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Do you want to know who Dizzy Gillespie  idolized? Did you ever wonder who inspired Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey? Who was the pianist that mentored Monk, Bud Powell, Tad Dameron, Elmo Hope, Sarah Vaughan and Mel Torme? Who was Art Tatum’s idol and Nat Cole’s mentor? What musical quartet pioneered the concept adopted later by the Modern Jazz Quartet? Were you ever curious to know who taught saxophone to Stanley Turrentine or who taught piano to Ahmad Jamal? What community music school trained Robert McFerrin, Sr. for his history-making debut with the Metropolitan Opera? What virtually unknown pianist was a significant influence on young John Coltrane, Shirley Scott, McCoy Tyner, Bobby Timmons and Ray Bryant when he moved to Philadelphia from Pittsburgh in the 1940s?  Would you be surprised to know that Erroll Garner attended classes at the Julliard School of Music in New York and was at the top of his class in writing and arranging proficiency?


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For almost 100 years the Pittsburgh region has been a metacenter of jazz originality that is second to no other in the history of jazz.  One of the best kept secrets in jazz folklore, the Pittsburgh Jazz Legacy has heretofore remained mythical.  We have dubbed it “the greatest story never told” since it has not been represented in writing before now in such a way as to be accessible to anyone seeking to know more about it.  When it was happening, little did we know how priceless the memories would become when the times were gone.


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       In Her Own Words

Curtis Fuller, Leading Trombonist Of Jazz's Detroit Wave, Dies At 86

Curtis Fuller, Leading Trombonist Of Jazz's Detroit Wave, Dies At 86

From left, trumpet player Freddie Hubbard, saxophonist Johnny Griffin, Curtis Fuller and bassist Reggie Workman, on stage at Town Hall in New York on Feb. 22, 1985.

Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

Trombonist and composer Curtis Fuller, a pivotal figure on his instrument since the '50s and a beloved mentor, passed away May 8. He was 86. His death was confirmed by his daughter, Mary Fuller, and by the Jazz Foundation of America.

"His sound was massive, striking and immediate, a waveform that was calibrated to overload the senses and saturate the magnetic tape that captured it," says trombonist and composer Jacob Garchik. "In our era of obsession with harmony and mixed meters, Curtis Fuller's legacy reminds us of the importance of sound."

Ryan Keberle, another current leading trombonist and educator, agrees. "Curtis Fuller's genius can be heard in the warm and vibrant timbre of his trombone sound and the rhythmic buoyancy, and his deeply swinging sense of time."

Fuller was born in Detroit on Dec. 15, 1934 and always remained exceptionally proud of his Motor City roots. His parents, who were from Jamaica, died when he was young – Fuller grew up in an orphanage, eventually taking up music in high school, first playing the baritone horn then switching to trombone at the age of 16. After graduation, he served for two years in the Army, and during this time played in bands with future luminaries like bassist Paul Chambers and alto saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley.

Upon returning home to Detroit in 1955, he began playing in a quintet led by reedman Yusef Lateef; that band travelled to New York in 1957 to record three albums, and it was there that Fuller's impact began to widen dramatically. In his first nine months as a New Yorker, Fuller recorded eight times as a leader or co-leader and appeared as a sideman on 15 other recordings, including John Coltrane's Blue Train (Blue Note), which the legendary saxophonist cited as one of his favorites.

Fuller's big, broad tone added depth and breadth to the trumpet and saxophone front line that had become the convention in hard bop. Yet on his own recordings, Fuller branched out in unique ways – one of his first recordings, Bone and Bari (Blue Note), featured a frontline of Fuller and baritone saxophonist Tate Houston with a stellar rhythm section of pianist Sonny Clark, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Art Taylor; the dark, evocative mood of its frontline highlighted the broad sound of Fuller's instrument.

