By Jeff Cebulski
Photo by Magnus Contzen
Guitarist Bobby Broom is among the Chicago area’s iconic musicians whose work spans nearly three generations of jazz. He developed a distinctive style that blended bop, blues, and soul influences that caught the ears of some of the greats of jazz—people like Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, and Charles Earland. Broom later formulated his solo career, focusing on trio work, most recently the creation of the “Organi-Sation” with organist Ben Paterson and drummer Kobie Watkins. Their new album Soul Fingers, from which two singles have been released, is highly anticipated. I had the privilege to talk to Bobby about the new album and his career.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: The new album seems to be an extension of a trend, creating your versions, generally, of what I presume are personally favorite songs from your past—in this case, the late 60's and early 70's, or, maybe, your perception of songs that your audience will enjoy hearing.
Bobby Broom: Ha! Yes, there does seem to be a theme trending here over the last 20 or so years! In a way, my choice to play the material that I do is kind of self-indulgent. But maybe less so than a lot of other jazz, that presents the audience with nothing familiar to relate to. My repertoire choices are a way for me to reminisce –-to relive my childhood in a way. Beginning in about the mid 90’s, I started dreaming about playing certain songs that I loved from my personal past and being able to interpret them in interesting and compelling ways. At the time I wasn’t ready to do it for a number of reasons. But even back then, I thought that it would also offer a way, someday, for audiences to connect with me, by playing music that we all know and love. First though, I had to establish myself as a jazz guitarist with a “voice,” to develop an audience and make myself recognizable to them. I had a lot of work to do! It’s taken me about 25 years to accomplish all that.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You stated you had to establish yourself as a jazz guitarist with a “voice,” to develop an audience. I am curious about the trials and tribulations you encountered during that process of developing an audience (or perhaps, even, critical) "recognition." For the benefit of younger musicians, what did you experience that would be helpful to them? Any stories you could share?
Broom: Great question. As I suggest, development is a process and one that may not be approached today as it has been in the past, as far as I can see. I don’t want to sound like an old guy, but in our current age of performance contests, instant access to information and maybe an overabundance of it via educational channels, we may be losing patience for what it takes to carve out a niche in this specific business of ‘jazz’ as an instrumentalist. Not only is there the daily grind of practicing that one must commit to for at least a significant number of years, but there’s also the issue of acquiring the kind of knowledge that can only come through experience. So, because we actually don’t have control over what those experiences will be, there is a really important issue here of patience, acceptance and surrender. There needs to be a delicate balance of these passive qualities, coupled with those more active ones in order to continue moving forward even when external conditions might indicate otherwise.
The beginning of my career looks charmed, right? By the time I was 20 years old I was playing with jazz legends like Sonny Rollins, Al Haig, and Walter Bishop, Jr. and music greats like Dave Grusin and Hugh Masakela. However, those opportunities resulted from the countless hours of practice and preparation between the ages of 14 and 20 that went into my being ready for those opportunities. Further lucky charms happened between ages 20 – 25, like getting an offer from Art Blakey to be a Jazz Messenger, landing a recording contract, and being a regular member in Sonny’s group. Those events made for the experience and validation that would be necessary for me later on when times got tough and opportunities were not so plentiful. After leaving NYC for Chicago in my mid-twenties, although there were still periods of career highs, there were also plenty of valleys–-months when I felt totally disconnected from any opportunities. When I was in the midst of those times, there was nagging self-doubt and I sometimes couldn’t imagine how I could turn my circumstances around. But I never gave up. I was always doing something, even if it was just recording home demos with the hopes of landing another record contract. I was making music, good music, that no one would hear. I did plenty of gigs–-so many sideman gigs and leader one-offs, I played in wedding bands and taught hundreds of lessons, whatever—to try to make ends meet, but with the simmering intention of honing my craft as a jazz guitarist.
At a point at around age 26 or 27, I realized something in my playing that sounded familiar to me, not a familiarity that reminded me of someone else but one that reminded me of me! That was a great moment that I’ll never forget. I was practicing in my living room when it happened. So then I realized that I had to keep that sound in my mind from that point forward and to try to develop it, control it and become comfortable with it. Before that, I cringed at the way I sounded pretty much all the time. After that, less and less so.
