Bobby Broom: Pushing the Musical Boundries
In a career spanning three decades, guitarist Bobby Broom has embodied the truism that it’s the player not the tune that makes for a memorable performance in jazz. Performing as a sideman with legendary artists such as Sonny Rollin’s, Miles Davis, Kenny Burrell, Stanley Turrentine and Dr. John, just to name a few, while also constantly touring and recording with his own groups, Broom is always pushing his playing and his concepts to new heights. Starting tonight (December 3rd) through Sunday (December 6th), he will be performing with his trio at Joe & Wayne Segal’s Jazz Showcase in Chicago. We caught up with him ahead of this weekend’s performances to talk about his life in music, his concepts on playing and what he has in store for the listeners this weekend. Chicago Jazz Magazine: Growing up in New York and attending Manhattan’s “Fame” High School of Music and Art with such musicians as Omar Hakim, Marcus Miller, and Bernard Wright you could have been interested in many different genres of music. Was there a particular musical influence or an experience you had at that time that pushed you towards jazz music? Broom: Well, clearly, by that time, the 1970s, jazz was no longer the popular music of the day. I feel fortunate to have grown up in the ‘60s and 70s. That was a time that you could hear the gamut of musical styles on the “top 40” radio stations. Rock ‘n roll, R&B, country, soul, folk, funk and jazz were all in heavy rotation. If the general public was able to relate to a song, via the melodic, lyric, harmonic, overall song structure, or some magical combination of these, a song of any style could be a hit. So that meant that between the ages of 4 years old to 14, I heard a lot of melodies in a variety of styles that made for the shaping of a pretty wide and varied musical palate and awareness. By 1975, radio had become more segregated and categorized and that’s when I began hearing instrumental hits that were also considered “jazz” on Black radio stations. In particular the hits, “Mr. Magic” by Grover Washington, Jr. and “Chameleon” by Herbie Hancock—with their catchy melodies, funk rhythms and jazz solos—were what led me to investigate jazz music further. I began by searching for the guitar-playing equivalent to these two musicians. I was informed that that person was George Benson. When I heard him, I knew that I had been informed correctly. In discovering jazz music, pretty instantaneously, I was able to relate to the melodic content of the soloists, as well as the harmonies and structure of the tunes. What jazz was doing and what it was about made absolute sense to me and I owe this this to my musical upbringing—to all the listening to all those songs and styles that I had done up to that point. All of that, plus the few years of music/guitar lessons and playing in the neighborhood band, led me toward the decision that I wanted to audition for the High School of Music and Art, which I entered in the 10th grade. From that point on I was surrounded by like-minded friends and more specifically, I found a peer group that was pursuing jazz music as a way to get better on their instruments and express themselves. Of course, all these guys were most likely also influenced by the same variety of music that I had enjoyed. Chicago Jazz Magazine: You have performed with many of the legends of jazz including Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Kenny Burrell, Stanley Turrentine, Dr. John and several long tours with Sonny Rollins. Is there a conceptual difference you take when you are performing as a sideman alongside jazz legends as opposed to leading your own group? Broom: Well, just for the sake of clarification, I never performed with Dizzy, although I did appear on one of his records as a soloist. That was some time during the mid 1980s. Also, I would be remiss not to mention that I was the first guitarist to be asked by Art Blakey to be a part of his group, “The Jazz Messengers.” I won’t let you forget that! The blessings of the experiences that I had to perform and record with these masters—men that I learned from and idolized from afar, for so long, via their recordings—is miraculous. It’s difficult to explain the feeling. But the thing that you learn, if you’re fortunate, is that jazz is a process—a never-ending one really. It involves practice, imitation, assimilation, apprenticeship, community involvement, development via performance experience… and then hopefully having a musical vision that you can work on implementing with those kindred spirits within your peer group. This is in some shape, form and order, what we’ve all had to do to mature in jazz music. Then the process continues with the things that must be done after that. So, the difference between me-the-sideman and me-the-leader is not really conceptual, as much as it is a change in my role. It’s a position that I’ve earned through experience and initiative. The concept that I carry where ever I go is the one that I gleaned from the totality of my musical experience. Everything—the studious listening of my teen years, my experiences as a sideman with jazz greats and everything in between— validates and corroborates everything else. If I’m not focusing on the right things in listening, practicing, or performing, then what can I rely on to offer in a musical situation with a legend, a peer in a band I’m in, or a group that I’m leading? I believe that at any and every point we are all looking for the same things from our fellow musicians. I began learning to be a leader by learning to be a supportive sideman. 