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.
Charles was about as humble as they come as a soloist. He held bassists Scott LaFaro and Eddie Gomez (my long-standing musical partner) in the highest esteem. Togetherin the comfort of our friendshiphe strove to solo fluently in the upper register. Unfortunately, little of that made its way to the public, but fortunately, I still have some superb recordings we did together which amply demonstrate his agility as an Evans-style bassist. Yet, he was so self-critical, so modest in that regard. It should come as no surprise that Charles cherished the élan of the upright bass work of Stanley Clarke, an extremely agile bassist. Charles also paid great compliments to Richard Davis and Ron Carter. Of the latter he said, "He is a gem of a bassist, and personally he is one of the musicians with a huge heart." And as Charles became increasingly disabled, Wynton Marsalis stepped up to the plate to help. Charles was appreciative, to the point of gut-wrenching tears. Stanley Clarke filled the bill in more than a few ways, too. Lenny White was also a trusted member of Charles' inner circle. Lenny was a true friend, and they were huge fans of each other.
Charles had an enormous network. I know I am forgetting people; if so, I am sorry. He played with almost every musician in Philadelphia and beyond. Off the top, Charles enjoyed a mutual respect with Ralph Bowen, Marlon Simon and family, John Swana, Ralph Peterson, Steven Johns, George Colligan, Bill O'Connell, Mulgrew Miller, Kenny Kirkland, David Kikoski, James Williams, Fred and Omar Hill, among so many. On the more personal side Kimberly Berry (past-WRTI broadcaster), Stuart Love (Record Producer, Clear Channel/Marathon Media), Michael J. Harrington (Radio Host), Kenyata Thompson (Emanuel's brother), and Creed Taylor (CTI Record Producer) were not only business associates but to varying extents bona fide friends and advisors. Again, I am sure if you knew him you would add your name here, too.
The jazz world does seem to understand that Charles really paid his dues, rarely deviating from what he considered to be real jazz sensibility and himself a guardian of the flame. Charles held his steady gig in the early 1980s with Art Blakey in remarkably high esteem. He felt Art's group was the higher institution of "real jazz," and he spoke lovingly of Art. Therein that higher educationhe met the Marsalis brothers, Wynton and Branford. Later, he would play and record with them on Fathers and Sons (Columbia, 1982).
Charles loved Latin-styled jazz, too, and respected the melding of African, Cuban, and classical influences. He was a student of it and gave me many of his source notes and books from which we would practice. Over the years he worked with Airto Moreira and Flora Purim, and Jerry Gonzalez, and recorded with our mutual friend Chucho Valdez. Many of Charles' incredibly harmonically rich and rhythmically complicated, but highly melodic, compositions are Latin-oriented. These can be heard on his own albums as a leader, which include: Blues at Bradley's (CTI, 1993), Upright Citizen, City Tribes (Evidence, 1995), and Live @ Zanzibar Blue (Random Chance, 2002).
Though recording was just my hobbywhat a "hobby" for me: from the age of 10! Charles entrusted me to master and track many of his recordings. He also asked me to play piano on a few. For what it is worth, I greatly respected Charles as a composer. I, like so many, felt he had developed a highly unique composer's voice.
Charles unfortunately did not finish his work. His dreams were as huge as his devotion; there was still a lot of music left within him. It was really hard for me, and for those closest to him, to understand that he would never play again. What does one say to a friend who says, "Mark, you and I are going to do string quartetsI'm coming over next week!" I'm generally not sentimental, but that wrenched at my guts for many reasons.
He also once said, "I was most productive when I just had a little Casio keyboard from which to compose! This technology we both love is getting in the way, not getting to the core for me. It is too much to get it working." Amen!
About two months ago he clearly expressed to me that he wished to put together CDs. I had the feeling he was trying to leave even more "legacy." But each time he was to come over, he got sick. His daughter Maria stepped up to the plate and helped him organize. I went up to his home in Allentown, PA, got some material, and then began to do the work back in Fort Washington. After a heart-wrenching weekend of frantic calls we persuaded him to go into the hospital to get fluid drained. He emerged eight days later, as a new man. In fact, he was well enough just a few weeks ago to come over with Delores, visit with me and Meryl, complete two CD compilations with me which we named Broski's Spot, and Broski's Tips. With his increased dose of Digoxin (the heart medicine) on board, his hugely generous heart beat stronger and he could finally breathe a little without oxygen.
He appeared to be in excellent shape at the packed tribute for him at the Philadelphia Clef Club in December 2010with Stanley, Lenny, Mike Clark, Pat Martino, Wallace Roney, Gary Bartz, John Blake and Buster Williams headlining, along with so many others. It was a joyful time. I read a moving prayer that Eric Gravatt had sent (he was touring at the time), and I played a tune for Charles with Stanley and Lenny and a few others. He was all smiles.
All of the above does not do justice to his greatest accomplishment and gracetransformation. After all the jazz is done, the schmoozing, the last notes played, the bandstand empty, the egos put to bed, there was Charles Fambrough the person. At the end, Charles was Love. It was in his eyes, if you dared to look past the imaginary. It was in his aura. His life, which had consisted of immense machinations just to provide for his family, had now turned towards self-transformation.
