Charles Fambrough: A Friend Unlike Any Other, R.I.P.
Bassist Charles Fambrough, born in Philadelphia on August 25th, 1950 and known as "Broski," died on January 1st, 2011 at 5:00 p.m. with his daughter and wife at his side. Reportedly, he ever-so-gently squeezed their hands as he held them, and smiled. Then he was gone.
When All About Jazz Publisher Michael Ricci asked me whether anybody was writing a tribute piece for Charles, a robust, world-acclaimed bassist, family man and my closest friend, it became clear that I should do so, even if it were redundant. Please abide with me, as I'm not a professional writer, I am writing as a friend. We were very close; I am in grief, and have not attempted to take myself out of the picture.
He had been suffering for several years with diabetes. With the endless devotion of his wife Delores, and the support of his four children, a grandchild, his mother and friends, a committed medical team and his unstoppable optimism, he likely survived his advanced diabetic condition a year or two longer than anyone thought possible. As with many suffering from diabetes, Charles endured end-stage kidney failure, a failing heart, and outpatient and inpatient dialysis. Above all, he neither brought this on, nor dismissed his responsibility towards this malady. He was noble throughout.
Our friendship began about 45 years ago, 1965: I was 19, he was 15. He had been playing for a little over two years, and would receive a scholarship to study classical music a little later. Charles, drummer Eric Gravatt and I (a jazz pianist) were nearly inseparable, hanging out and playing gigs for nearly three years. In those times we took public transportation, come rain or snow. As the pianist with free hands, I often helped shoulder his bass up onto and off the bus. In that circle was also Stanley Clarke, Daryl Brown, Larry DiTomasso, Bob and Harriet Cohen (the latter deceased), pianist Alfie Pollitt, and many others. As bassists, Stanley Clarke and Charles were very close: sharing their latest discoveries, listening to the latest album, comparing notes. Charles' first wife was Stanley's sister, and their son Mark was, according to Charles, named after me!
John Coltrane and his music were our main muse. Miles Davis (especially with Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock) and Thelonious Monk were there, too. The seriousness with which Charles embraced each new release was memorable. Even from that age, Charles recognized and articulated "the key" to the music. To paraphrase what he said then, and also just a month ago, "It is not in the notes, but in the attitude. It is in our history." Charles' and Eric's dream was to play with John Coltrane. But that could not be, as John died in 1967. Fortunately, in about 1966, Charles, Eric, and I stood at the side door of Pep's at South and Broad in Philly, and through the garish light of that narrow kitchen saw and heard John with McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones. In time Elvin bounded out of the side door on the break, and Charles asked if he could get us in. That's when Elvin, eyes ablaze, asked Charles to get their group to the high school!
While still in Philly just a couple of years later, Charles joined Grover Washington, Jr. as the latter was making his mark in the world of "crossover jazz." Yet, Charles' deepest wish was to play with McCoy. This did indeed come to pass just before the 1970s. Thus a young Charles can be heard playing on McCoy's Focal Point (Original Jazz Classics (1976), The Greeting (Original Jazz Classics (1978), and Horizon (Milestone, 1980) as I recall In that band, Charles met Joe Ford, who remained a lifetime friend of his, and mine as well.
McCoy was everything in life that he wished at the time. In fact, Eric and Charles both joined the band. Charles would come to say more than once in just the past decade, "What else is there, when one has already had one's wish granted?"
To the very end he held Herbie and McCoy in highest regard. He also was a huge Ray Brown fan. And whenever we would play together, for the so many times we did over the next 45 years, he would at times ask me to play like Oscar Peterson, mainly the blues. He loved laying down those monstrously huge grooves, loved to play like Herbie ("Maiden Voyage," "Bedtime Story," "One Finger Snap") so he could display and enjoy his sophistication in harmonic inversion points and "up and down" swing; like McCoy, for the sheer power of the Broski pedal point; and finally, like Bill Evans. The latter might be surprising to some, as Charles would not seem to be a fan of that impressionistic, classically oriented style of jazz. But, he was trapped in a social closet of sorts. He often asked me to play "Emily," "Someday My Prince Will Come," or "My Romance" for example.