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Bob Brookmeyer: Jack of All Trades, Master of Valves

Jack Bowers By

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Bob Brookmeyer, a Renaissance man among jazz musicians who died December 15, 2011, four days before his eighty-second birthday, will be remembered as many things: composer, arranger, musician, educator, outspoken arbiter who brooked no nonsense and wasn't shy about letting others know when he believed they were not giving the music he loved the best they had to offer. What I remember best about Brookmeyer was the lithe, ever-swinging valve trombone that complemented such luminaries as Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Zoot Sims, Jimmy Giuffre, Clark Terry and others during the 1950s and 1960s, epitomizing his Kansas City heritage in a series of memorable albums that sound as fresh today as they did more than half a century ago.

Never one to stand still for long, Brookmeyer went on to explore and enhance other areas of the musical spectrum, composing and arranging for a number of big bands and smaller groups including his Netherlands-based ensemble, the New Art Orchestra, meanwhile teaching at the New England Conservatory of Music, where his students included the well-known composer / arranger Maria Schneider.

Brookmeyer was arranging to the end, with Standards, a new album by the NAO featuring vocalist Fay Claassen, released on ArtistShare only two weeks before his passing. Although not as widely known or celebrated as a pianist, Brookmeyer was capable enough at the keyboard to have played with several big bands and recorded a two-piano album with the great Bill Evans. He worked as a studio musician in New York City in the 1950s and 1960s, and for another decade after moving to Los Angeles in 1968. A serious drinking problem led him to consider leaving music to become an alcoholism counselor but he returned instead to New York in 1978 and resumed his career as a full-time jazz musician, rejoining the Thad Jones / Mel Lewis} Orchestra (renamed the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra after Thad's departure) as music director while also composing avant-garde classical music. He spent the rest of his life composing, arranging and teaching in the U.S and in Europe.

Brookmeyer was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2006, and recently earned his eighth Grammy Award nomination for an arrangement from the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra's latest album, Ever Lasting. As noted, he was many things to many people but the buoyant sound of that valve trombone isn't easily forgotten.

The Girls in the Band

The "hidden history" of women in jazz (and boy, has it been well-hidden) is surveyed in a new video, The Girls in the Band, directed and co-produced by Judy Chaikin. Led by saxophonist Roz Cron, "a group of players from the 1930s and 1940s relate their triumphs and struggles as they describe the contradictions and sexism faced by talented distaff musicians in [a] male-dominated world." Performance clips touch on the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the Ada Leonard Orchestra, the Melodears, the Ingenues and other groups. Cron recalls being one of the few white players in the Sweethearts of Rhythm, led by ace saxophonist Vi Redd, saying she "felt ashamed of my race" while describing efforts to darken her face when the band toured the South during the waning days of Jim Crow laws.

The documentary also covers such early stars as Mary Lou Williams, Melba Liston and Marian McPartland who opened the door for today's women to move to the forefront among jazz musicians around the world. Contemporary musicians offering their insights include Terri Lyne Carrington, Jane Ira Bloom, Geri Allen, Esperanza Spalding, Anat Cohen, Herbie Hancock and the late Dr. Billy Taylor. The film was shown recently at the Dubai, Vancouver and Palm Springs Jazz Festivals, with plans presumably to present it at other events in the states and overseas.

Farewell Clem DeRosa

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