Curtis Fuller Quintet, "Bone and Bari"


It was an unprecedented Motor City influx of the New York jazz scene. A short list of influential musicians includes Chambers and Lateef, trumpeter Donald Byrd, pianist Barry Harris, guitarist Kenny Burrell, pianist Tommy Flanagan, drummer Louis Hayes, baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, bassist Ron Carter, tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, and the Jones brothers – pianist Hank, trumpeter Thad, and drummer Elvin. Fuller often recorded with these great musicians, but he made canonical recordings with others too. He was a member of the first Art Farmer/Benny Golson Jazztet, and he played with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers for three and half years. Ryan Keberle cited Fuller's solo on "One for One" from the album Ugetsu as one of his favorites.

Fuller's solo on "One for One," from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers' album Ugetsu, is a standout in a career with no shortage of them.


"Fuller was strongly rooted in the fundamentals of blues, swing and bebop, and his improvisations balanced head and heart in compelling fashion," said Mark Stryker, author of Jazz From Detroit. "He married a lickety-split technique with soulful expression, and even in his early twenties, he had a distinctive identity ideally suited for the hard bop mainstream."

Fuller spent much of the late '60s through the late '80s touring with bands led by legends like Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie, as well as performing with collective ensemble The Timeless All Stars. Like many of his peers, he joined the ranks of academia, teaching at the University of Hartford's Hartt School, and was on the faculty of Betty Carter's Jazz Ahead program at the Kennedy Center, where he mentored musicians like saxophonist Caroline Davis and bassist Dezron Douglas.

It was in Connecticut, during the mid-to-late '80s, that trombonist and educator Steve Davis met Fuller and the two became friends. Davis often travelled to New York in the late '80s to hear Fuller with either the Jazztet or the Timeless band. "Curtis' playing was absolutely incredible... almost mystical," Davis says. "Curtis always said, 'I'm not trying to win any Trombone Olympics.' We all knew he could, but loved him because it was never his concern to 'out-play' anyone. He played too pretty and hip for that. He was all music."

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Replies to This Discussion

RIP Mr. Fuller. You said what you had to say. Thank you.

With others


As leader[edit]

As sideman[edit]

With Count Basie

With Dave Bailey

With Art Blakey

With John Coltrane

With Buddy DeFranco

With Kenny Dorham

With Art Farmer

With Joe Farnsworth

  • It's Prime Time (Eighty-Eight's, 2003)[12]
  • Drumspeak (Commodore, 2006)[17]

With Benny Golson

With Lionel Hampton

  • Hamp in Haarlem (Timeless, 1979)[20]
  • Live in Europe (Elite Special, 1980)[21]
  • Outrageous (Glad-Hamp, 1982)[12]

With Jimmy Heath

With Quincy Jones

With Yusef Lateef

With Hank Mobley

With Woody Shaw

With Jimmy Smith

  • House Party (Blue Note, 1957 [1958])[12]
  • Confirmation (Blue Note, 1979)[12]
  • Special Guests (Blue Note, 1984)[12]

Curtis Fuller, a Powerful Voice on Jazz Trombone, Dies at 88

He was a fixture on the New York jazz scene since shortly after his arrival in 1957. He also made his mark as a composer.

The trombonist Curtis Fuller in performance at Jazz Standard in New York in 1999. He adjusted his approach when Billie Holiday told him, “When you play, you’re talking to people.”
The trombonist Curtis Fuller in performance at Jazz Standard in New York in 1999. He adjusted his approach when Billie Holiday told him, “When you play, you’re talking to people.”Credit...Alan Nahigian
May 14, 2021

Curtis Fuller, a trombonist and composer whose expansive sound and powerful sense of swing made him a driving force in postwar jazz, died on May 8 at a nursing home in Detroit. He was 88.

His daughter Mary Fuller confirmed the death but did not specify the cause.

Mr. Fuller arrived in New York in the spring of 1957 and almost immediately became the leading trombonist of the hard-bop movement, which emphasized jazz’s roots in blues and gospel while delivering crisp and hummable melodies.

By the end of the year, he had recorded no fewer than eight albums as a leader or co-leader for the independent labels Blue Note, Prestige and Savoy.

