Bob Brookmeyer, influential jazz musician and composer, dies at 81

Bob Brookmeyer, a master of the rarely played valve trombone who was also an influential jazz composer, bandleader and teacher, died Dec. 15 at a hospital in New London, N.H. He was 81.

His wife, Janet Brookmeyer, said he had heart disease.

Mr. Brookmeyer, a onetime pianist, became the foremost valve trombonist in jazz, recording dozens of albums and becoming a member of several groups that expanded the jazz vocabulary.

As a conservatory-trained composer, he blended classical and jazz concepts to create a fluid, original sound that has become a model for younger generations.

“The mark he left on music in terms of his playing and as a writer is just massive,” Maria Schneider, a Grammy-winning jazz composer and bandleader who studied with Mr. Brookmeyer for years, said Saturday. “It amazes me that more people aren’t aware of his music and his playing. More people should know him.”

In his youth, Mr. Brookmeyer worked as a pianist alongside such jazz elders as Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Buck Clayton, Charles Mingus and Pee Wee Russell. Nonetheless, he became something of a young rebel, especially after he adopted the valve trombone as his primary instrument in about 1952. (The valve trombone looks like a standard trombone, but instead of using a slide, the musician changes notes by pressing valves, like those on a trumpet.)

In California in the 1950s, Mr. Brookmeyer worked extensively with saxophonist Stan Getz. By 1954, he had replaced trumpeter Chet Baker in a groundbreaking piano-less quartet led by baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan.

He teamed up with guitarist Jim Hall and saxophonist/clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre in 1958 to form the Jimmy Giuffre 3, a group that defied jazz norms by eliminating the bass and drums. One of the group’s quietly propulsive tunes became the theme for “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” a memorable film of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.

Mr. Brookmeyer later rejoined Mulligan in the 1960s and also formed a long-running quintet with trumpeter Clark Terry. He recorded frequently with them and under his own name, becoming the leading voice of the valve trombone.

“You can hear one note of Bob playing, or two,” Schneider said, “and you immediately know it’s Bob — just the way he put air through the horn.”

Despite being a leading soloist in his own right, Mr. Brookmeyer nonetheless came to have contempt for what he considered a self-indulgent cult of the solo in jazz. He believed that soloists should put their egos aside for the larger good of the music as a whole.

“He told me a solo should only happen when the only thing that can happen is a solo,” Schneider said.

Robert Edward Brookmeyer was born Dec. 19, 1929, in Kansas City, Mo. His musically inclined father gave him a clarinet when he was 8. By age 11, the young Mr. Brookmeyer was set on a life in music.

At 14, he was a professional musical arranger and copyist and was performing in dance bands. He spent three years in a conservatory at the University of Missouri at Kansas City and won a prize for choral composition.

Early in his career, he worked with bands led by Tex Beneke, Ray McKinley and Claude Thornhill. In the 1960s, he was a founding member of the musically advanced Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, for which he did a good deal of arranging.

He also did uncredited arrangements for several studio recordings by Ray Charles and was a member of the studio band of TV talk-show host Merv Griffin.

Mr. Brookmeyer spent most of the 1970s in Los Angeles, working in Hollywood studios and seeking treatment for alcoholism, which almost derailed his career. When he returned to New York in the late 1970s, he formed a trombone-guitar duo with Hall.

By the early 1980s, he was spending a good deal of time in Europe, where he often recorded with German jazz bands. His final recording, “Standards,” was released several weeks ago.

He became a prominent teacher in the 1980s, as well, with long associations with the Manhattan School of Music and, most recently, the New England Conservatory. He lived in Grantham, N.H., in recent years.

His first three marriages ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 23 years, Janet Burns Brookmeyer of Grantham.

Known for his wry observations, Mr. Brookmeyer once told the New York Times about the hierarchy of musicians in a jazz band.

“As a trombonist in a big band, you’re in the middle of everything,” he said. “You learn how things are made. My old joke is that saxophonists get all the girls, trumpet players make all the money, and trombone players develop an interior life.”