From childhood Bob Brookmeyer has felt the pull of two musical worlds--jazz and classics.
"When I was 11, I heard Count Basie with all the greats like Lester Young and 'Sweets' Edison at the Tower Theatre in (hometown) Kansas City," the trombonist, arranger and composer said. "I came unglued. Then four years later, I heard the music of Stravinsky and Debussy in the same evening. Since then, there have been two fingers beckoning me."
These days, the classical finger seems to be the stronger of the two.
"I'm writing for orchestras and chamber groups," Brookmeyer said in a telephone conversation from his home in Goshen, N.Y., prior to a rare jazz performance this week in Southern California. "A few years ago, there was a change in me and my musical outlook. I had done a lot in jazz, and when the music changed for me, I had to follow the music. But I had wanted to write for symphony orchestra since my years as a student at the Kansas City Conservatory."
Brookmeyer, who has contributed extensively to the libraries of the Gerry Mulligan Concert Band, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra and the Mel Lewis Orchestra, used to write pieces replete with lush melodies and unabashedly swinging lines. No more.
"What I write today is very abstract sounding, modern sounding, dissonant, wild," the 56-year-old said. "It's a language I like now. I get to explore a lot of areas that didn't exist for me in jazz music."
This musical shift was prompted by a change of life styles--while in Los Angeles in 1977, where he'd been living since 1968, Brookmeyer stopped drinking. "I was a stoned-out alcoholic," he said without hesitation.
After a nine-month stint as a drunk-driving counselor for the National Council on Alcoholism in Van Nuys, Brookmeyer moved to New York, where he'd resided from 1952 to 1967, and returned to playing and writing, but with a new framework.
"I began to listen more and found that I was coming up with more things that didn't fit the jazz band format," he said. "The out tray got bigger than the in tray, so I had to find a place to put the music."
Europe provided an ideal outlet for his compositions. In 1982, his "Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra," featuring longtime colleague guitarist Jim Hall, was premiered by the Swedish Radio Symphony. In 1984, the "Double Concerto for Two Orchestras," one of his most adventurous works, was played by the Light Symphony Orchestra of Cologne, West Germany.
The Continent still provides the man who sees "being a full-time composer as a job with two lifetimes worth of work" with plenty of opportunities. "I'm in Europe for projects twice a year, so that gives me a lot to do," he said. "Fortunately, I'm making a modest living at this."
Brookmeyer doesn't think jazz is as open to new ideas as the classical world. "It's a long way to getting jazz club owners, promoters and audiences to see that change is desirable, much less necessary," he said. "A jazz show should have lighting, staging, like an evening of musical theater. Club owners want musicians to just come in and play.
"I feel that if I wake up one morning, and decide I want to do a chamber opera, then I can go about setting a path to finding funding, a place to execute the work and so on," he said. "In jazz, I'd have to deal with a bunch of dead-head middlemen. So for me, the classical side is, in many ways, freer for me to dream in."
Not that he'll ever abandon his love for jazz. The composer is currently at work on a piece for the Lewis orchestra that will combine jazz with theater, lighting and tape effects, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and to be presented at the Public Theatre in New York later this year.
Brookmeyer--who appears with his quartet tonight at Alfonse's, Wednesday-Thursday at Manhattan Jazz, Friday-Saturday at the Hyatt on Sunset, and Sunday at the Pacific Coast Jazz Festival in Irvine--thinks his trombone playing has changed, too. And for the better.
"Maybe it's because I'm older and wiser," joked the man who's played extensively with Mulligan and Stan Getz, and co-led a quintet with trumpeter Clark Terry. "I have a more mature attitude toward music, so the music comes out more . . . controlled."
Brookmeyer plays only occasionally, his weeklong local stint notwithstanding. But, as it usually does, less means more. "I think I feel fresher by not playing all the time."
"I've played a lot of trombone. When I got to New York, I played with Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Dizzy Gillespie. Everybody was kind and encouraging. But playing is like sex. When it's good, it's wonderful. But it's hard to have it that way all the time."
So composing takes first precedence for Brookmeyer, who says he'd rather "be a 70-year-old composer/conductor than a 70-year-old trombonist." "I know what I'm going to be doing for the rest of my life, now," he said. "I've played some good stuff in clubs, but it's out there in the air, somewhere. If I spend that time writing, it'll be around for a little while. I like the aspect of permanence."