That same year he also appeared on the saxophonist John Coltrane’s “Blue Train,” among the most storied albums in jazz, on which Mr. Fuller unfurls a number of timeless solos. On the title track, now a jazz standard, his trombone plays a central role in carrying the bold, declarative melody.

Mr. Fuller’s five-chorus solo on “Blue Train” begins by playing off the last few notes of the trumpeter Lee Morgan’s improvisation, as if curiously picking up an object a friend had just put down. He then moves through a spontaneous repertoire of syncopated phrases and deftly wrought curlicues.

In his book “Jazz From Detroit” (2019), the critic Mark Stryker wrote, “The excitement, authority and construction of Fuller’s solo explain why he became a major influence.”

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Mr. Fuller was also responsible for naming “Moment’s Notice,” another now-classic Coltrane composition on that album. “I made a comment,” Mr. Fuller said in a 2007 interview for the National Endowment for the Arts, recalling the scene at Van Gelder Studio in New Jersey. “‘John, you put this music on us on a moment’s notice. We got three hours to rehearse this music and we’re gonna record?’ And that became the title of the song.”

Mr. Fuller carried his knack for a concisely stated melody, and for elegantly tracing the harmonic seams of a tune, into his work as a composer. Among his many original tunes are “À La Mode,” “Arabia” and “Buhaina’s Delight,” all of which are now considered standards.

Those three pieces found their way into the repertoire of the drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, hard bop’s flagship ensemble, of which Mr. Fuller was a core member from the early to the middle 1960s. The band was arguably at its peak in those years, when its membership included the trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, the saxophonist Wayne Shorter, the pianist Cedar Walton and the bassist Jymie Merritt (later replaced by Reggie Workman).

“I owe a lot to Art Blakey, in so many ways,” Mr. Fuller said. “We were all driven by the fact that he encouraged us all to write. There wasn’t such a thing as a leader.”

In 2007, Mr. Fuller was named an N.E.A. Jazz Master, the country’s highest official honor for a living jazz musician.

In addition to his daughter Mary, he is survived by seven other children, Ronald, Darryl, Gerald, Dellaney, Wellington, Paul and Anthony; nine grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren. His first marriage, to Judith Patterson, ended in divorce. His second wife, Catherine Rose Driscoll, died in 2010, after 30 years of marriage.

Curtis DuBois Fuller was born in Detroit on Dec. 15, 1932. (His birth year was incorrectly reportedthroughout his life — a discrepancy that was not cleared up until after his death — partly because at 17 he had exaggerated his age by two years so that he could join the work force.)

His father, John, who hailed from Jamaica, worked at a Ford Motor Company plant, but died of tuberculosis before Curtis was born. His mother, Antoinette (Heath) Fuller, a homemaker, had come north from Atlanta. She died when Curtis was 9, and he spent the next few years at an a orphanage run by Jesuits.

While his mother was alive she had paid for Curtis’s sister, Mary, to receive piano lessons. He would listen through the wall, learning the fundamentals of music secondhand. He showed an interest in the violin at the orphanage but was discouraged after a teacher told him it was an unsuitable instrument for Black people to play.

Soon after that, he saw J.J. Johnson, bebop’s leading trombonist, in concert alongside the saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, and he became enthralled by the trombone’s “majestic sound,” he told Mr. Stryker in an interview.

“Illinois Jacquet was an act: honking and screaming, biting the reed, squealing and that stuff. The crowd would go wild,” Mr. Fuller said. “But J.J. just stood there and played, and he looked like the guy, the person who really knew what he was doing.”

ImageMr. Fuller, center, with two of his fellow N.E.A. Jazz Masters, the saxophonists Jimmy Heath, left, and Frank Wess, at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2011.
Mr. Fuller, center, with two of his fellow N.E.A. Jazz Masters, the saxophonists Jimmy Heath, left, and Frank Wess, at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2011.Credit...Chad Batka for The New York Times

He was also impressed by the local trombonist Frank Rosolino, whom he heard perform soon after, and who became his teacher. He fell in with a coterie of young jazz musicians in Detroit, many of whom were destined for jazz prominence, including the pianist Barry Harris and the guitarist Kenny Burrell.