It took me around 10 years to hone my playing to a certain level of maturity and skill, after the realization of my “voice." During those years I also formed the Bobby Broom Trio with the intention of composing and developing a group sound or dynamic and using these as aids to further define my sound as an instrumentalist. By the time I’d matured to assume a role as mentor and experienced veteran, I was playing weekly steadies at Pete Miller’s with the Trio and later the Green Mill with the old organ group.
I began recording on a regular basis around 2000 and from about 2005 to 2015, making a record per year on average. These recordings were both creative outlets, as well as my attempt to establish or create my place as a guitarist in the world of jazz. The records have been very well received nationally, as far as jazz radio play, charting and getting tons of positive reviews. As a result, I began getting booked to play around the country and even internationally a bit because my sound became prevalent and, I suspect, somewhat attractive. But it wasn’t easy to break through to the ranks of top tier jazz guitarists. I forced the issue because I continued to believe in myself. I’m certainly not a ‘golden boy’ or ‘chosen one’ in the jazz industry, but my persistent output and the positive response has afforded me enough visibility that I find myself in that conversation about guitarists in jazz. Mind you, I’m only saying this because this has been the actual return that I’ve received. For instance, DownBeat magazine has validated me in that regard and that’s some indication or reward for my tenacity and hard work. On the other hand, at one time, maybe in the early 2000s, I was told by a prominent jazz agent to be content with “being a high-level sideman,” that I may “do a leader record or gig from time to time…” but basically, that I’m not a leader. He was telling me, in so many words, that I should give up on my dreams. If I’d believed him, I wouldn’t have made all the recordings and had all of the successful experiences as a leader that I have. Listening to that guy was out of the question!
So yeah, all that is a lifetime of work! I didn’t win a contest and then, bam! I know that that sounds cynical. I also know that everyone’s journey is different, but in the end we all are probably required to learn similar lessons. Times have changed. Jazz education tells us that we can become a master instrumentalist in four to six years. It doesn’t tell us, however, about connecting to people–-all people, not just our musician friends–-through our music. I remember when I had just played a set at Blues Alley, the club in D.C. and I went for a little walk around Georgetown to clear my head. I was in my early 20s at the time. I was in some kind of shop and a lady that had just heard me play approached me and said, “I just heard you and really enjoyed it. You are going to be great one day!” I was stunned by her statement because I couldn’t figure out what on earth she heard me play during that set that made her so sure of what she was telling me. I thanked her and scratched my head. I guess it was for her to know and me to find out!
Photo by Magnus Contzen
Chicago Jazz Magazine: When you said you were asked to play with Blakey, how did that develop? Had he heard you? Did someone vouch for you?
Broom: Both. In the summer of 1979 I had returned home to NYC from my first year of college at Berklee in Boston, where I’d met and played with pianist James Williams. One night while looking out of my 18th floor apartment bedroom window, I noticed some activity on the corner of 97th Street where a jazz club called Mikell’s was located. I decided to walk the two blocks over there to see what was happening. When I got there, I saw that Art Blakey and the Messengers were appearing there during a two-week residency. I’m standing outside and out walks James who was playing piano with Blakey. After greeting and chatting a bit, he asked me to go get my guitar, so I ran home. When I returned, Blakey called me and another guy–-a young trumpet player with a big, huge Afro, someone named Winston or Wynton, or something –-up to the bandstand to “sit in.” We both wound up playing the rest of the night and every subsequent night of the residency. At one point on a set break, Art Blakey grabbed my hand, held it tight and proclaimed to me, “You’re a Jazz Messenger now.” I think I was a little too young to fully understand what that meant.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Who were your greatest influences in developing your art and style as a guitarist?
Broom: Besides the names I’ve already mentioned, I would add others like…well, really there are too many to name. Bird, Trane, Miles, Sonny—both Rollins and Stitt—Herbie, McCoy, Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Dorham…then more contemporary guitarists like Earl Klugh, Sco [John Scofield], Pat Metheny. I mean, I was just into jazz, period. Any and everything that felt good to me. It had to have a great feel. Then, what a person plays means something. Something more to me anyway. I studied jazz by listening to records for sheer enjoyment, constantly. So really, everything I absorbed influenced me to become the musician I am. I just happen to play the guitar. I sure never tried to sound like any of the guitar guys that I loved. I reasoned early on that there was absolutely no point or future in that. So I figured, if I just borrowed from jazz in general, that I stood a good chance of no one knowing exactly where I acquired all of my material`. Ha!
