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Curtis Fuller: Hardbop Heaven

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Trombonist Curtis Fuller’s warm tone and “buckets and buckets of soul” (Gigi Gryce) makes him immediately identifiable and consistently in demand, even after almost six decades of performing. His resumé reads like a history of jazz—he’s recorded and played with a who’s who of jazz elite, and he continues to be highly sought-after, even into his 70s.

Fuller was born in 1934 in Detroit, an unusually fertile breeding ground for jazz musicians at the time. When he first picked up the trombone at the age of 16, he had some first-rate company—Elvin and Thad Jones, Donald Byrd, Paul Chambers, Kenny Burrell, Barry Harris, Pepper Adams, and Yusef Lateef were all cutting their teeth in Detroit in the early 50s. “A very good school of music,” he once said.

Although influenced by JJ Johnson, his teacher and mentor, Curtis Fuller arrived in New York at the age of 22 with a sound and style that were uniquely his own. With encouragement from older, established musicians—particularly Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie—he cultivated a warm, full tone that exploited his middle register while maintaining the melodic clarity of line he’d adopted from Johnson. Like Johnson, he makes the trombone sound fluid and elegant. And, of course, he swings like mad! “Ellington said it very graciously,” Fuller quips. “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing…

Shortly after Fuller’s arrival in the Big Apple, an incredible chain of events set off his meteoric rise to stardom. He went to Café Bohemia, a jazz club in Greenwich Village, to sit in with Miles Davis’ quintet which, at the time, consisted of Red Garland, Philly Joe Jones, Paul Chambers, and saxophonist John Coltrane. “Meeting John Coltrane was the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” Fuller has admitted. “Trane took me aside, and, of course, we did Blue Train…and that started everything. He had confidence that I didn’t have; he saw something that I didn’t see.”

Blue Train would go on to become one of the most important, influential, and best-selling jazz records in history. “John was taking music another direction,” Fuller has observed. “You know, it wasn’t just rhythm changes anymore, it was completely different.” On the record date, Fuller said, “John, you put this music on us on a moment’s notice? We got three hours to rehearse this music and we’re gonna record?” That comment generated a new Coltrane song, “Moment’s Notice”!

Fuller quickly became part of the Blue Note family of artists and began appearing on records with Clifford Jordon, Bud Powell, Jimmy Smith, Hank Mobley and others. In fact, after just eight months in New York, Curtis had made six albums as a leader and appeared on fifteen others.

In 1961, Curtis Fuller began a five year association with Art Blakey. With Wayne Shorter on tenor sax, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, and Cedar Walton on piano, they became the most famous rendition of the Jazz Messengers and helped define the sound of the hardbop era. “I owe a lot to Art Blakey in so many ways,” Fuller has said. “He was very important in my life. We were all driven by the fact that he encouraged us all to write. There wasn’t such a thing as a leader.” While Wayne Shorter’s compositions tend to receive the most attention, Curtis Fuller contributed some important pieces to the group’s catalogue. In fact, “Buhaina’s Delight” became one of the Messengers’ signature tunes and the title track on a December 1961 record.

Fuller also has a long-standing musical partnership with Benny Golson, with whom he’s recorded many times—including his famous 1959 record Blues-Ette. He’s also played as a sideman with Lester Young and Billie Holiday. In the late 1960s, he made important records with Wayne Shorter (Schizophrenia), Joe Henderson (Mode for Joe), Lee Morgan (Tomcat), Hank Mobley (A Caddy for Daddy) and many other jazz greats. His big band experience is equally impressive. He’s played in jazz orchestras led by Dizzy Gillespie, Gil Evans, Maynard Ferguson, and Lionel Hampton. He played briefly with Duke Ellington, and also with the Count Basie Big Band in the mid-1970s. “We all know that this is the end of an era,” Fuller commented once. And he’s right. There was a time when all musicians played in big bands—now it’s a rarer opportunity.

In the 80s and 90s, Fuller toured with various ensembles, most notably the Timeless All-Stars and his own groups. In 1993, he recorded Blues-Ette, Part 2 with the same band that recorded the famous Blues-Ette nearly forty years earlier. In recent years, he’s spent more and more time teaching and mentoring jazz students, passing along five decades of knowledge and wisdom. Still, his most recent album, Keep It Simple, recorded in 2005, is Curtis Fuller doing what he does best: playing catchy, blues-inflected melodies with his big, warm sound—and swinging as hard as ever!

The Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra is thrilled to feature Curtis Fuller this fall, both with the orchestra and in a masterclass setting. Don’t miss this opportunity to hear a jazz legend in person!


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