“That was like a network in Detroit; we generally stuck together,” he said in 2007. “There was a lot of love and real closeness.”

In 1953 Mr. Fuller was drafted into the Army, where he joined one of the last all-Black military bands, whose other members included the future stars Cannonball Adderley and Junior Mance.

After leaving the armed forces, he returned to the Detroit scene before traveling to New York in 1957 with the saxophonist Yusef Lateef’s band. When Miles Davis offered him a job, he decided to stay.

Playing with Davis led to his meeting two particularly important people: Coltrane, who was the band’s tenor saxophonist, and Alfred Lion, a founder of Blue Note Records, who heard Mr. Fuller onstage with Davis’s band and invited him to record for the label.

As he began to make his name as a bandleader, Mr. Fuller also found work alongside prominent musicians including Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie and James Moody.

Holiday, who became a mentor, encouraged him to bear in mind the range and pacing of his own speaking voice when he improvised. “When I came to New York, I always tried to impress people, play long solos as fast as I could — lightning fast,” Mr. Fuller said in 2007. “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.”

In 1959, Savoy released “The Curtis Fuller Jazztet,” a lively album that included the saxophonist and composer Benny Golson as a featured guest. Soon after, Mr. Golson and the trumpeter Art Farmer began a separate band under the Jazztet name, with Mr. Fuller as a side musician. It would be one of the quintessential jazz ensembles of the 1960s, but Mr. Fuller soon moved on to other endeavors. (He and Mr. Golson remained close friends until his death.)

The untimely deaths of Coltrane, who was also a dear friend, and Mr. Fuller’s sister in 1967 sent him into a depression, and he left the music business, taking a job with the Chrysler Corporation in downtown Manhattan. But about a year later, Gillespie persuaded Mr. Fuller to join his band for a world tour, and he re-entered the jazz scene for good.

He spent two years in Count Basie’s orchestra in the mid-1970s, and also returned to leading his own ensembles.

In the 1990s, he survived a bout with lung cancer (despite never having been a smoker) and had part of one lung removed. He spent two years reinventing his trombone technique to accommodate his compromised breathing power. He succeeded, and released a string of well-received albums in the late 1990s and 2000s.

But as his health continued to deteriorate he turned more attention to teaching, joining the faculty at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School of Music and at the Kennedy Center's Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program.

Asked in 2007 to describe the signature sound that had left such an indelible mark on jazz, Mr. Fuller mentioned the importance of embracing one’s distinct identity. “I try to be warm. Warm and effective, you know. And sometimes I’m cold and defective,” he said. “That’s the way water runs. I’m not God, I’m not perfection. I’m just me.”

RIP, Curtis. 

Curtis Fuller 1932–2021

A Detroit orphan who became a hard-bop architect, he played one of the most celebrated trombone solos in jazz history

Curtis Fuller Curtis Fuller at the Jazz Standard, New York, January 1999 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Curtis Fuller, a trombonist, composer, and NEA Jazz Master who was a key player in cultivating bebop language on his instrument, died May 8 in Detroit, Michigan. He was 88.

His death was confirmed by his daughter, Mary Fuller, and her partner, Lilly Sullivan. Cause of death was not disclosed; however, Fuller had been inactive as a musician for about five years due to health problems.

Fuller was the pre-eminent trombonist of the hard-bop era, known for his technical prowess—particularly his ability to articulate wide intervals—and rhythmic ingenuity. He was also hailed for the colloquial flavor in his improvisational style. “The magnificent chops for bebop trombone may have fallen to J.J. Johnson,” critic Fred Bouchard wrote in JazzTimes, “but God gave Curtis Fuller a big chunk of the soul.”

As testimony to his predominance, Fuller belonged to two of the most important bands in hard bop: the Benny Golson/Art Farmer Jazztet, of which he was a founding member, and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, participating in one of that band’s most storied periods (with Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Cedar Walton, and Reggie Workman). He also made nearly three dozen albums under his own name and appeared on many significant and popular recordings as a sideman with the likes of Bud Powell, Sonny Clark, Lee Morgan, Quincy Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Jimmy Heath, and Count Basie.

