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Curtis Fuller, acclaimed jazz trombonist of hard-bop era, dies at 88

Curtis Fuller performing in 1964. (KPA/United Archives/Getty Images)
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Curtis Fuller, an acclaimed jazz trombonist who was a key contributor to the bluesy hard-bop style of the 1950s and 1960s and who was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, died May 8 at a nursing home in Detroit. He was 88.

The death was confirmed by his daughter, Mary Fuller, who did not cite a specific cause.

Mr. Fuller was among the dozens of musicians to emerge from the fertile mid-century jazz scene of Detroit, where he learned to play intricate, fast-paced bebop lines on the unwieldy slide trombone.

When Mr. Fuller arrived in New York in the mid-1950s, he immediately became a major figure in the hard-bop movement, then being developed by such musicians as saxophonists John Coltrane and Benny Golson, trumpeters Lee Morgan, Kenny Dorham and Art Farmer, and drummers Art Blakey and Louis Hayes — all of whom Mr. Fuller would record with.

“Curtis is one of the greatest trombonists to ever play the instrument,” Hayes told the Arizona Star in 2007.

In 1957, Mr. Fuller was briefly in Miles Davis’s band and made his first albums as a leader. He appeared on many others as a sideman, including one of Coltrane’s most lauded recordings from the period, “Blue Train.”

On the title track, Mr. Fuller played a powerful five-note introductory figure in unison with Coltrane, later joined by Morgan on trumpet. It is one of the most memorable jazz tunes of the era and features a bold, fluid solo by Mr. Fuller.

He inadvertently named another tune on the album, he recalled in a 2007 interview with the National Endowment for the Arts, when he complained to Coltrane, “John, you put this music on us on a moment’s notice. We got three hours to rehearse this music and we’re going to record?”

Coltrane called the tune “Moment’s Notice.”

In 1959, Mr. Fuller became a founding member of the Jazztet, a group led by Farmer and Golson and including pianist McCoy Tyner. Along with Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Horace Silver’s groups, the Jazztet was one of the premier hard-bop units of the time.

In 1961, Mr. Fuller joined one of the most formidable incarnations of the Jazz Messengers, with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and pianist Cedar Walton.

During his four years with Blakey’s group, Mr. Fuller toured widely, appeared on about 10 recordings and wrote several tunes that became enduring classics of the hard-bop repertoire, including “Bu’s Delight” and “A La Mode.” Mr. Fuller continued to lead his own ensembles and to record with other musicians, including saxophonist Jimmy Heath.

After Coltrane’s death in 1967 and the death of a sister about the same time, Mr. Fuller gave up music and took a desk job with Chrysler in New York. Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie brought him out of early retirement by hiring him for his band in 1968. Mr. Fuller was in Count Basie’s big band from 1975 to 1978, then began a career resurgence, recording with trombonist Kai Winding, trumpeter Woody Shaw and Golson.

Despite his sometimes fiery hard-bop style, Mr. Fuller was considered a talented ballad player, with a particularly soft, mellow tone on trombone. (To achieve that sound, he sometimes placed a beret, with holes cut in it, over the bell of his trombone.)

“His sound was warm, captivating . . . and his time feel was so deep in the groove,” one of his proteges, trombonist Steve Davis, wrote in an email. “His technical prowess was off the charts, yet his solos were always soulful and melodic, first and foremost. Curtis always said, ‘I’m not trying to win any Trombone Olympics.’ We all knew he could, but . . . it was never his concern to ‘outplay’ anyone.”

Curtis DuBois Fuller was born Dec. 15, 1932, in Detroit. (His birth date is often given as 1934; his daughter confirmed from passport records and other documents that he was born two years earlier.)

His father died before he was born, and his mother died by the time he was 10. Young Curtis then entered an orphanage, where he stayed through high school.

He was interested in music from an early age and first played violin, “but a teacher told me, ‘Why are you playing this instrument?’ ” he recalled in his NEA interview. “ ‘Black kids don’t play violins.’ ”

He was in his teens when a nun at the orphanage took him to a jazz concert by Illinois Jacquet’s band, which included trombonist J.J. Johnson.

“I saw symphony orchestras, [but] I didn’t see anybody like myself,” Mr. Fuller recalled. “That’s why when I saw J.J. . . . I said, ‘I think I can do this.’ ”

He immediately switched from the baritone horn, a valved instrument, to trombone. In the Army in the 1950s, he was part of a band at Fort Knox, Ky., led by saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, with Junior Mance on piano.

Junior Mance, jazz pianist whose chords were built on the blues, dies at 92

Back in Detroit after his discharge, Mr. Fuller attended what is now Wayne State University — where his roommate was saxophone great Joe Henderson — and worked in clubs with many of the city’s leading jazz musicians.

Mr. Fuller, who did not smoke, had part of one lung removed in the 1990s. It took about two years before he was able to play again to his satisfaction. He often toured with Golson, his old partner with the Jazztet, until retiring from performing about 10 years ago. He appeared on an estimated 400 recordings throughout his career.

His first marriage, to Judy Patterson, ended in divorce. His second wife, Catherine Rose Driscoll, died in 2010 after more than 30 years of marriage. Survivors include five sons from his first marriage, Ronald, Darryl, Gerald, Dellaney and Wellington Fuller; three children from his second marriage, Paul, Mary, and Anthony Fuller; nine grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren.

Mr. Fuller lived for many years in Worcester, Mass., and taught in the jazz program at the University of Hartford and other colleges. He was also affiliated with the Jazz Ahead education program at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

In 2007, Mr. Fuller was named an NEA Jazz Master, one of the country’s highest honors for jazz musicians.

“When I came to New York,” he said in a 2007 interview with the NEA, “I always tried to impress people, play long solos as fast as I could, lightning fast, and all of a sudden Billie Holiday said, ‘When you play, you’re talking to people. So learn how to edit your thing, you know?’ I learned to do that . . .

“Go back and check out where you came from. You have to know where you come from in order to know where you’re going or know where you’ve been.”

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