Monday, December 19, 2011

Bob Brookmeyer R.I.P.

From the left: Bob, Jimmy Rowles, Myself and Tommy Flanagan

A Highly Personal Recollection

With the sad news of the death of Bob Brookmeyer, vivid memories of our occasionally turbulent relationship flooded my thoughts. We met in 1961 when he and several other prominent jazz musicians were members of the band playing Bill Finegan arrangements for my first album on the Columbia Records label.

Although Bob did eventually achieve sobriety, he was then drinking heavily, and he could be short-tempered and petulant when just moments before he'd been wise and funny and keenly observant. He often appeared at The Half Note, a club on the lower West Side of Manhattan with his co-leader Clark Terry. Some of us fondly called them "Mumbles and Grumbles".

Our friendship grew and eventually Bob, a passionate football fan at the time, became my personal tutor, patiently explaining some of the more complex and intricate components and strategies. Years later he told me how he tested my "girl-friend worthiness" by asking that I accompany him to Sheep Meadow in Central Park one very early Sunday morning. A few musicians gathered there for spirited collisions called touch football. I agreed to act as cheerleader, fetcher of hot cocoa and BandAid supplier. The predictable muscle aches/pains/scrapes ensued, leading to post-game therapy: submersion in a sudsy hot bath. He liked to soak while watching the Giants on a black-and-white portable tv in addition to the sound of a Jets' radio broadcast, cigarettes and beverage of choice within easy reach.

On Monday nights, we were at The Village Vanguard where Bob was a member of the ferociously exciting Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. The club was always packed out, and I remember standing the entire evening with everyone else who couldn't find a chair. Being a band member's "ole lady" did not bestow seating privilege.

Bob's alcohol dependence continued, his anger and mood swings increased, and he spent most days drinking and immobile on the sofa, refusing nourishment. Thad began to telephone frequently, hoping to persuade him to write something new for the band. Bob remained unresponsive. In frustration, Thad began to call me at my secretarial job, insisting I do everything in my power to inspire him. Frankly, I was at a loss.

One day, quite by chance, I decided to play a favorite Mildred Bailey recording, telling Bob I especially liked her sweet version of "Willow Tree" written by Andy Razaf and Fats Waller. When the track finished, he tersely asked to hear it again. He wanted to hear it a third time, after which he rose and shuffled to the piano. A few days later, he had completed the score. You can hear "Willow Tree" on Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra "Live at The Village Vanguard", 1967 on Solid State. Though not as vivid or intensely complex as "ABC Blues", for obvious reasons, "Willow Tree" will forever be dear to my heart. (I have it on unimpeachable authority that the arrangement remains in the band book of The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, appearing Monday nights at the historic venue.)

The last time I saw B, he and his beautiful wife Jan stopped by on their way to Fenway Park for a Red Sox game. This was to be his first visit to the fabled venue, and he was child-like and very nearly giddy. It was wonderful to see him so grounded and happy at last, and I am so proud to have known him.

*Bob's lovely arrangement of "Willow Tree" is a included on Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra "Live at The Village Vanguard", 1967 on Solid State.

Two of the most highly-informed jazz web sites which now focus on Bob are Marc Meyer's JazzWax and Doug Ramsey's Rifftides You should visit them immediately.

Bob is here playing "Bernie's Tune" with Gerry Mulligan, Art Blakey and Ray Brown at The Aurex Jazz Festival, Japan, 1981.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for helping us relive some memories.

Scott Merrell said...

Dear Carol,

I thought of you immediately when Bill Charlap told me on Friday night of the sad news of Bob Brookmeyer's passing. Thanks for your interesting post. I am searching for a copy of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Vanguard album.
Wishing you and Buck a happy Holiday season.

Much Love,

Phil Kelly said...

Hi Carol :

Thanks for your remembrances of Bob B. They are much appreciated. I got to know him later in life and appreciated the suggestions he gave me ( delivered in his usual acerbic fashion ) Bob was a massive talent and will be greatly missed.

Phil Kelly

Red Sullivan said...

Thank you for these beautiful and generous memories...
I can't help myself to ask you, in this marvellous photograph, who is the man in the portrait resting on the piano: could it be Alec Wilder, Richard Rogers even...? Arthur Schwartz? I know it's not Arlen; could it be Yipper Harburg? I'm not sure, Loonis McGloohin? (Okay, enough speculation). Smashing for someone, someone great, to be memorialised there when Father Flanagan is actually at the keys... and Jimmy Rowles is in the room. Damn...
Of course, I well imagine it may be a family portrait,your own father, for example...
Forgive me.
Kindest always,

PS.: Your tribute to this most humane and human of geniuses really just sets his genius acheivments in relief and burnishes them. Beautiful of you. Thank-you!

Bill Crow said...

Bob was a large part of my life during the Mulligan years, and I admired his work right to the end. A giant of a musician.

Sloane said...

Red Sullivan has asked me to identify the man in the photograph sitting on top of the piano. It is world-famous Jascha Heifetz who was a friend of our hostess. This was the eve of Jimmy Rowles' departure for England where he officially became Ella Fitzgerald's accompanist, taking over from Tommy Flanagan who had played for her for over fifteen years.

Michael Weiss said...

We played Willow Tree tonight at the Vanguard. It remains in frequent rotation in the book as are many of Bob's contributions.