Bob Brookmeyer dies at 81; jazz trombonist, composer

Bob Brookmeyer, a jazz trombonist, composer, arranger and educator whose multifaceted career reached from cutting-edge performances with Gerry Mulligan and Stan Getz to innovative big band compositions and highly regarded classes at the New England Conservatory, has died. He was 81.

Brookmeyer died Thursday of congestive heart failure at a hospital near his home in Grantham, N.H., according to his wife, Janet. He would have been 82 today.

One of the few musicians who played the valve rather than the slide trombone, Brookmeyer created a highly personal musical identity for himself as a jazz improviser. He arrived on the jazz scene in the early 1950s at a time when bebop was the most dominant improvisational style and trombonist J.J. Johnson one of its most influential practitioners. Brookmeyer took a different path, making the most of the valve trombone's capacity for articulate phrasing, employing swing-driven rhythms, buoyant, often witty, melody-making phrasing and a probing harmonic inventiveness.

His equally adventurous approach to composition and arranging had a powerful effect on Mulligan's Concert Jazz Band, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and Brookmeyer's own German-based New Art Orchestra. Echoes of Brookmeyer's quest to find new musical ideas within the traditional big jazz band instrumentation can be heard in the music of such young composer/arrangers as Maria Schneider, Darcy James Argue, John Daversa and others.

The creative diversity of Brookmeyer's writing prompted jazz critic Terry Teachout to ask, "Is Bob Brookmeyer the greatest living jazz composer?" Answering his own question, Teachout described the music on Spirit Music, a Grammy-nominated album featuring Brookmeyer's compositions performed by the New Art Orchestra, as "the work of a master searching for — and discovering — ultimate essences."

When Brookmeyer expanded his activities into teaching and mentoring in the 1980s, the results were equally successful. He taught at the Manhattan School of Music and the New England Conservatory, where he chaired the Jazz Composition Department.

Robert Edward Brookmeyer was born Dec. 19, 1929, in Kansas City, Mo. Demonstrating a talent for music at an early age, he started out on clarinet and piano, but it was his first exposure to jazz that delineated what would become his life's career path.

Recalling the day when his father had taken him — at the age of 11 — to see the Count Basie Orchestra, Brookmeyer told the Daily Telegraph in London, "It was the first major body thrill I had — a completely orgasmic feeling. I thought, I just have to do this."

By the time he was in his teens, he was working professionally, writing dance band arrangements and playing — first piano, then trombone — with the bands of Tex Beneke, Ray McKinley and Claude Thornhill.

In 1953, he replaced trumpeter Chet Baker in the Gerry Mulligan quartet, then one of the most prominent small groups in jazz. Brookmeyer later wrote ground-breaking arrangements for the Mulligan Concert Jazz Band.

Other significant musical partnerships included stints with Jimmy Giuffre, Stan Getz, Clark Terry and Jim Hall.

In the '70s, however, when he was active in the Los Angeles studio scene, including a period in the Merv Griffin show band, Brookmeyer's long-term drinking habit began to escalate.

After spending time in rehabilitation programs in L.A., he stopped drinking in 1976 and returned to New York.

In the '80s, Brookmeyer — finding himself increasingly drawn to classical music — began to approach big band composition from a perspective that reached beyond traditional jazz styles. He sought new ways to integrate improvising soloists with large ensembles. And his desire to open the harmonic universe of jazz resulted in such original compositions as "ABC Blues," which combined 12-tone sequences with the blues.

"What I write today is very abstract sounding, modern sounding, dissonant, wild," Brookmeyer told The Times' Zan Stewart. "It's a language I like now. I get to explore a lot of areas that didn't exist for me in jazz music."

His last recording, "Standards" — featuring his New Art Orchestra and vocalist Fay Claassen — was released a few weeks ago.

Brookmeyer's first three marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World