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Do you play essentially the same as you did 20 years ago, or have you made any important changes to your approach/instrument?
Broom: The word “essentially” is key. I think there are essential elements or a character that have remained from 20 years ago or maybe near the very beginning that have been developed and/or refined. One very important change that I consciously made was to try to minimize or edit the amount that I was playing. I felt that I was overplaying and that I would probably sound and feel better if I edited and reduced up to 30 to 50 percent of my content. What people hear from me from the year 2000 on is the result of my working on that in order to adjust my playing style to suit my taste.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How many guitars have you used, or how many do you use? If more than one, how do you decide which one to play?
Broom: I started out on a solid body guitar made by Univox and I also had a nylon stringed classical style guitar. After that my dad bought me a Les Paul. Then I graduated to a hollow body Ibanez copy of a Gibson L-5. I traded in the Les Paul for that one. I’ve played hollow bodies predominantly since then, switching to a semi-hollow for a period in the 1990s. I was endorsing Yamaha Guitars at that time and they were giving me hollows and semi-hollows to play. I went back to the solid body during my time in Dr. John’s band. After that, since 2000, it’s been hollow bodies exclusively. I endorsed the Höfner Jazzica for 15 years. Now I play an instrument that was handmade for me by a great luthier named Dan Koentopp [a Chicago native who currently lives in LA]. Danny apprenticed and worked for years with the Chicago Stradivarius Society. The instrument is called "the Chicagoan." It’s as fine a handcrafted stringed instrument as any orchestral violin, cello, or whatever. I’m grateful to have finally graduated to playing something of this sonic quality.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Getting back to the new album, what were your thoughts behind this album's selections?
Broom: The selection of songs for the record began naturally. In the summer of 2015, I was fooling around in Garage Band [the Apple computer music program]. I was listening to the organ sounds in there and I thought they sounded pretty good. So I began working on “Ode To Billy Joe,” using the organ as the basis of my rhythm section. Technical limitations within that program required me to quickly graduate to Logic, Apple’s professional level program. When I finished the arrangement, complete with organ, drums, guitar and horn parts, I began to ask myself what I was doing. By the time I finished the second arrangement—I believe it was “Get Ready”—the answer was becoming clear to me that I was preparing for my next record. When I realized that, I just continued mining for my favorite songs that I thought would sound and feel great in an organ trio setting and would also make for a balanced and complete program.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: By the way, I did like your treatment of “Ode to Billy Joe.” An unexpected treat! Seems to me that including "Whiter Shade..." would be attributed to the organ trio concept.
Broom: Yeah, “Whiter Shade” is another one of my faves that just happens to have organ on the original record. So perfect!! As far as my focus on the organ in this music and on this record is concerned, you have to understand that in 2014 I had formed my new group, the Bobby Broom Organi–Sation, and we’d toured the States and Canada opening for Steely Dan. So I knew that I wanted my next recording to be with this group.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: It seems as though the organ trio format is regaining interest from performers like you. If true, how can we account for that?
Broom: Not really “regaining,” because I could never really lose interest in something that is so much a part of me. Organ groups are a part of my musical heritage, so to speak. The history of the jazz guitar instrumental art is replete with great organ and guitar combinations. All of the icons of jazz guitar spent significant parts of their careers and made classic records with organ groups–-Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, George Benson, Pat Martino. These guitar figures are not only iconic as far as general consensus is concerned, but they were also among my early heroes. Also, my very first jazz music obsession when I was 10 years old, was with organist Charles Earland’s “Black Talk” record, the one where he plays the pop radio hits “More Today Than Yesterday” and “The Age of Aquarius.” Go figure?! And how cool is it that by age 27 or 28, I was working with Earland and he would tell my mother once that I was his “favorite guitarist”?
Chicago Jazz Magazine: My research of your career indicated that, before his death, Charles had planned to create a working trio that included you and Greg Rockingham. Is that true? If so, given your affinity for his music and the chance you had to play with him, is that a bittersweet memory of potential lost? You guys seemed to have real chemistry.
Broom: I think the feeling of loss was because Charles died suddenly and prematurely. Yeah, it would’ve been nice to see what his idea for that band would’ve yielded, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Based on my reading of your previous CJM interview [in 2015], did the production of this album satisfy your expectations?