3.Chicago Jazz Magazine: With all of the other opportunities you have had to perform and travel throughout the years what is it about Chicago that has kept it as your home base since moving here back in the 1980’s? Broom: When I moved here in 1984 I had no idea what I was doing! A native New Yorker, jazz musician moving here is pretty much of unheard of. But because of my roots in the music—beginning my career in NYC and making a little bit of a name for myself—after about a year, I was able to resume my activities of touring around the US and internationally as a sideman, even having moved here. In fact, I made quite a few new associations while living here that led to that kind of sideman work. Again, this is kind of miraculous, because the odds say that I should be relegated to jazz oblivion. But after getting here, in order to continue to pursue my goals and not lose my mind, I reasoned that locale had less to do with what I wanted to become as a musician—what I hoped to get out of myself, or where I wanted to arrive at as a player—than where I chose to place my focus. So just like at other times in my young life—as a kid at home in my NYC apartment bedroom, or in my dorm room at Berklee College—I chose to focus on the music, what I could get from it and trying to get better at it in my own way. Everything else, the mundane details, I couldn’t manage, still can’t, so they’re meaningless really. 4.Chicago Jazz Magazine: In addition to performing you also have a passion for education and helping to pass music along to younger generations. Why is mentoring and teaching music such an important part of your philosophy? Broom: Teaching, mentoring and giving back to younger musicians, is paying the music forward. It’s the major component of how jazz music exists and has evolved to this point. I learned this music as a student and an apprentice—from the records, where the music exists; in the classroom for theory and methodology, history, etc.; and on bandstands, where the music is practiced. As I have grown in my musical life, I’ve realized a position as someone with a direct connection to the history of the jazz performing art, while simultaneously amassing many years of experience in teaching at both the collegiate and high school levels. I think it’s a unique position to have so much experience in both realms, although I feel that I have yet to fulfill my full potential as an educator. Chicago Jazz Magazine: This weekend at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago you will be performing with Ben Paterson on B-3 Organ and Kobie Watkins on the drums. As a guitar player is there a difference in your approach when playing with a B-3 organ as opposed to a bass player and piano player? Broom: Yes and no. I mean, there is a difference in what I’m hearing and potentially concerning myself with. The difference is seemingly vast between the bass and the organ. People like the organ because it can fill up a lot of space, perhaps making the environment very clear or obvious harmonically. I might play more chords with a bass player, but I don’t necessarily feel the need to, or want to. Melody should imply harmony—that’s actually part of the point or affect that a melody should be making. So, as a linear player, I hope to be able to hear my own thoughts and direction and convey harmony equally as clearly, with or without a keyboard. That requires a certain kind of keyboard player. One that listens well, can be responsive (or not), is open-minded and doesn’t have to play chords dominantly or incessantly as an accompanist. That’s Ben. It also requires a bassist that can follow, expound upon and initiate harmonic and rhythmic activity. That’s Dennis. Besides being great soloists, that’s what they bring. Chicago Jazz Magazine: Both Paterson and Watkins have been regular members of your groups over the years. With your extensive repertoire what can people expect to hear at the Jazz Showcase? Broom: We’ll play a bit of everything. My repertoire includes a wide variety of pop songs from my youth, American songbook classics, jazz standards, original material… It’s a lot to cover, but I like the sets that this group has been doing lately, as it touches on most all of this. Chicago Jazz Magazine: Do you have any new recordings or projects coming up in 2016 that people can watch for? Broom: As a matter of fact I do. This past summer we began working on a recording with the relatively new group that will appear at the Jazz Showcase this weekend, The Bobby Broom Organi-Sation. We’re wrapping up tracking and should begin mixing in the next couple of months. I realized that I was envisioning something a bit different than usual for this record, so I enlisted the production expertise of renowned drummer/producer, Steve Jordan, to produce this one for me. It's been an absolute thrill working with him, and an honor because of all of the major guitarists in every genre who he has produced records for—Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, Keith Richards, John Mayer, Jon Scofield. Steve is a phenomenal musician and again, because of our similarity in age and musical upbringing (he’s a native New Yorker and M&A alumnus as well), there is a certain simpatico in musical taste between us. It’s been really cool to share musical ideas and also to have someone that I totally trust to defer to. Visit BobbyBroom.com for updates on performances and to purchase his recordings!