Whenever one is asked to define jazz, it is tempting to cite great improvisers, such as Bird, Trane, Hawk, Brecker, and countless others, yet such a view would be shortsighted. Developing out of Western harmony and African rhythms, jazz reached the peak of its popularity in 1920s and ‘30s with the advent of the jazz orchestra, known as the big band, which in turn developed as jazz moved into new areas. In this idiom, many great jazz composers and arrangers ushered in a tradition of extended forms, orchestration, and solo sections that helped shape the sound of jazz. In the Berklee community, there are few composers who are more well-respected than Bob Brookmeyer.
Robert Edward Brookmeyer was born on December 19, 1929, in Kansas City, Missouri, the hub of swing in the ‘30s and early ‘40s. Brookmeyer remembers the first time that he heard the Count Basie Orchestra in 1941: “I melted. It was the first time I felt good in my life. I was not a very successful child.”
After beginning his musical career as a trombonist and a pianist, Brookmeyer endured a six month stint in the Army before joining Tex Beneke’s Orchestra, a job that would eventually take him to New York, where Brookmeyer replaced Chet Baker in Gerry Mulligan’s quartet and sextet. At this time, Brookmeyer was also found performing with woodwind and composition master Jimmy Giuffre, saxophonists Al Cohn and Stan Getz, and many others, mostly on valve trombone. Brookmeyer had an extensive studio career, which included being a member of the house band for The Merv Griffin Show. His studio career took him to Los Angeles in 1968.
After overcoming a serious alcohol problem, Brookmeyer returned to New York in 1979 as the musical director of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. The 1980 recording Live at the Village Vanguard features many of Brookmeyer’s more well-known compositions and arrangements, such as “Ding Dong Ding,” “First Love Song,” “Hello & Goodbye,” and a stunning arrangement of the Hoagy Carmichael tune, “Skylark.”
In the 1980s, Brookmeyer began teaching at New England Conservatory. As a teacher and a bandleader, Brookmeyer has had a strong influence on some of today’s top large ensemble composers, including Maria Schneider, John Hollenbeck, and Jim McNeely.
Brookmeyer continued composing until the time of his death, and was one of the first artists to begin releasing music through ArtistShare. Brookmeyer died on December 15, 2011.
One of Brookmeyer’s most important contributions to jazz composition was his take on writing backgrounds for soloists. In a 2006 New York Times article, Brookmeyer reminds composers to “keep your hand on the soloist, somehow, with long tones, chords, punches. Keep your hand on him because he needs it.”
Fully integrating soloists into the ensemble was a concept that Brookmeyer first absorbed from Basie and began to practice while arranging for Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band in the ‘60s. Brookmeyer explains his philosophy on solos:
“My first rule became: The first solo only happens when absolutely nothing else can happen,” he explained. “You don’t write in a solo until you’ve completely exhausted what you have to say. If you give a soloist an open solo for 30 seconds, he plays like he’s coming from the piece that you wrote. Then he says, ‘What the hell was that piece that I was playing from?’ And the next 30 seconds is, ‘Oh, I guess I’ll play what I learned last night.’ And bang! Minute 2 is whoever he likes, which is probably Coltrane.”
This concept leads directly to one other quality that is prevalent in Brookmeyer’s music: simple motifs that return after the music has taken the listener on a substantial journey, to the point where he or she may have nearly forgotten the original motif. One of Brookmeyer’s favorite examples of this is Witold Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Cello, originally written for Mstislav Rostropovich.
A life-long lover of classical music, Brookmeyer — who once left the jazz idiom intent on being a classical composer — used many contemporary classical techniques in his writing, making attempts to fuse such techniques with the jazz language. One example of this effort towards achieving such a classical/jazz fusion is “ABC Blues,” where Brookmeyer integrates 12-tone rows and blues changes.
Bob Brookmeyer is one of the true giants of modern jazz composition; any aspiring composer should study his work. Fortunately, there are many resources that can help composers to understand his compositional approach.
- Inside the Score by Rayburn Wright
The Ivory Hunters – Bill Evans and Bob Brookmeyer
Live at the North Sea Jazz Festival – Jim Hall and Bob Brookmeyer
Live at the Village Vanguard – Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra
Spirit Music – Bob Brookmeyer Orchestra
Forever Lasting – Vanguard Jazz Orchestra