Delving Into the Deep Blue
“ You always try to get better and get closer to the source of your inspiration--hearing more and being able to play it more accurately. ”
While the members of Deep Blue Organ Trio were not brought together by shared parentage, guitarist Bobby Broom, drummer Chris Rockingham and organist Chris Foreman share a closeness, mutual respect, and loyalty that many families would envy. Their bond and brotherhood extends beyond their music. These men love what they do and they love the men that they get to do it with.
Like a good family, no one member tries to steal the spotlight from the others. The trio generously allows each one of them to shine while appreciating each of their individual talents. When asked who the leader of the band is, both Broom and Rockingham respectfully credit the other. Though the band is named after Broom, onstage, the guitarist generously introduces Rockingham as the leader. Rockingham says, "Bobby will be the first to tell you, I put this group together. This is sort of a back door way of telling you how much we love each other. Chris and I have been playing together for so long, but Bobby's done the stuff that he's done. So we have no problem with 'Bobby Broom and the Deep Blue Organ Trio.' I have no problem with that at all, because it's Bobby. If it was someone else, it might be an issue. He's a wonderful, wonderful person and a wonderful player. Chris and I have just been together longer, but we feel the same about Bobby as we do about each other. [Foreman agrees] We all have our roles and our jobs to do. When it's time to look to him, he delivers. When it's time for him to look to me, I deliver. When it's time to look to Chris, he delivers. We're cool with each other. That's just the way it is."
"Whatever it takes for us to get the job done," adds Foreman.
"No room for egos here," continues Rockingham.
For Broom, life as a burgeoning jazz guitarist began in early childhood, at around five or six. "I just really loved music and I was way into it, more than I ever realized. As a kid, you don't realize the depth of your feelings, but from my early, early childhood, I knew every instrument part and the words. I thought I must have really been paying attention back then. Then at eight my godfather gave me a guitar and it had four strings. I didn't even know what it was. Turned out it was a tenor guitar, the next step from a banjo. I wasn't interested in it, really."
However, by age twelve, Broom had a completely different outlook about the instrument. "One morning I woke up and just had this new thing: 'Dad I want a guitar.' I don't know where it came from. It was seemingly out of the blue. It was just this burning thing, like I had to have it. So my dad bought me a guitar and a mike, but I told him I didn't want the mike. He said, 'Well I don't know any guitar players that make it just by playing the guitar.'"
So did the microphone help turn Broom into a vocalist? "I've tried singing, but I don't like the way I sound. People have told me to do voiceovers or do radio and I'm like, 'Really?' But I don't hear that, so maybe I can sing and I just don't know it."
Broom focused his attention towards jazz mainly because he often heard it on the radio growing up, especially pianist Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters. Prior to that, one of Broom's childhood friends and a teacher both tried to steer Broom in that direction, but the guitarist showed little interest. "I had a teacher from age thirteen to sixteen who was a jazz player. He taught me about Wes Montgomery and tried to get me to listen to Wes but I never followed through. I was not really interested. I also had a friend who played jazz drums and he tried to get me to listen to records, too, but I was just not into it. But then when I listened to these people on the radio, I thought there might be something in jazz that I liked. So I went to the record store and asked who was doing it on the guitar like Herbie Hancock and Grover Washington, Jr., and the guy told me, 'George Benson.'"
So what did Broom think of Benson's playing? "The freedom of George's style and all the music that I could hear in it was what really attracted me. It was this form of self-expression that I was really attracted to. I thought if I could make myself one day feel some of the emotions that I feel when I am listening to him, that was what I wanted to pursue." And has that pursuit been realized? "I feel in some ways that I've accomplished that, but it's a never-ending kind of thing. You always try to get better and get closer to the source of your inspirationhearing more and being able to play it more accurately. All those kinds of things. It is a never-ending quest. But just in terms of the emotions that I've been able to feel from playing music, yeah, I think I've gotten there."
Several years later, while playing in a band with trumpeter Tom Browne, Broom got to meet his jazz inspiration. "Tom's manager was George Benson's old manager, from many years prior, before George was even famous. They still had a connection; they owned a club up in Harlem. So that's when I really got to meet George formally. I played my guitar, and that was really cool."
While in high school, Broom got an offer to tour with saxophonist Sonny Rollins, which the guitarist turned down. "Yeah, I turned it down because I was in high school . And we are talking music, so there's no contract, not even short term security in the music field. You just operate on a huge amount of faith. My mother was a schoolteacher and there was just an understanding in the household that I obviously was going to go on to college. The fact that I wanted to go for music was enough of a stretch in and of itself. The question was whether or not I was going to go for music education, because I needed something to fall back on. Eventually I did wind up leaving school, dropping out, so to speak, to go on tour because I had the ability to make the choice at nineteen.
