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Jazz

Trombonist Curtis Fuller

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Francis Wolff
/
Blue Note Records
Curtis Fuller

Curtis Fuller was a pioneer of the hard bop era in the late '50s and early '60s, appearing on some of the biggest jazz hits of the time. Fuller died this year, leaving behind a long musical legacy. KNKX jazz host Abe Beeson looks back at this underappreciated master of the trombone.

“Blue Train” from 1957, one of John Coltrane’s first hits, had a young Lee Morgan on trumpet and featured the powerful Curtis Fuller on trombone. Fuller had just arrived in New York that year, after establishing himself as a member of Detroit’s incredibly talented pool of emerging jazz stars. But his life had difficult beginnings.

Curtis Fuller’s father died before he was born, and he was just 9 years old when his mother passed away, leaving him in the care of a Jesuit orphanage.

One of the nuns there took young Curtis to see the Illinois Jacquet band featuring star trombonist J.J. Johnson, and his passion for jazz was born.

Fuller matured as a teenager in Detroit along with some of the greatest jazz musicians of all time – his high school friends: Tommy Flanagan, Milt Jackson, Donald Byrd and Paul Chambers.

Fuller joined fellow Detroiter Yusef Lateef’s band in New York in 1957, and along with the Blue Train album, he stared recording with his own groups as well.

In 1960, his friend saxophonist Benny Golson asked him to join the Jazztet with trumpeter Art Farmer and – in one of his first recordings – pianist McCoy Tyner. The group’s “Killer Joe” went on to become a big jukebox hit.

Fuller stayed with the Jazztet for five years, also working with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and, later in his career, with Dizzy Gillespie. Fuller lost one of his lungs to cancer in the '90s, but reinvented his breathing technique and released a string of albums around the turn of the century.

I talked to trombone great Julian Priester at a recent Seattle Jazz Fellowship meeting, and he told me that his friend Fuller was an underappreciated pioneer of the hard bop era. But he was too often under the influence of his first hero:

“When you listen to Curtis, you think about J.J. – that’s not what you want," said Priester. "I mean, you can’t blame him, because J.J. Johnson was a monster! It’s not a fault to sound like J.J. Johnson. That’s no easy thing to do, you know? So, I have to give him credit for being able to do that.”

In 2007, Fuller was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, the country’s highest official honor for a jazz musician. His powerful sense of swing and love of melody made him a legend.

Curtis Fuller died in Detroit this past spring. He was 88 years old.