NEC alums celebrate jazz great Bob Brookmeyer, their tough-love mentor

Bob Brookmeyer, who played alongside Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, and many other jazz legends, taught at New England Conservatory for 10 years before his death in 2011.
Bob Brookmeyer, who played alongside Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, and many other jazz legends, taught at New England Conservatory for 10 years before his death in 2011.Andrew Hurlbut

Brian Landrus did some boxing in his home state of Nevada before his emergence as a versatile baritone saxophonist. When he came to Boston to study at New England Conservatory, Bob Brookmeyer taught him how to take a punch.

Brookmeyer, a beloved figure who taught at the school for 10 years before his death in 2011, passed along to his students the lessons he learned from his deep well of experience as a jazz player and arranger. In a long career that began in the 1940s, he played alongside Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, and many others, and he arranged for Ray Charles.


Landrus is one of several notable NEC alums, including the progressive big-band leader Darcy James Argue, taking part in a celebration of Brookmeyer’s life and work, the latest in a series of events marking the school’s 150th anniversary. The free show, “Celebration: The Legacy of Bob Brookmeyer,” featuring Ken Schaphorst conducting the NEC Jazz Orchestra, takes place Thursday at Jordan Hall.

Brookmeyer “didn’t pull any punches,” says Landrus, who lives in Brooklyn and has performed with acts ranging from the Temptations to Esperanza Spalding. He also leads two of his own bands.

“There was a rawness with him that I loved. He was very honest, and I appreciated that. He meant well — he meant for the art to be strong.”

Argue, whose big band the Secret Society has been nominated for multiple Grammy awards, agrees. Teaching was “never just a gig for Bob,” he says. “He took his role as an educator and mentor incredibly seriously.”

For the event, NEC commissioned Argue to compose a new piece, which he named “Winged Beasts.” Initially unaware that it would premiere on a bill honoring Brookmeyer, Argue began with a rhythmic idea based on Bartok’s String Quartet No. 5. As the piece began to take shape, Argue noticed a descending “inner voice” reminiscent of the chart Brookmeyer once wrote for the Mel Lewis piece “Nasty Dance,” which featured saxophonist Joe Lovano.


The tribute to his favorite teacher may have been unintentional. But when it snuck up on him, he embraced it.

“If I’d started with that in mind, I would have been paralyzed,” Argue says with a laugh. “But it was obviously lurking in the back of my mind.”

At the concert, Landrus will showcase on Brookmeyer’s four-part “Celebration Suite,” which Mulligan premiered in Germany in 1994, not long before his death.

Brookmeyer, a multi-instrumentalist whose primary instrument was the valve trombone, was the reason Landrus is known as a baritone saxophonist.

“I’d been struggling for years about whether to play baritone full-time or not,” explains Landrus, who also plays bass flute and bass clarinet. But when he first auditioned for Brookmeyer, “he started laughing,” Landrus recalls. “He said, ‘Well, you’re a baritone player — listen to you!’”

For Landrus, Brookmeyer was the mentor who gave me him the confidence “to forge my own path.”

During Landrus’s time at NEC, the two developed a close relationship. They bonded not just over music. When Brookmeyer died, his widow gave Landrus a long overcoat that belonged to her husband. It’s one of Landrus’s prized possessions.

“I feel real lucky he liked my music,” Landrus says. “But that was secondary to hanging with Bob, talking about life.”

Though Brookmeyer appeared on dozens of albums and recorded plenty more under his own name (from “The Modernity of Bob Brookmeyer” to “Jazz Is a Kick”), he spent a lost decade on the West Coast beginning in the late 1960s, grappling with alcoholism. When he returned, as musical director with the influential Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, he made up for lost time; that band recorded whole albums of Brookmeyer’s compositions and arrangements in the early 1980s.


“It was so amazing to be in a room with someone who has that much lived experience,” says Argue. He notes that Brookmeyer consistently managed to link jazz history — he came up as a teenager on the traditional scene in his native Kansas City — with its ever-changing future.

At NEC, Brookmeyer gave young composers the opportunity to hear their music interpreted live, creating the school’s Jazz Composers’ Workshop Orchestra. “It’s the only ensemble of its kind that I’m aware of,” Argue says.

Brookmeyer was especially good, Argue says, at reminding his students how to hear their own work with fresh ears.

“Listen to your chart as if some other [musician] had written it,” he’d say, substituting a certain 12-letter term the old jazz cats used when discussing a formidable talent.

But Argue, known for his complex arrangements — some of which use the avant-garde 12-tone technique — says of all the valuable lessons he learned from Brookmeyer, the one he cherishes most may be the one about balancing familiarity with originality to build a sense of anticipation in the music.


“You don’t have to throw in the kitchen sink at every possible moment,” he says. “You can’t be surprised if you never know what to expect.”

Celebration: The Legacy of Bob Brookmeyer

At Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, 30 Gainsborough St., Boston. March 1 at 7:30 p.m. Free. www.necmusic.edu

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.