While the term "prodigy" has been mentioned alongside Broom's name, it is not a term that he feels comfortable claiming. "I might have heard the word used but I never felt that it was accurate for me. Because coming up as a young musician, I always saw myself as being low man on the totem pole, as far as the guys I hung around with. Guys like [bassist] Marcus Miller, [drummer] Poogie Bell, [bassist] Victor Bailey and [drummer] Omar Hakim, they were all close buddies and colleagues who I grew up playing with, coming of age with, and started my career with. All of these guys were among the top, young New York City jazz musicians at that time, in the early 1980s. These are guys that were true prodigies and really had it together in a big, big way by their late teens. They were already professional musicians and playing at a very high level. I felt that I was always just trying to hang with them and be able to hold my own with them. I thought that I had a true and genuine desire and I had certain skills, maybe more than the average person, but I don't think I was truly special in that way."
Broom went on to college at Berklee, but then realized that his friends in New York were having more success as musicians than he. "I was in school and buying records and seeing my friends, my childhood friends from back in New York, seeing their names appearing on records. I thought, 'Wait a minute. There's something wrong with this picture. I can go back home and go to school and maybe I can happen upon some of these opportunities.' So I did that and stayed in New York and went to Long Island University my second year of college. And the opportunities did in fact come my way."
So much so that legendary drummer Art Blakey made Broom an offer to join the Jazz Messengers. Broom came to know Blakey through the drummer's pianist, James Williams, who the guitarist met while at Berklee. Broom recalls, "There was a club where they played called Mikell's. It was only three blocks from my apartment and I could see it from my window. I looked at it and thought, 'Well, it looks like something is going on. Let me go and see what is happening.' Blakey looked at me and said, 'Where's your guitar?' And I said, 'About three blocks away.' He replied, 'You better go and get it.' I said, 'Are you serious?' He told me, 'Yeah.'
"So of course I went and got it! [Trumpeter] Wynton Marsalis had just gotten into town and he and I wound up sitting in. I wound up getting an offer and I was, as far as I know, the first guitarist in Art Blakey's band."
It was a time, and not the last, when Broom decided to follow his heart instead of the more popular choice. "It was a chance to play with the guys whose albums I had been coveting and all that. I wound up playing gigs with them and also playing gigs with trumpeter Tom Browne. Browne had gotten a record deal and he was hot. All my friends were in that band and it was kind of a no-brainer that I would play in Tom Browne's band as opposed to Art Blakey's. I wasn't thinking about any sort of historical impact or anythingI just wanted to make music with my friends."
He was beginning to establish himself as a young jazz musician and developing a career that had a great deal of potential. But then Broom made the decision to move from New York to Chicago, a unique journey that perhaps found him passing some fellow musicians traveling in the opposite direction. "Yeah, that's true. What musician do you know that moves from New York to another place? Well, a lot of people do that, once they are successful. But I did it when it was very early on in the development of my career. I know that things would have been much different had I stayed in New York. It wasn't a sound decision, but it was the one that I made. It was what I wanted to do."
So what made Broom leave New York? "Of course, it was part of a relationship. But it was a combination of things. I got a record deal shortly after dropping out of school, but even still, there was a lot of confusion on my part as to what was happening to me. I knew nothing about the business. I didn't have any kind of proper or adequate representation. So there was a lot of angst and immaturity surrounding the record business for me and the difficulties that had occurred.
"And there was kind of a lull in the performing aspect of my career. As a sideman, you can just pick up gigs, get paid and go home. As you become a leader and have the recording artist title, things change. People look at you a little differently bit; you look at yourself a little bit differently. At that point, taking a $50 gig seems very questionable. So I just had a lot of things to sort out. I was like, 'Man, I need to go back to school.' I started looking at programs and I found one in Chicago, at Columbia College. But I quickly found out that was not the educational move that I needed to make because I did not plan to sit in an office or to be working in that way."
Though the relationship ended, Bobby remains in Chicago. "For quite a while, it was very, very difficult for me to come to terms with the decision that I made leaving New York and leaving the position that I think I would have assumed. There weren't many young African American jazz guitar players there at that time, in the early eighties. That was right at the time when the Young Lions phenomenon with Wynton and his brother [saxophonist Branford], [trumpeter] Terence Blanchard, [saxophonist] Donald Harrisonall these guys that I knew. I thought, 'Man I left that? I could have recorded more and been associated with those guys more.' But who knows? That may or may not have been true, but that's what I had felt."
