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Bobby Broom: Building a Legacy

R.J. DeLuke By

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"I've been recording quite a bit now since 2000. I've made nine or 10 records. That's about one a year. It's a task to come up with 'What am I going to do next?' and have it be a natural choice as much as possible. I try not to think about it too much and belabor that part of the process. I've been holding off on the idea of recording a lot of original material. Although I do write, I felt like I wanted to establish my voice on the guitar for listeners. I wanted listeners to know who I was. I didn't feel that presenting a whole program of original material was the thing to do to help establish that. I wanted to give people something they were a bit more familiar with. Something they might gravitate toward. Something to meet them halfway, familiarize myself with the listener in that way."

"The group sound has been documented and recognized to some degree, as well as my own playing and sound. So I feel comfortable in doing that. That's what the new trio record is. All-original material."

So he combines performing, and now writing, with his diligent work as an educator. That's a well-rounded career in which Broom can influence musicians on multiple levels.

As a youngster starting out on guitar, jazz didn't mean much. But through a teacher, Jimmy Carter, he became acquainted with jazz and about jazz and saw the music in a different light. "Eventually it all made sense. I started hearing music on the radio in my natural environment that was associated with jazz. Herbie Hancock was popular. Grover Washington Jr. These guys were having these hits on radio. It was music I related to and that I liked. There was improvisation. I thought, 'If this is jazz, then I like jazz.' That's when the connection was made."

Broom attended the former High School of Music and Art (now LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts) and music became serious work, something Broom ate up at a fast pace.

Sonny Rollins Road Shows Vol. 1"I think I was enamored with this music. I had this fervor about wanting to be involved in it. I was not ashamed to play. That's one thing I learned from Jimmy Carter—learning by doing. A large part of our lessons consisted of just us playing together. He would write a chart the week before, I would learn it, then we could come together and play. That developed over the course of a few years. After a while, I'm kind of familiar with the performance process through him. He did theory with me, but it was also a mentoring situation. So I didn't have any fear. I was naive. I didn't have any fear about not sounding good. I didn't have a conscience about it yet. I was more concerned with being involved and learning from the situation that I was in."

The arts high school gave Broom more structure, which he knew he needed. "I went there in the 10th grade and there I met quite a few young people that were of like mind. That's a great environment to learn, grow, discover new things and reinforce what it is you're trying to do as a student. That was a really good move for me."

In addition to playing with some jazz greats at a young age, because he had no fear, Broom also landed in a musical written by another mentor, pianist and playwright Weldon Irvine, who was Nina Simone's musical director and organist. He wrote the lyric to Simone's hit, "Young, Gifted and Black." In addition, he wrote a musical, "Young, Gifted and Broke" for a group of teenagers. It was performed at the Billie Holiday Theatre with Broom among the participants.

"The role was a teenage jazz musician. We did a nine-month run at the Billie Holiday Theater in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. I was a senior in high school, so 16 years old. After the play one night, he said, 'Call your mom and tell her we're going to go out. I'm going to take you out to sit in.' I said, 'What's that?'" recalls Broom fondly.

"We went to a club and Al Haig was playing with his trio. I said, 'He played with Charlie Parker. I know who that is.' So Weldon approaches Al, talks to him a little bit and came back and said, 'He says it's cool for you to play.' I was, like, 'Cool.' No reservation. I get up and we played. Afterward, Al said, 'I do this gig every week at a club on the upper East Side called Gregory's. Whenever you want, come by and play.' I was there three or four nights a week. That kind of opportunity is amazing. A learning opportunity and everything else ... Now I'm playing with somebody that played with Charlie Parker, who I idolized. That's amazing. And I'm learning this music. And this guy thinks it's OK for me to do that.

Deep Blue Organ Trio, from left: Greg Rockingham, Chris Foreman, Bobby Broom

"I didn't think I sounded good. I didn't judge too much. I didn't think I sounded bad. I didn't judge it in that way. The whole idea was to keep getting better. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to do that."

Another momentous time in high school was his encounter with the great Sonny Rollins. He was approached by Aurell Ray, Rollins' guitarist at the time, who arranged for Broom to participate in a rehearsal with Rollins, bassist Bob Cranshaw, and drummer Eddie Moore. Rollins offered to take Broom on tour with the band. Broom declined the offer, explaining that he was still a senior in high school. But Broom found himself playing a concert at Carnegie Hall in 1977 with Rollins, Cranshaw, Moore, Ray, pianist Mike Nock, and trumpeter Donald Byrd.

