Encores and Curtain Calls

Encores & Curtain Calls: Howard Brofsky tribute concert April 19

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit expresses through them all.

— Corinthians 12:14

In the end, it really doesn’t seem to matter very much at all whether one’s instrument in life is a paintbrush, a trumpet, a word processor, a voice or, even, a scalpel; if wielded with love — which is to say, with deep care and intent to uplift — all can become vehicles of the sacred.

Such was the case for jazz icon Howard Brofsky. Here is the first and most enduring memory author Robin Westen has of the then-56-year-old trumpet player, whom she would come to wed.

“It was really strange. I’ve told this story before, but it’s absolutely true that I had just come from living in a Zen monastery and I wasn’t leaving my house and my best friend, who had also just come out of a monastery, said ‘Larry Rivers — a painter that I loved — is playing in the Village. Come out and I’ll buy you a slice of pizza.’ The woman next to me — I knew nothing about jazz — said, ‘Who’s the trumpet player?’ And so I stood up — I was 33 and very adorable and (gasping) it was just like in the movies; everything disappeared and there was just this beautiful soul standing up there and he was (playing) this extraordinary music ... I literally felt my heart fly out of my chest, I felt I just opened in such an extraordinary way. And when Howie was done playing, he got off the stage and he walked right over to me and we kissed and that was it.”

By all reckonings, Brofsky succeeded in singing a sweet, infectious and life-affirming song throughout the 86 years of his earthly journey. The veteran bebop cornettist and educator, a longtime pillar of both the New York and Vermont jazz scene and creator of the Louis Armstrong House at Queens College passed away peacefully this past October, leaving a still-expanding musical legacy reverberating in his wake.

Brofsky’s and Westen’s 26-year-old son, Gabriel, shares, “He had a way of making his family members feel loved. He was a very quiet man. At times, he didn’t express the love he had verbally but when he came into a room and looked at his family, just the joy that he got himself from being around us got passed on to the rest of us and we all were able to experience and feel it.”

Indeed, in this writer’s experience, remembering a past interview with Brofsky, one felt him to be the humblest and most retiring of souls, almost loathe to risk any pronouncements whatever that might approach the ironclad, judgmental or musically Messianic and virtually devoid of self-promotion on any level. One sensed a caution and hesitance that stemmed not so much from any fear or inhibitions but rather a preternatural respect for life and people, in whatever form he found them.

Adds Brofsky’s older son, jazz French hornist Alex Brofsky, “There was a calm about him; but there was also a kind of deviousness as well; he had a very dry sense of humor. He was taciturn, he was not a very outspoken person. I always thought that there was so much in there that I never could get out.”

The Vermont Jazz Center will be presenting an evening dedicated to his memory, on Saturday, April 19, at 8 p.m. Guest performers will include Jay Clayton, Cordelia Tapping (voice), Alex Brofsky (horn), Tim Armacost (saxophones), Ray Gallon, Jorn Swart, (piano), Curtis Ostle (bass), and regional musicians Scott Mullett,  Sherm Fox (saxophone), Draa Hobbs (guitar), Eugene Uman (piano), George Kaye (bass), Jon Fisher and Claire Arenius (drums). 

Given Brofsky’s lifelong love of bebop — a decidedly upbeat, optimistic jazz genre — the concert will very likely be a joyful outpouring of rhythm, energy and tunefulness since, from the musical vantage point, bebop has been “characterized by fast tempos, asymmetrical phrasing, intricate melodies and rhythm sections.”

And bebop remains that way to this day, to the continuing delight of many a jazz player and listener.

In this most unspontaneous of eras, there is the ever-growing danger of over thinking just about everything, including music. Talking heads, scholars and theorists, by virtue of their complex analytical approaches to what were initially free-spirited musical outpourings like jazz, have attempted to co-opt the serendipitous and imprison it in categories of their own making. But as Kenny Clarke has observed: “‘Bebop’ was a label that certain journalists later gave it, but we never labeled the music. It was just modern music, we would call it. We wouldn’t call it anything, really, just music.”

Alex Brofsky observes of his father’s style: “He was a very natural talent. The sound that he had came out of his youth in the ’40s and ’50s and what I loved about his playing is that when he played, you heard that era come through so clearly. His sound was unique very soulful, clean and his timing was great.

But asking a true jazzman, much less a retiring such one as Howard Brofsky, how he came up with his inventions is not unlike asking a soaring hawk how it so effortlessly choreographs its “lazy circles in the sky” without so much as the flap of a wing; it simply feels the flow and goes with it, He feels its own power, but has no need to dissect it.

Is this any different than the thought that Ralph Vaughan William, an equally retiring soul, expressed? “In the next world, I shan’t be doing music, with all the striving and disappointments. I shall be being it.”

Remembers Robin Westen of Brofsky’s last days: “He had stopped eating and took to the bed and we got a hospital bed and rolled it into the living area, where he faced the river. And, we put three mattresses down in the room — we had a small apartment — and all his children and myself slept together in a big heap, and it was just a beautiful happening. And Eugene (VJC director Eugene Uman) came and played and Natasha (Brofsky’s daughter, a cellist) came and played and it was so beautiful here while Howie was dying; we were very quiet and it was very meditative. The energy in the apartment was so amazing and Howie would say things like, ‘Oh, wow, this is so far out!’ I’ve volunteered in hospice, and I’ve seen a lot of people die, but I’ve never seen anybody die without agitation, but Howie died without agitation. He had asked me if I thought he was dying and I said ‘I don’t know — you might be.’ And he said ‘I’m not ready to die yet, I still have things to do.’ And I said, ‘If you are to die, promise me you’ll be curious.’ And he said, ‘I promise I’ll be curious.’”


Admission to the concert is by donation, which benefits the VJC scholarship fund

Tickets: www.vtjazz.org/events/upcoming-concerts/ Call 802-254-9088 for reservations.

Tickets also available at In the Moment, 143 Main St., Brattleboro, Vt.

An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at josephmarcello@verizon.net.

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