During his penultimate hospitalization I brought him a DVD of Oscar, and two of Herbie. He was just like a kid. He looked up at me, tears in his eyes, put out his arms and with the openness of a child, said "I love you!" My reciprocation was alarmingly real (for me, anyway.)
When did my relationship with Charles become so real? This has bearing on Charles as a human being.
Remember that he and I met at an active time of the Civil Rights movement. Racial commingling was happening, but somewhat unusual in the extent we experienced it. Given my history, i.e., the last white kid (aged about eleven or so) in North Philly, I knew there were differences and biases between and among races/cultures. However, I always lived in a world of abstract ideas, concepts, and naïve wonder. Neither liberal nor conservative, I was too theoretically inclined, too artistically driven, to give race or racism any time. Yet, as a young jazz musician, I came to recognize that no matter what my ability or appreciation of the art-form, I was the outsider in jazz. No matter how much I was moved by what I heard in the heroesColtrane, Miles, Monkthere was something else much more culturally powerful that these icons represented to young jazz musicians of a darker color than I. Yet, Charles would not hear of it. This is the same Charles who was acutely aware of the meaning of jazzfrom that standpoint.
Let it be known that he was mortified that many of the black youth of today had forgotten the very meanings which defined our craft and inner hopes. He breathed, at the most basic level, the potential significance of Jazz to express and right social injustice, to express a potent beauty from the black perspective. He knew the taste of a jazz performance which did that, and a jazz which did not. But there was much more in him. He loved all that lived and so he was naturally conflicted at taking a militant party line all the time. He knew that there was a time for addressing social injustice with militant talk and action, a time to play the middle, and a time to let it all gojust to be. He brought this perspective to Muhlenburg College for many years where he treated all of his students, regardless of background, as near-family. Doug Ovens, the one-time department head there, struck gold when he offered to hire Charles, and Charles accepted.
For the first ten years of my friendship with him, the subject of race had been muted. Then one day he blurted out, "Mark, you are a white Ray Bryant. You not only have it, you get it." (Huh? What do I say?) Once he had made Philadelphia home again, we talked nearly weekly, and played often. We felt comfortable talking about everything, including racial issues, in great depth. I could not help but notice when he vented (which was not often) and he'd say "we," as if he and I were temporarily militantly "black." Catching himself about 20 years ago, he came right out and said, "I can say this to you, because, you are one of us!" Friends will be friends. For myself, I was still searching for an inclusive social identity.
About 15 years ago we were mixing a record. Working side by side with Charles gave me my engineering chops; when something would sound right, (with that huge grin) he would invariably extend his open, then closed, hand in what I would call the forerunner of the "DAP." On one of these DAPS, I actually saw him, and he saw me. That may sound kind of strange after 30 years of being friends, but it taught me one of the most significant things in life. It is in the deepest parts of the eyes where real relationships are born, take root, and grow. In that moment, the already enduring, underlying connection between us was shorn of all pretense and all extraneous consideration. It was just one person to another: plain and simple. That type of contact renders all social barriers powerless. It is then you know you have a real brother or sister. It is then when you know that just because you seem, by outward appearances, to belong to the same tribe, it does not mean that everyone within that tribe is your "Brother/Sister," or that those out of it are not. Now that I think of it, one of the last things Charles said to me was, "You know you have been intensely reverse discriminated." I just said to him, "Cut it out! I got more than I ever deserved." Such was his advocacy.
I bring up all of this stuff of race because it has been one of the really big issues in jazza divisive as well as unifying one. I do not shy away from this chapter of our life together in the context of this tribute to him, because the purpose is to highlight graphically that Charles was not only a magnificent bassist, composer and champion of the roots of his art, but also quite an evolved person, way beyond corporeal forms.
He was a great family man, neighbor, teacher, and member of his communities. He and Delores were intent on giving the family a safe/healthy place to live, a stable base of operations. This he and Delores did, and with great resourcefulness.
During my life Charles gave me so much. He introduced me without embarrassment, with pride in fact, to many of Jazz's most notable. He was at times my employer. He believed in my engineering and playing and let me teach him anything I could, and he would always respond in kind. He brought me in as his featured artist at Chris' Jazz Café, a stint which would last for me for 3 yearsthen as house pianist. Before that, he dragged me out to Newtown's Ye Olde Temperance House. And when Shirley Scott could no longer do the gig, he convinced the owner to entrust it with me. There I carried the gift with greatest care, and practiced my craft for over 10 years in trios and quartets, with and without him.
At his last benefit at the Clef Club late last year, my wife Meryl and I were sitting with him and Delores. He asked me to get up there and play for him. I said, "Charles, I am not going to push my way up there!" He said, "You have to learn how to do that!" I said, "Charles, that's what you have always done for me." And then, with that somber look of knowing he did not have long, he said "You are going to have to learn." He never asked me for a thing. I always had to figure out indirect ways to repay.
Now, I am filled with a grief I have never known before in my life. Notwithstanding, this grief is tinged with everything that has been good in this life.
Today, three days after writing the above, I actually took out my phone to call Charles, as I had not heard from him. There was so much to tell my friend; he'd have so much to tell me. Then I realized, as in the fog of denial, that he was gone. Though the reality of it all is tearing me up, I feel his smiling prescience all around me. He is still here with us/me, maybe for just a little while longer. I feel he still may need our help; his questions feel real. But I know he will be off soon, on his glorious way, to much better concert conditionsa greater sound.
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