"When I played that concert with him, it was right around my 16th birthday. I was a kid," recounts Broom. "When I look back at some of those situations, playing with Sonny Rollins and all of that, I can't really look at it objectively. Even though I'm looking at it subjectively, I have to try to see it in the way I saw it then. Because seeing it from my perspective now, I'm going, 'How could I have done that? I couldn't even play.' But when I step back, I say it wasn't about how good I was, it was about the potential that I had. It was about the earnestness that I had. It was about the innocence and how enthused I was. I'm sure these guys could tell that. I'm sure I had enough together that indicated that and it probably excited them too, in a way, I would imagine. I know how I feel when I hear a kid now that can play a little bit."

Broom rejoined Rollins in 2005 and can be heard on the albums No Problem (Milestone, 1981), Reel Life (Milestone, 1983), Sonny, Please (Doxy, 2006), and Road Shows, Vol. 1 (Doxy, 2008).

"What can I say about that, other than I'm glad I got the opportunity to do more of it? To have that experience of playing with him in his band and then go on to do a lot of other things—to have a career in music then revisit that [Rollins] situation 25 years later. Having formed my ideas about music, being an educator and espousing certain ideas and philosophies about playing and about jazz and what it's all about. I know my ideas come directly from my experiences with these kinds of people and with this music."

Deep Blue Organ Trio Folk MusicBroom also had the opportunity to join Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, something no other guitarist had done. He had been sitting in with the band, along with young trumpeter Wynton Marsalis in New York. The drummer invited both to his circle. Marsalis went. Broom went with a younger band led by trumpeter Tom Browne. That move, however, started Broom's recording career.

"I don't know what would have happened had I made the other decision [to join Blakey], but I know what happened by going on and playing with Tom Browne," the guitarist says. That included meeting and playing with the likes of Omar Hakim, Marcus Miller, and Bernard Wright. "Things could have been a lot different, but they didn't happen in a straight line. Tom Browne and that whole crew of musicians were not traditionalists. We were definitely jazz musicians. We studied jazz, we listened to jazz, we loved jazz and could play jazz. But we were interested in a lot of different things.

"The music that we were making was kind of along the lines of the music I heard that attracted me to jazz in the first place. Herbie Hancock Headhunters and Grover Washington Jr. fusion. I don't mean jazz/rock fusion from the '70s. I mean a fusion of styles that included black music—R&B, funk, soul and jazz. It was kind of a precursor to what became known as Smooth Jazz. We weren't thinking of any of that. We were just making music. We had the opportunity to record. We were playing on each other's records. That's what was happening.; When I think about it, if I had continued along that track, making records like Clean Sweep (Arista, 1981) for six more years, and Smooth Jazz had been created and I had continued on, maybe I would have been one of the Smooth Jazz guitar legends."

He adds, "Fortunately, that didn't happen. And I say that for personal reasons. After Clean Sweep was when Sonny Rollins called, when I got a call from Jackie McLean about teaching. Although Sonny wasn't playing strictly straight-ahead music at that time either. Still, I was getting exposed to the life of jazz, with one of the most successful jazz musicians working at that time. I'm getting exposed to that kind of life and to the music of this historic figure. So I'm getting a lesson in jazz as a working musician, which was what I was attracted to in the first place. Thank goodness for me that this happened and it didn't get limited to this one way of doing it. Fortunately for me I wasn't bound by the recording contract that I had and trying to become a star in this way. I would have loved it if it happened, I guess, but it didn't happen in that way. It seems that I was pulled in the direction that I was supposed to go."

That career included work with some jazz stalwarts. But a funny thing happened when he was with Kenny Burrell's Jazz Guitar Band. "That was 1986 and 87. I was living in Chicago at the time. I was probably already being written off by some. 'There goes another one moving out of town [NYC]. What the heck is he doing?' But I was continuing to practice and play. I was continuing to travel on the road internationally and doing what I had been doing. So it was OK, relative to being a working musician." It became known that Miles Davis was interested.
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