Tenor saxophonist Tina Brooks was one of the unsung geniuses of the horn, a brilliant soloist with a pure, smooth tone and a mind that created patterns of great intricacy, logic and beauty. Almost his entire output as a sideman and leader was for Blue Note. His obscurity was a tragedy for the music as well as for him.
Harold Lloyd “Tina” Brooks and his twin brother Harry were born to David and Cornelia Brooks in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on June 7, 1932. They were the youngest of eight children. This close-knit family migrated en masse to the Bronx in New York City in 1944, when Harold was 12 years old. He was already being called Tina (pronounced Teena), a grade school nickname that came from his tiny or teensy size. Around this time, he started playing the C Melody saxophone. In addition to school instruction, he took private lessons with his older brother David Brooks Jr., whose nickname is Bubba. Tina moved from C Melody to alto and finally settled on the tenor as his instrument.
Meanwhile, Bubba was becoming established as an R&B tenor saxophonist. In 1950, he joined pianist Sonny Thompson's band. When he took a leave of absence in late 1950, Tina took his chair for a few months. In January of '51, Tina made his recording debut on one of Thompson's many King sessions done in Cleveland.
Throughout the early fifties, Tina worked with local New York Latin bands and various R&B outfits such as those of singer-pianist Charles Brown and trumpeter Joe Morris. In '53 or '54, he went on the road with pianist Amos Milburn. He then joined Lionel Hampton's orchestra for the spring and summer of 1955. But he found this to be little more than another R&B gig with little room to stretch out.
In 1956, Brooks met trumpeter-composer Little Benny Harris at the Blue Morocco, a Bronx jazz club. Harris took the young tenor under his wing and taught him the vocabulary and intricacies of modern jazz. Tina also developed a close friendship with the brilliant pianist- composer Elmo Hope. He was assimilating early influences (Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Wardell Gray) and current models (Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley) into a style of his own, which was rapidly taking shape.
Alfred Lion remembers Benny Harris calling him up to a Harlem club to hear Tina in late 1957. He immediately began recording Brooks on Blue Note at a regular pace. He first hired Tina for a marathon Jimmy Smith recording on February 25, 1958. The tenor saxophonist played on three lengthy sextet tunes. “The Sermon,” and “House Party,” two of Smith's most important and popular albums, each carried one of those tunes. When Blue Note recorded the organist at Small's Paradise that April with special guests (a session that was not issued until 1980), Tina was present.