

With Bob, jazz was never a Last Chance. No matter what the Bracket, no matter what The Wrinkle, even when he was In A Rotten Mood over Big City Life, for Brookmeyer music was always Open Country.

Kirchner also read what Brookmeyer’s contemporary and peer Bill Holman wrote for the occasion:

The term “highly evolved person” is being thrown about a lot lately, but no one personified it more than Brookmeyer.

I met him in 1957 when, after reading in a record review that his playing was “erudite,” and wanting to meet such a person, I introduced myself at the Lighthouse in LA. Fifteen minutes later we were at a liquor store buying a jug of Scotch. I imagine that he paid; he was always a tabgrabber.

Intelligence, humor, honesty (brutal), enthusiasm, patience, care, and most of all, love. These are a few of the words that come to mind, though there are probably others that haven’t been coined yet.

Bob had a way with words as well as with music; could have been a literary writer. When he was living in LA he made a few rehearsals with my band, and one day I asked him what he thought of a chart that I had brought in and rehearsed. His answer: “Glad you did, wish you hadn’t.”

That was a friend.

Finally, Bob at work: a good way to remember him.

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  1. says

    This is yet another “wish I had been there” events. Invariably (and probably unfairly), I compare most Big Band/Large Orchestra recordings to Bob Brookmeyer compositions and arrangements. Sure would be great if PBS had recorded this memorial, played it time and again, preempting those tiresome “doo-wop/oldies” shows and supposed “world music” extravaganzas. That would “Make Me Smile!”

    As always, thanks for sharing,

  2. says

    Bob Brookmeyer was one of those ubiquitous, master musicians that I wish I had had the opportunity to play along side of, in duo or in big band. Now I’ll have to wait!

    When Bob resided in Park Slope, Brooklyn, (70’s, I did too), I would to pass him walking along 7th Avenue but I never said Hi. He seemed too absorbed in his own thoughts to break the spell.

    Later, 1982 Fall, when I chaired the Jazz Studies Department at New England Conservatory in Boston, he called me out of the blue to ask what it was like being chairman. I had just resigned in January, 1983 and Bob was being considered for the post. I told him outright that he will not have time to compose and arrange, let alone play gigs and that was the main reason why I was leaving. It was true and I was being honest. He thanked me and didn’t accept the job as chairman. Later he did join the faculty at NEC but to teach arranging and composition.

    I tell you all this to say how much I enjoyed reading the Rifftides post and narrative of the memorial to Brookmeyer this past week; and I watched all the video clips. The best one for me was the final clip where Bob was being interviewed on stage before a rehearsal.( The piano tuner was oblivious to the interview ),.

    What a deep and honest soul he was, leaving us some great music and words of wisdom to savor over and over again. It takes a great musician to become a great teacher. See you in the seventh dimension, I hope.

  3. says

    I suspect a lot of people who either went to the Brookmeyer memorial service or would have liked to do so will read this post, so I’m putting up a copy of the brief remarks that I delivered there.

    * * *

    New York is a tough place to live, but if you come here, and you’re lucky, you can meet people you’ve admired your whole life long, and get to know them. I claim no intimacy with Bob. I’m sure that half the people in this room knew him much longer, and far better. And by the time I met him, he was—by the calendar—an old man. But only in years. I met him just before his seventieth birthday, and he had the creativity and imagination of a man half his age, and the wisdom of a man twice his age.

    I don’t need to belabor what you all know perfectly well, and what will be demonstrated many times over tonight. Bob was one of the giants of jazz: a great valve trombonist, a composer of the first rank, an astonishingly gifted teacher. He was even a pretty damned good piano player! I think he was a genius—and I don’t use that word casually.

    He was also, as everyone here knows, a man of ear-shattering candor who liked nothing better than saying whatever was on his mind at any given moment, especially when he knew it would give offense. Yet unlikely as it may sound, Bob was genuinely lovable—unless you happened to be on the receiving end of one of his diatribes, and sometimes even then—and I adored him.

    What drew the sting of his candor, other than the fact that he was usually right, was that he was as candid about himself as he was about everybody and everything else. When I first met him, I had the nerve to ask him about his drinking days, and this is what he told me: “I didn’t think I’d see thirty. I almost didn’t make forty-five. My major accomplishment back then was not falling down more than, oh, ten times a day.”

    I also asked Bob about his music, and he said this: “There’s another place waiting for me. I don’t know where it is yet, but it’s where I have to move.” That was in 1999. He got there, and he let the rest of us come along for the ride.

    In the last years of Bob’s life, he was searching for—and finding—ultimate essences, just like Matisse and Bartók did in the last years of their lives. He had become the greatest living jazz composer. How very, very lucky we were to watch it happen.

    Now he belongs to the ages. I can’t imagine a world without him.

  4. says

    Thanks to David Sherr for a splendid account of an unforgettable evening. But an addendum about “Body and Soul”–it was one of Bob’s favorite standards. He did at least two small-group recordings of it that I know (including a duo with Jim Hall), plus a splendid arrangement for Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band.

    In the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop, Bob’s first assignment for us was to take “Body and Soul” and analyze it.

    So overall, this was a song that meant a great deal to him.

  5. says

    I just want to add my voice of praise for Wednesday’s memorial concert for Bob Brookmeyer.