Whether destiny or luck, Chicago is where Broom came to meet his musical brothers, Foreman and Rockingham. Rockingham recalls, "We were playing in Chicago and Bobby was playing around the corner. Bobby was playing at the Underground Wonderbar and Chris and I were playing at the Backroom. Bobby would come in and listen to us and we would come and listen to him. He said, 'Man, I can do that organ thing, too.' We just started playing together and we started developing and developing and developing. Then we got a steady job at the Cotton Club every week. And we decided we should try to start something. Then we had a steady job at the Green Mill. We thought we had something that people would like to hear.
"The relationship, the love for each other, developed also, which made the music develop as well. We know each other. We talk about each other's problems. We know what we are going to do musically without discussing certain things. You know that you are going to have bad nights, because you are human, but we really care about each other. And that makes it easier to play together because we care about each other."
Rockingham's own musical journey began with his father, organist David Rockingham. "My dad was a professional musician; his band was the David Rockingham Trio. He would go out on the road and travel and that's what he did. I feel so blessed to have a father that was in the music business. And my father retired from the music business and handed it over to me, and that's when I met Chris.
"My dad also had a career in law enforcement, and that's what my brother did. My brother tried to play, but it was a lost cause! But then he followed my dad's footsteps into law enforcement, so it was a unique situation.
"My dad is very proud of me, but I am very proud of him, as well. Even today, when I go out on the road, people will say, 'Rockingham, Rockingham, are you any relation to Dave Rockingham?' I say, 'Yeah, that's my dad.' It makes me feel good."
Rockingham recalls being drawn to the drums as early as three or four years old. "I remember I used to sit in his rehearsals and play oatmeal boxes and pots and pans. I don't know why I did it; I was just called to do that. I would play different things that I could make sound like the drums. I would listen to the drummers in his band and listen to their rehearsals."
However, his memories of his very first set of drums, which was a gift from his father and his aunt, had young Rockingham being less than gracious. "I will never forget this. My dad and his sister conspired to buy me these drums, but they were paper heads and toy drums. Like a little brat, I tore them up the first day. 'This is not the real thing!' I was a looking for the right thing; I was looking for a particular sound."
Rockingham also credits his father for his interest in jazz, even though, as a child, Rockingham's father called him a "rock and roll drummer." Rockingham explains, "It's not that I was not true to jazz because that's all I listened to. I am true to jazz, I sure am. But that's due to my dad. He would try and instill a feeling. He would play the right stuff and I listened to the right stuff. All the organists that I listened to growing up, along with [saxophonist] Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, [trumpeter] Miles Davis, and [drummer] Tony Williams, all the guys that you normally listen to. Or you should normally listen to. That's what I wanted to be like." Does he feel that he's achieved that? "I can't play like those guys, but that's where I wanted to go."
Like many jazz musicians, Rockingham and Broom both have had the privilege of being educators. While Broom continues to teach music at DePaul University in Chicago, Rockingham unexpectedly found himself as a substitute teacher in a classroom full of students with "behavior disorder." Explains Rockingham, "I began substitute teaching when a principal asked me, 'What do you do during the day?' I told him I usually rest from the night before. He said, 'Well, we need some substitutes.'
"So I told him, okay. One day I substituted for a behavior disorder class and we all got along well. He told me that the kids loved me, and he asked me if I could stay until they found somebody. I ended up staying for twenty-two years!
"I love kids. I would go to the end of the world for them. I would play, get home at 3 or 4 in the morning and I would not miss a day of school. I would not miss a day. And not so much because it I was getting paid for it. I missed them! I wanted to make sure they got their education. All kids want to be loved. All kids want to be cared about."
Eventually, Rockingham was forced to retire from teaching because of having to deal with the health challenges from multiple sclerosis. "I couldn't handle both."
Organist Foreman has had to deal with his own life challenges, having been blind since birth. Yet he also took on a role as honorary teacher and inspiration to Rockingham's students. Rockingham says, "Chris would come out to the school and the students treated him as royalty. First of all, not having been around a disabled person to begin with, and then realizing that they are just like everybody else. And then seeing that Chris has this tremendous talent. He can't even see, and he's developed his talent. The kids would want to develop more because of seeing Chris and what he's accomplished. And me being from this area [Chicago], and the kids thinking there is no hope in this area. But there is hope. You make the hope that you want. You go out and try and do it and you can accomplish things."
Foreman and Rockingham met in 1984, when Foreman took Rockingham's father's place as organist in the band. Explains Rockingham, "The journey that Chris and I have had has just been remarkable. Just remarkable, from where we have come. We would call each other over the phone and if we couldn't play, we would sing to each other over the phone. We would make arrangements together. We were locked at the hip. That's where my feelings are."
