Happy Birthday, Bob Brookmeyer!
Here’s a picture I took at his 80th birthday celebration at the Eastman School of Music. Bob was my compositional mentor and remains an eternal inspiration. I miss him dearly.
When Bob passed in 2011, I wrote a memorial for New Music USA, which includes remembrances I collected from many of his colleagues. Here’s my own contribution:
I had seen Bob Brookmeyer live with the Danish Radio Big Band at a jazz conference in 1994, but my first actual interaction with him happened online. Sometime in the late ‘90s, Bob started posting a series of commentaries to his web site. He called them “Currents.” Essentially it was a blog before there were blogs. He would opine on all manner of things—football and politics, but also music. Like any good blogger, Bob was keenly aware that it’s the most opinionated, critical posts that attract the most attention, and he was never one to sugarcoat. At one point, Bob posted something dismissive about a musician I greatly admire, and I must admit, I took the bait.
This would have been in 1999. I was 24 years old and living in Montreal. I’d begun teaching an introductory arranging class at McGill, and I wanted to discuss one of Bob’s scores with my students. I had many questions, so I emailed Bob to ask about various mysterious details in the music. And then, at the end of my email, I could not resist mentioning that I’d read what he’d written about so-and-so, and I didn’t think he was giving him a fair shake.
I don’t know that I really expected a response. But Bob got back to me right away (within a few hours, if memory serves), kindly answered all my naive questions about his music, and proffered an even more pointed and detailed critique of the artist than what he’d originally written. But after that, we got to corresponding, and eventually Bob suggested that I send him some of my own music.
I was terrified, of course, but how do you refuse an offer like that? I remember my hands were shaking as I put the package down on the post office counter. Included was a score and recording of a piece I’d written, Sang-Froid, a shameless carbon copy of Maria Schneider’s early work, with bits pilfered from Kenny Wheeler thrown in for good measure. At best, it was maybe a semi-competent bit of derivative juvenilia (and that’s being extraordinarily generous), but Bob must have seen the spark of something in it, because he invited me to study with him at NEC. Things were finally starting to go well for me in Montreal and I hadn’t planned on pursing a graduate degree, but now Bob had made me an offer I really couldn’t refuse.
I began at NEC in the fall of 2000, still terrified. But Bob turned out to be the most exceptional teacher I’ve ever encountered. Lots of jazz musicians take teaching gigs because they need the money, or they enjoy basking in the admiration of young people. Bob did not take up the mantle of educator lightly—he was as serious about teaching as he was about composing or playing. He had developed a repertoire of assignments, which he gave to all of his students—white-note exercises, intervallic exercises, rhythmic exercises—but as he learned what a student required, he would tailor his approach to each individual. He didn’t do anything by rote, and he judged everyone’s work by the same impossible standards he set for himself.
It’s funny, though. During our first several months together, Bob played his cards uncharacteristically close to the vest. I remember my fellow composition majors trading stories about how mercilessly he would dissect their work. But whenever I would bring in the chart I was plugging away at, Bob wouldn’t say much of anything! He would listen attentively to the recording and perform a detailed examination of the score, but declined to offer any sort of feedback, other than, “Okay…what comes next?” I began to fear that Bob considered my work so thoroughly unremarkable that he could not even be bothered to voice a critique! Finally, as we neared the end of the semester and I had completed the piece—a 13-minute blowout called “Lizard Brain”—and Bob saw the double barline at the end, then the dissection began. (It was gloriously merciless.) Bob later told me: “I could see that you were pushing yourself to do something different, something you didn’t exactly know how to do. But the wheels seemed to be turning okay on their own. I didn’t want to stop the bus before you got to wherever it was that you were headed.”
It’s impossible to imagine what my life would have been like without Bob. Certainly I would never have had the guts or the wherewithal to move to New York or start my own big band! After I left Boston, we kept in intermittent contact—I wasn’t as close to him as some, but I tried to keep him abreast of whatever I had going on. I have a treasure trove of concise but unfailingly encouraging correspondence from Bob: “Congratulations! Very pleased you are making a dent in the big city.” “Good news, my friend!!! Keep it up.” “I have been meaning to congratulate on the commission—read about it and am proud as always.” During his 80th birthday celebration concert at Eastman, I got to sit next to him in the audience as the students played their hearts out on perilously difficult material, like “The Nasty Dance” and “Say Ah.” I’d catch little sidelong glimpses of him beaming with admiration. It’s one of my favorite memories.
When Secret Society was invited to perform at the Newport Jazz Festival last year, on George Wein’s suggestion I invited Bob to play a piece with us, one that I would write to feature him. When he accepted, it was beyond terrifying—writing for Bob! At Newport, no less! What the hell was I thinking? It was without a doubt the hardest thing I’d ever had to write. But when the festival weekend came around, Bob fell sick and wasn’t able to make it. He told me afterwards that he owed me a recording, but unfortunately we were never able to make that happen. I also desperately wanted him to hear a recording of the music from Brooklyn Babylon, the multimedia production I co-created with Danijel Zezelj and premiered at BAM last month. Sadly, he passed just days before we finished mixing.
The most important lesson Bob taught me, the one I hope will last me a lifetime, is the importance of patience. You’ve got to give each musical idea time and space not just to be heard, but to be appreciated. Bob’s best music is full of moments of tremendous power that are only possible because he’s set them up so patiently. In life, Bob was not always an entirely patient man, and he was not always fully appreciated. He never really got his due—his music is not widely known outside of a small community of devotees. (Several of his most influential recordings, including Make Me Smile, have languished out of print for years.) But amongst musicians, his status is properly legendary. Bob packed several lifetimes’ worth of music into almost 82 years of living. Now the rest of us have the rest of our lives to try to catch up to where he left off.
My alma mater, New England Conservatory, commissioned me to write a piece in honor of Bob for their 150th anniversary. I called it “Wingèd Beasts” — what is the big band but a chimera of mismatched parts, a great terrible lumbering creature? But one that yearns to fly. The piece is inspired in part by Bob’s “The Nasty Dance,” which I reference explicitly during Carl Maraghi’s bari sax solo. It’s kind of like a symbiote that had been attached to the piece the entire time, and then finally, just as Carl starts to blow, it takes full control of its host.
More DMT Inspirations: