The genius trombonist, composer and educator whose distinctive sound was a significant force in the hardbop style of the 20th century, passed away May 8 at a nursing home in Detroit. He was 88.
His death was confirmed by his daughter, Mary Fuller, and by the Jazz Foundation of America.
In 2007, Fuller was named an NEA Jazz Master, one of the country’s most prestigious honors.
“Curtis Fuller was Gracious and Giving and always encouraging to young musicians,” said trombonist and composer Craig Harris. “Being a trombone player myself I always marveled the way he combined Spirit, Sound and Skill to create one of the most unique voices on the instrument.”
Fuller was part of that Detroit infiltration of young guns, whose talent demanded an audience on the New York jazz scene. Some of those included Cass Tech High School fellow students Donald Byrd and Paul Chambers, Barry Harris, and Ron Carter, as well as guitarist Kenny Burrell and flautist Yusef Lateef.
In 1953, he was drafted into the Army, stationed in Fort Knox, KY., and played in the band led by Julian “Cannonball” Adderley with Junior Mance on piano. Returning to Detroit after his discharge, he began working in local jazz clubs while attending Wayne State University (saxophonist Joe Henderson was his roommate). In 1957 he travelled to New York with the saxophonist Yusef Lateef’s band, he decided to stay when Miles Davis invited him to join his band. This association led him to meet band member saxophonist John Coltrane and Blue Note Records co-founder Alfred Lion, who invited him to record for the label.
His most memorable moments were performing on John Coltrane’s acclaimed “Blue Train” album (Blue Note 1957). On the title-track, Fuller delivered five choruses with such hard bop fiery grooves it now represents the most famous trombone solo in jazz history. The album’s track “Moment’s Notice” was based on Fuller’s honesty during 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?”
As his career blossomed as a bandleader, he began working with James Moody, Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday. The star vocalist, 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,” 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 Fuller belonged to two significant hard bop bands: the Benny Golson/Art Farmer Jazztet, of which he was a founding member, and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers was at a peak with Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Cedar Walton, and Reggie Workman. During his four years with the band, he wrote the now classic compositions “A La Mode,” “Three Blind Mice,” and “Buhaina’s Delight.”
During his career he recorded approximately three dozen albums under his own name and appeared on an estimated 400 recordings with such bandleaders as: Bud Powell, Lee Morgan, Quincy Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Jimmy Heath, and Count Basie (1975-78).
“Curtis Fuller what a dear friend and mentor. I really looked up to him as one of the trombone players I put at the top of my list along with the master JJ Johnson,” said trombonist, composer, artist Dick Griffin. “I really appreciate the respect he gave me as a trombone player.”
Curtis DuBois Fuller was born December 15, 1932 in Detroit to Antoinette Heath Fuller, a widow. His father, John Fuller, a Ford Motor Company factory worker, died of tuberculosis during his wife’s pregnancy. Fuller’s mother died in 1942 of kidney disease, leaving Curtis to be consigned to the Children’s Aid Society, an orphanage in central Detroit, where he grew up through high school.
Saxophonist Illinois Jacquet with trombonist J.J. Johnson blazing performance at Detroit’s Paradise Theatre forced the 12-year old to switch from the baritone horn to trombone. “I saw symphony orchestras, but I didn’t see anybody like myself,” Fuller recalled. “That’s why when I saw J.J. . . . I said, ‘I think I can do this.’”
During the 1990s, Fuller was able to beat lung cancer and returned to the stage working with Benny Golson. He later became 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 early 2010, 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 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.
Norman Simmons, a pianist, composer, arranger and educator whose deliberate soft harmonic touch was a wonderful accompaniment for vocalists like Carmen McRae and Betty Carter; and an uplifting force for the riffs of Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins, died May 13 in Mesa, Ariz. He was 91, and lived in Lakewood, N.J.
The cause was multiple myeloma, said vocalist/composer, lifelong friend and adviser Antoinette Montague.
“Some years ago while looking for a pianist the great elder Norman Simmons was the perfect fit,” said drummer, composer and bandleader Winard Harper. “I had all young guys and Norman was the anchor. He shared the tradition and history of this music. We all learned from him, his experience served as invaluable lessons to us, he was one of the few musicians left, who worked with Lester Young and Charlie Parker.”
Simmons taught extensively, with Jazzmobile and at William Paterson and the New School. He was also deeply involved with Jazz House Kids, whose founder and president, Melissa Walker, is another of the singers to have studied and recorded with him.
Simmons, like Hank Jones, spent a major portion of his career accompanying vocalists. He was convinced to leave Chicago for New York by the singer Ernestine Anderson (who raised him on the road) in the 1950s.
Simmons harmonic flow was a staple on such Carmen McRae albums during the 1960s and early ’70s as “McRae Sings Lover Man and Other Billie Holiday Classics” (an outstanding recording for both Simmons and McRae) and “Woman Talk.” Other singers, who found Simmons to be a collaborative source from the 1970s to 2000 were Betty Carter, Anita O’Day (who gave him marquee billing), Helen Humes, Joe Williams (who elevated Simmon’s status), Dakota Staton, Etta Jones, Carol Sloane, and Mark Murphy.
“I accompany most people very well for the simple reason [that] you’re doing an instant arrangement,” Simmons said in a 1995 interview for the Hamilton College Jazz Archive. “And you’re already deciding where it should go based on what the person is doing.”
As a bandleader, Norman made some significant recordings and started his own record label and a publishing company he titled Milljac. Some recordings include his self-titled “Norman Simmons Trio” (Argo, 1956), “Ramira The Dancer” (Spotlite, 1976), “I’m The Blues” (Milljac 1981), “The Art of Norman Simmons” (Savant, 2000).
Sarney Norman Simmons was born in Chicago on Oct. 6, 1929. Simmons learned to play piano at an early age. He was partially self-taught and took some piano lessons. He picked up most tunes by ear. Duke Ellington was his first influence.
Simmons was part of the band that played with Charlie Parker during his final performance at the Beehive Lounge in Chicago (1955), where he was the house pianist, who also accompanied such greats as Lester Young and Wardell Gray.
Recent vocalists who performed and/or recorded with Simmons include Cynthia Scott, Kate Baker, Carrie Jackson and Kameelah Harper.
“Norman Simmons was more than a skillful accompanist to some of the greatest Jazz and Blues singers,” stated singer Antoinette Montague. “He goes down as a griot, incredible songwriter and entrepreneurial artist.”