Foreman began his career as jazz organist as a young teen. "When I was in my teens," says Foreman, "going forth into my twenties, I kept hearing these things, playing them, and listening to them on records. I decided that this is what I want to do. This is for me. I was never taught any of that stuff. I would just listen to records and go and hear people live. At that point, I decided this was my career. This is what I choose to do.
"Most organ players start in church and then they play jazz. I was the opposite. I started out in jazz then listened to records and then played in church."
Rockingham adds, "There were some very soulful churches out there!"
So did Foreman ever think being blind would stop his from having a successful career as a musician? "No. Being blind is not going to hold me back from doing most things," says Foreman.
Rockingham adds, "When we were on the opening tour for Steely Dan, that was one of the first times that I realized that Chris never gives in to his disability. He never does. At times I take things for granted, and I realize that sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes, he is at the mercy of someone else. He can't control someone else's feelings or ideas or time schedule or whatever. I've learned from him, seeing what he does, seeing how he gets around."
Foreman continues, "We learn from each other. I will say I don't understand this and that and Greg will explain. It's good to have those talks, with really everybody, because say you have to play that night and something's bothering you. You say, 'What's going on? I don't understand.' Once that's cleared up, I've discovered that the music sounds better. If you don't clear it up with any relationship, if you don't clean it up beforehand, to me it's like spilling something. It spills into the music. And you know how hard spills can be to clean up!"
The trio even has a family mascot, so to speak, in the Hammond B3 organ, which is played by Foreman. What is it about the B3 that appealed to Foreman? "What drew me to it were the various sounds that I could get from it, its immense qualities. There are a lot of levers and stops and drawbars on it. Some you pull up, some you slip up and down. The fact that you can change sounds magically. I hadn't known that could be done. Mainly I chose the organ because I felt I could do more with it in terms of jazz, in terms of jazz and church. I've always been a jazz guy. Always."
And while Rockingham may not be a B3 player himself, he reveres the instrument. "I've always been attracted to the organ due to my dad. I own two B3s and Leslie speakers and I don't even play! One of the B3s just sits in my living room to just look at and wish I could play it. I love the instrument and I love people that play the instrument. I'm a frustrated organ player, that's what I am."
Rockingham continues, "Every black church you go into, you see a B3, or a C3, which is 'Church.' This was a precedent that was set because it has a very good bass line. Everybody before Jimmy Smith, even before that Bill Doggett and all that, they were playing B3's and it was for a reason. That's the instrument of choice in this type of group. Deep Blue Organ Trio doesn't play unless we are using a B3."
Broom, Rockingham, and Foreman enjoy having fun together, both onstage and off. Rockingham and Foreman are frequently together and have been known to play a practical joke or two while out on the road. Rockingham shares, "We joke about Chris' blindness. People will ask me, 'How is Chris doing?' and I'll say, 'He's still blind.' We walk into a restaurant together and I'll guide Chris into the restroom and I take his glasses and his cane and then he will guide me out! He has a great attitude about it."
The two also delighted in the opportunity to spill a few family secrets, especially since Broom was not there to defend himself. Foreman loves The Flintstones and does an impressive "Yabba Dabba Doo!" For Rockingham, his secret love is The Andy Griffith Show. According to Rockingham, "I have every Andy Griffith show. I am an Andy Griffith fanatic. And nobody can stump me on that. Nobody. Do you know what the Andy Griffith theme is called? 'The Fishin' Hole.'" As for Broom, Rockingham shares, "Well, he is a chocolate fanatic. A chocolate fanatic. And he loves oatmeal. He can't go a day without oatmeal. And he loves the TV show, The Office. He loves that. And he is a computer geek. Oh, yeah, a geek. All three of us, we have a great relationship. We're just kids; we're just kids at heart."
The future looks promising for the trio, with Broom's Upper West Side Story being released later in 2012, which will be Broom's first CD of all original material. There are also hopes for a big band album from Deep Blue Organ Trio. States Rockingham, "I was on the road with Glen Miller Orchestra, Guy Lombardo Orchestra, I've played with big bands all my life. I'm so fired up for it. And Chris has always loved and always wanted to do that because I would tell him about the things I used to do in college. This is one of our dreams. To have a CD with this rhythm section, organ guitar and drums with a big band. A lot of the things we used to do and arrangements we used to do, I used to think about that stuff because Chris was like the closest thing to a big banda one-man orchestra! So we're dreaming, we're dreaming. Let's see what happens."
Deep Blue Organ Trio, Wonderful! (Origin Records, 2011)
Deep Blue Organ Trio, Folk Music (Origin Records, 2007)
Deep Blue Organ Trio, Goin' to TownLive at the Green Mill (Delmar, 2006)
Deep Blue Organ Trio, Deep Blue Bruise (Delmar, 2004)
All Photos: Courtesy of Bobby Broom and Deep Blue Organ Trio