Sunday, August 7, 2011


Jazz great Curtis Fuller
Trombone player Curtis Fuller new album is The Story of Cathy & Me. Cathy was Fuller’s wife, and they were married 30 years. In 2010, Cathy died from lung cancer. During recently telephone interview with me, Fuller said for a while Cathy concealed her illness from him. That’s the kind of wife Cathy was, protecting her man from anything that would interfere with him making music. The Story of Cathy & Me is Fuller's homage--or better yet--final love letter to Cathy.

Fuller is a jazz legend, No sane jazz fan familiar with his recording output and his accomplishments would refute that. Fuller's masterworks include the albums New Trombone, Bone & Bari, Soul Trombone, and Cabin in the Sky. Don’t even get me started on his work as a sideman with, the Jazztet, and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.

 The Story of Cathy & Me is not  a mournful album. Many of the songs Fuller plays symbolizes the kind of marriage they built such as I Asked and She Said Yes, Look What I Got, and Love Was Everything When Love Was You and Me. The album’s highlights are the three cuts where Fuller recounts his life with Cathy. While doing so tenor sax player Akeem Marable improvises in the background.

 Like Golson the album touched me. And I wanted to interview Fuller about The Story of Cathy & Me.  Ann Braithwaite, the publicist for Challenge Records put me in touch with Fuller. On August 2, I interviewed Fuller, but surprisingly, Fuller didn’t know the album was available nationwide. Fuller also said he never heard the finished album.

I asked Braithwaite why Fuller was in the dark about the release of The Story of Cathy & Me. She didn't know, but she gave me Jacey Falk, the album's executive producer telephone number.

Fuller received copies of the album last year, Falk said. But Falks believes Fuller flat out forgot about the album. Six months after Cathy passed away Fuller recorded the album. During the session, Fuller was also worried his playing wasn't up to snuff. At 76, Fuller's blowing remains robust. When The Story of Cathy & Me was completed, Falk let Fuller’s lifelong friend sax man Benny Golson hear it. The album made Golson weep.

I talked to Fuller for an hour about a variety of topics. Fuller discussed losing his beloved Cathy, making the rounds on Detroit's jazz scene in the 50’s, and playing with Yusef Lateef and Lester Young.

Fuller on losing Cathy. 

Once your spouse dies, you are put in a very precarious situation. When you're used to being with someone all the time, it’s the same as having children around, watching them grow up and leave. It’s the same as losing your spouse. It happens to everybody. Sonny Rollins lost his wife, and James Moody's wife lost him.

Cathy was my friend. She was my buddy and my comrade. We disagreed on a lot of stuff. We were from two different worlds. She knew my shortcomings. With Cathy, I got to know real passion. She was Irish Catholic. You know, you can't always chose your partner.

Fuller looks back on his early years in Detroit

I grew up in an orphanage in Detroit. As I got older, I was put in a boy’s home in Inkster. I lived on American Ave. It was called the West End back then. Louis Hayes lived in the next block.

I started playing trombone at Dwyer Elementary School. Back then, I was trying to play the violin, and a teacher told me stop it. She said you guys [blacks] don't play that. The irony is we still don't. You know the brothers got to have a beat. In those days, some music teachers were still hostile towards jazz. If they caught you trying to play some Charlie Parker licks they would kick you out of class.

The camaraderie on the Detroit jazz scene was unique. I will put it that way. Even back then, it was an integrated scene. I remember brothers playing with white cats like Frank Rosolino and Pepper Adams. I met Pepper when I got out the service. We had a band called Bone & Bari. I was in the service with Cannonball Adderly. He was the band director.

Cannonball got me into the band in the Army band, which was the last all black Army band. We're based in Louisville, Kentucky. I met Dannie Richmond down there. He started out playing tenor saxophone, but he ended up playing the drums in Charles Mingus's band. Mingus offered me a job, but I turned him down because Mingus was knocking out cats on the bandstand. I didn’t want any of that.

Fuller on hanging out with Yusef Lateef.

Yusef was such a nice human being. He touched everybody. Brother Yusef and I used to go out to Belle Isle at night and practice. He had his flute and his oboe. What a sound playing over the Detroit River at night. After we played at a club, we would drive out there. Some people at the club would followed us. It was a different time. You could go out there and nobody would split your head open. Now I hear Belle Isle is like Baghdad. 

Fuller on his influences.

Of course, I loved JJ Johnson. But it was this guy around Detroit Bernard McKinney he was already a master along with his brothers Raymond and Harold. On my instrument, my biggest influence was Claude Black. In addition to playing the piano, Claude also played the trombone, and I believed he played the French horn, too. At gigs around Detroit, Claude would give me his trombone, and invite me on the bandstand.

I remember going on the bandstand when Wardell Gray and Frank Foster were going at it. I played a blues with them. I had enough nerve to get into their cutting contest, and they beat me up. That was a big learning process for me.

You know, God put me in the right places at the right times. As soon as one thing would end, another opportunity would open up. I went to New York to play with Miles, and he got sick. I remember walking the streets thinking what now.

Somebody told me Lester Young wanted me to play with him at Birdland. I was in his band when Lester died. There's a live recording of me playing with Lester at Birdland that Symphony Sid recorded. After Lester died, I ended up working with James Moody. He came to the clubs to hear Lester, and James hired me. I've been blessed.

I look back on my career, and I thank God for giving me a chance to be an entertainer. God has afforded me a chance to see the world almost in its entirety. I went to South American with Coleman Hawkins, and traveled with Ella Fitzgerald, and Dizzy. Ain't no complaints here.

God took my parents, but He gave me a wonderful musical life and He breathed life into my soul. The other day, I was sitting at home looking out at the lake thinking about how blessed I am.
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