    Thanks to everyone for making such beautiful and articulate music. The outstanding performance of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra in conjunction with the invited guest performers increased my awareness and understanding of and appreciation for Bob’s great contribution to the development of the big band repertoire and his expansion of its musical vocabulary. To hear his extraordinary work performed live and at such a high level of execution was a rare and unforgettable experience. I felt proud of both my friends in the band as well as the band members and guest speakers and performers I didn’t personally know but who contributed to my edification, many with tears in their eyes as they spoke.

    I performed once at Waterbury College (VT) on October 2, 1999 with Bob Brookmeyer who was the special guest in a drummer-less quintet led by saxophonist Fred Haas, with trumpeter John Carlson and bassist David Clark (a regular member of my current trio, along with drummer George Schuller). I also sat in on one of Bob’s classes in the early days at the New School Jazz Program in New York where I’ve taught for over two decades, during which Bob discussed his use of pitch cells as a compositional technique that I found intriguing.

    Truthfully, my personal connection with Bob was not very profound or long lasting. I remember him as a funny and no-nonsense guy, and full of energy. However, from what I knew about his music as a classically trained pianist, a student of Richie Beirach and a sideman with Sonny Rollins, I’ve admired the expansiveness of Bob’s musical vision for years – from the Blues to Bartok and beyond.

    What I discovered at the memorial concert that amazed me was Bob’s deep and broad experience as a performer with many Jazz legends (including his work as a pianist), his tireless personal drive for excellence, his unquenchable musical curiosity, and the enormous love, esteem and affection felt by all who closely knew and worked with him. The sheer volume and range of his work will not be equaled by anyone anytime soon.

    Thank you, all, and more to Bill Kirchner for organizing this event.

    Armen Donelian, pianist

  6. says

    That’s another truly great musician lost to us all. He has left us memories of himself and some of the most beautiful and sonorous music there has been in jazz. If there is a heaven, think about the gigs. I’ll bet Jeru is glad to see him.

    I have one or two personal mementoes of him, and a great deal of love for him. R.I.P. Bob.

  7. says

    In May 2010, Bob Brookmeyer made a trip to the West Coast where he played a major role in ‘East Coast Sounds’ an LA Jazz Institute event which included a re-creation of Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band – with Bob Brookmeyer conducting and Scott Robinson in the Mulligan role. Scott also had that role – and some trumpet-playing – in a Gerry Mulligan Sextet re-creation with Bob. As a finale to the weekend an all-star West Coast ensemble played Bob’s Charts as the New Art Orchestra, again with Scott Robinson as a guest. Bob was physically frail but able to take part in everything that weekend.

    My photos from the event can be seen at
    They clearly show how much the West Coast musicians and audiences appreciated Bob making that trip.

  8. Denis Ouellet says

    Bob Brookmeyer. An incredible man. I love him.
    Maybe you already watched this clip ? What is it with these masters ?
    Besides their mastery, it’s just music. It seems that there is no more physical limit.
    There are no slides, pads, mouthpieces … just the music from them to us.

  9. says

    Just heard that Teddy Charles has left us age 84. A very underrated player I remember hearing him for the first time on an EP (remember them!) with Wardell Gray and Frank Morgan – an “A Team” by anyone’s standards.

    As forward looking a player as any pre-Burton vibist.

  10. DougR says

    Bob’s playing has been part of my DNA since the early 60s, and I’ve listened to him steadily over the years. I caught what was perhaps Bob’s last club gig in NYC, a few years ago at the Jazz Standard. He sounded great, on piano and trombone, and his set was full of classic American standards, which he always was able to put his distinctive melodic imprint on. After the last set, I lurked in the chairs until he was on his way out, and thrust out my copy of “7x Wilder,” an LP of Alec Wilder tunes he made with Jim Hall, Mel Lewis, and Bill Crow, and asked for his autograph. I wanted to ask him a thousand questions and engage him about his music, but it had been a long night for him, and I’m never that articulate around heroes of mine, which he has always been, so he merely signed the LP, I thanked him for the set and his music, and we went our separate ways. I’m grateful to Maria Schneider for making sure more people followed Bob in later years. Of the moments I loved most in the memorial service, Scott’s playing on the small group numbers is right at the top. He seemed to channel Gerry, and Bob, and life, and the spirit that drove Bob, and I’ll treasure the night.

  11. Edith Farrar says

    Jazz is not where I have any musical genes, or experience. I did not know of Bob Brookmeyer before this memorial service, nor was I aware of his career. On the recommendation of a dear friend who now lives here on the west coast, I had stopped by the church to experience the Louise Nevelson sculpture in the chapel. My quiet meditation was overcome by the hubbub downstairs…..and I decided to stay after seeing the music stands set up in the sanctuary. What an honor it was to be part of the gathering to honor the life of this musician, teacher, mentor, composer, father, friend. Understood very quickly that I was in the presence of greatness, and goodness, incredible music making, and someone who was well loved. The words, and the music were so moving. It was especially my honor to come home and share the evening with my friend, Frank Laico, who was a recording engineer at the 30th St. studio for many years. So Frank, I said — Did you know this guy? Frank said “Oh yes. Fabulous trombone. Great guy.” Please accept my sympathy for what was clearly a very great loss to many people.