However, his single most famous moment on record is undoubtedly his solo on John Coltrane’s classic “Blue Train,” recorded on September 15, 1957. Fuller contributed five choruses that expertly balanced restraint, virtuosity, and thoughtfully deployed grooves, adding up to arguably the most famous trombone solo in jazz history.

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Asked in a 2012 interview by writer Mark Stryker about the keys to a good solo, Fuller replied, “Humor and dialogue. … Music is English composition. Each song should have a subject, and phrases should have a noun, a verb, and like that. It should be expressive. Exclamation points: Bap!”

Curtis DuBois Fuller was born December 15, 1932 in Detroit to Antoinette Heath Fuller, a widow. His father, John Fuller, was a Ford Motor Company factory worker who died of tuberculosis while his wife was pregnant. Fuller’s mother died in 1942 of kidney disease, leaving Curtis to be separated from his older brother and sister and consigned to the Children’s Aid Society, an orphanage in central Detroit, where he grew up.

When he was around 12, Fuller saw Illinois Jacquet at Detroit’s Paradise Theatre and was floored by Jacquet’s trombonist, J.J. Johnson. Soon after, he saw Detroit native Frank Rosolino perform and was equally captivated. He took up trombone in the orphanage’s band and took some lessons from Rosolino. He switched to baritone horn at Cass Technical High School, though he continued studying trombone on his own and during a brief tenure at Wayne State University (where he roomed with Joe Henderson).

Drafted into the Army in 1953, Fuller was stationed at Fort Knox and played in an Army band led by Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. After his discharge in 1955, Fuller returned to Detroit and established himself on that city’s fecund jazz scene, including work in bands led by guitarist Kenny Burrell and multi-reedist Yusef Lateef. In April 1957, however, Fuller went to New York with Lateef’s band and decided to stay.

By the end of 1957 Fuller had made at least 21 recordings, including several of his own as well as key dates with Lateef, Powell, and Morgan—and Coltrane’s Blue Train. (Fuller had another claim to fame on the latter session, naming the date’s second most famous tune when he complained that Coltrane expected them to learn it “at a moment’s notice.”) He was instantly the hottest trombonist on the scene, and was soon working with Miles Davis, Lester Young, and Dizzy Gillespie.

By 1960, Fuller was a member of both the Jazztet and the Quincy Jones Orchestra. The following year he joined the Jazz Messengers, for which he wrote the classic compositions “A La Mode,” “Three Blind Mice,” and “Buhaina’s Delight.”

However, work slowed to a trickle after he left the Messengers at the end of 1964. Although Fuller ended 1968 on a European tour with Gillespie’s big band, he began it with a desk job at the Chrysler Corporation’s New York offices and occasional freelance gigs.

Steady work began again in 1975, when he joined the Count Basie Orchestra for a three-year spell, through which he got to know Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. After leaving Basie in 1978, Fuller kept the momentum going, recording several albums as a leader and beginning fruitful collaborations with Woody Shaw, Lionel Hampton, and an assemblage called the Timeless All-Stars (created by the Dutch label Timeless Records).

A bout with lung cancer slowed Fuller down in the 1990s, but he beat the disease and rebounded late in the decade through work with Benny Golson, then went on a tear of new releases under his own name in the 2000s. Even so, further health problems became apparent, affecting his teeth. He began working more in the classroom than onstage, becoming a faculty member at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School of Music and the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. However, he still made some impressive live and recorded showings into the early 2010s, with his final album Down Home released on the Capri Records label in 2012.

Fuller was predeceased by his wife of 30 years, the former Catherine Rose Driscoll, who passed away in 2010. He is survived by their three children, Paul, Mary, and Anthony Fuller; five children by a previous marriage, Ronald, Darryl, Gerald, Dellaney, and Wellington; nine grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren.


Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.


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