Saturday, December 17, 2011

RIP Bob Brookmeyer

We lost a master yesterday. Bob Brookmeyer, who was a tremendous teacher long before I met him, and an even bigger influence when I got to work with him, passed away a few days from his 82nd birthday. There will be lots of worthy tributes in the press and the blogs this week, but I wanted to write the story of my relationship with Bob the musiciain, the teacher, and the man.

First, Bob was the first musician to make me care about big band music. I hadn't played with a big band until I got to college, and we were fed the usual diet of Basie, Thad Jones, Bob Mintzer, and (stiffly played) Duke Ellington. I got why it mattered (and see my hubris in hindsight), but I didn't care. Then, in my sophomore year in short succession, I heard “Hello and Goodbye”, “Ding Dong Ding”, and most importantly for me “KP '94”. In Bob's hands, the big band was as cutting edge a tool as a ginsu knife, and easily as relevant as the Lovano and Steve Coleman I was gorging on. (Of course, I found out later they both played for Bob in the Vanguard band...) To the end, his music was both careful and ecstatic, swinging hard and smart.

My senior year of college, we got word that Bob (a favorite of our department head, of course) was coming to perform with us for out last big band concerts of the year, playing two concerts of his music, mostly fairly recent material, including “KP '94”. All of us in the band were thrilled... and terrified. Bob's genius as a musician was nearly matched by his reputation as a, well, curmudgeon is a nice word. And none of us wanted to be embarrassed.

I remember the first rehearsal to this day- we had been shedding the ^$&# out of this music for months, and thought we were ready. Our director introduced Bob, he said something pithy, and then got up to conduct the first tune. His count off (we're used to the standard “1, 2, 1-2-3-4) went something like this: “va-da-va-DUH-ba-da DAH-ba-da-duh-va, DAHT, ZAT, ZUUUH- DAT!” By the end, he was shouting. We were so confused we didn't play. He counted the tune off with the sound and the intensity he wanted, and didn't let up for the rest of the run. We thought we were tight before he got there; we weren't close. He whipped us into shape in five days; I've not been the same musician after that.

I got to play for Bob in a small group during that run; he loved the tune we played and how we played it, so we became friendly. (The tune was by James Carney, and Bob and James became friends soon after that, helping set up Bob's 90s west coast quartet) I did a summer workshop with him, and we were in touch occasionally. In my last year in New York, I went to Bob's 70th birthday gig at the Vanguard with the big band there. Bob and I chatted, and I said I wanted to study with him at New England Conservatory. He said something like “we can make that happen” and he did; I enrolled at NEC, with a fair amount of scholarship money, that September.

This was the real beginning of my work with Bob as my teacher. I was anxious to get at all of what I saw as Bob's innovations, but all he wanted to talk about was “craft”- chord voicings, line resolutions, finishing phrases, the nuts and bolts of any kind of writing. I was frustrated, and I know he started to get frustrated too, but ultimately he was right. I wasn't nearly as skilled, or as ready, as I thought I was, and Bob firmly (but not meanly) reeled me in. I worked with him for two years; what I wrote in year one ranged from okay to crap, but in year two I wrote what I still feel is some of the best musical work I've ever done. And it wasn't just the stuff I brought to him for big band (when you worked with Bob, that's what you did)- it was small group tunes, music for voice and strings, even pop tunes. Bob made everything better.

In this time I got to know Bob the man; more than once I would go up to his house in New Hampshire to take a lesson, and after the lesson we would spend the rest of the afternoon and into the evening together. Mostly, Bob just told stories: of his days standing in awe of the Basie band, of playing with everyone (except maybe Duke Ellington, who I think he turned down when he called- long story). Of letting his vices get the better of him, landing him in rehab, and he thought, out of music forever. Then of his road back, both from his demons and into the world of music and then teaching music. In the 70s, finally clean and sober, Bob started from scratch and re-imaginied himself as a composer and player, listening to everything that had happened while he was in a haze- Coltrane and free jazz, but also all kinds of contemporary classical music, including Lutoslowski and Feldman, the two he mentioned most often to me. What came from this was perhaps his most fertile period as a writer. (My friend and fellow Brookmeyer buddy Darcy James Argue wrote eloquently about this period when we were working on what became the Behearer project) That by itself demanded my respect.

And as a teacher, he kept that restless quality control; he was opinionated, no doubt, but would listen to everything and try to make it better. And he was the consumate professional; no matter how hard he rode you in lessons or rehearsals (and he could be vicious), in concert he made everyone sound like the cat's meow.

I feel very blessed to have known and studied with Bob. The alumni of his studio are legendary at this point: Maria Schneider, Jim McNeely, Ted Nash, Darcy, John Hollenbeck, and on and on. But whether you went on in big bands or not, Bob changed you, no doubt.

After Bob retired and I stopped seriously writing music, I sadly lost touch with him, hearing things occasionally from friends and peers. That said, there was something nice about knowing that he was around and working, and that eventually I'd catch him again. More the fool me. I don't know the circumstances of his death, but I grieve for and with his fantastic wife Jan and their family. Bob certainly made me a better composer, but I find myself calling on his skills, his demands, his wisdom in many other places too. I hear Bob in how I coach my saxophone students, and his demands on me the composer and improviser unwittingly helped me prepare to create and sequence yoga classes, and to improvise my way out of jams there too. I am beyond grateful for the many ways that Bob Brookmeyer made me a better musiscian, and a better man. Godspeed Bob.