Broom: I was just talking to a friend today about how the production of this record far exceeded my expectations. I mean, we’re talking about Steve Jordan, who is one of the most in-demand producers in the business. I barely expected that he would accept the task when I asked him to do it, so my “expectations” were really low from the start. But what I envisioned was the natural, organic, yet ultra-powerful and professionally polished sound he delivers. Like on those John Mayer records. So really, my intuition was operating and I was just trying to implement as I was being dictated to. I wasn’t over-thinking it, just doing.
It turned out that I learned that Steve is the epitome of what a great producer should be. He knows the studio (the sounds of gear and instruments), he understands music and what makes it work as far as moving people’s hearts is concerned and he knows how to elicit great performances in the studio. He understands and respects me as an artist and set me up to be able to offer my best effort.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Are the horn and string parts on your new album analog or synthetic/programmed? While they sound real, they seem, to me, to be back in the mix.
Broom: Everything is real. Steve was going for a 1970s feeling in the string parts on my original tune. I recall him trying to ride the line in the sound he was looking for and getting. At one point he even said, “I don’t want [arranger] Matt Jones to be mad at me for making his strings sound like a synth.” Ha! That’s a full, 24-piece string section on those tunes and up to four horn parts on the others. However, they are textural elements within the overall environments. They’re seasoning and aren’t meant to be points of focus.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: I suspect choice of producer still matters in recording. Or has that become a too-expensive luxury in this era of self-production? Another way to ask is: Are you more comfortable working with a producer than not?
Broom: Having a record producer matters if it matters to and for the artist, or whoever is doing the music. Do I think I could’ve gotten the same results having self-produced this record? Absolutely not. So for me it definitely mattered. To answer your second question: Yes, having a great producer can be a luxury and inaccessible to some. To your point however, just because technology makes it possible for everyone to self-produce a recording, doesn’t make it desirable. In that regard, the fact that Steve Jordan produced my record says a mouthful.
Photo by Magnus Contzen
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Given that you said you were trying to make a connection with your audiences, and that you are gravitating toward playing “the oldies,” I presume your audiences trend older than younger. Do you think the state of jazz is strong enough to move generation to generation? Or is there a fear that jazz is beginning to fade?
Broom: The Bobby Broom Organi–Sation played in Philly a couple of weekends ago, at one of their jazz clubs. The band was sound checking while the waitstaff did their side work in preparation for opening. We began playing “Come Together” and immediately, you could feel a stir among the workers. In case you don’t get it, I’m talking about people in their twenties. Then we played “Summer Breeze” and they started buzzing around, singing along and pulling out their phones to take video. The guys in the band told me about the phone videoing because I was focused on the music at the time, but I felt the buzz and understood what was happening.
I got into jazz in the 1970s after it supposedly croaked in ’59. I’ve made a living at it since 1980. I’ve seen it flourishing all over the world throughout my career. According to the few who write these silly diatribes every few years about jazz dying, it should’ve been dead a long time ago. Yet every year, hundreds of kids are graduating from colleges and universities with degrees and instruments in their hands. And audiences continue to exist despite the fact that jazz is virtually ignored in mainstream culture. If nothing else, these graduates and their kids will bolster audiences for jazz because of their interest in and understanding of the music.
Culture changes and may evolve, but it doesn’t die that easily. Jazz is in ways as strong, alive and as vital as ever. In different ways than in the past, but thriving in its current way. Via jazz education there may be the most awareness of jazz as an art as in any other time since the jazz age. When I travel and play, say in NYC, I’m very pleased by the demographics of my audiences, which are broad ranging from college kids to seniors, men AND women—which is a great sign to me that I’m no jazz nerd fad and that I'm relatable to the average, non-musician person…all races and ethnicities.
Personally, it would be way too obvious and easy an excuse for me to have angst about the state of jazz. I have no interest in, nor time for that. I’m too busy preparing for and trying to see what’s up next for me creatively.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Do you see yourself producing an album of original compositions ever again, given the response to your revisiting the “oldies”?
Broom: That sounds like a possibility. My first Bobby Broom Trio record in 2000, Stand!, was of “oldies.” “Happy Together,” “Monday, Monday,” “Stand,” “The House of the Rising Sun…”. It’s just material for me to interpret. The connecting element between all of my catalogue is me playing my guitar the way that I do. After Stand! I recorded Modern Man, an organ record with Dr. Lonnie Smith, Idris Muhammad and Ronnie Cuber, playing everything from standards, to originals, to pop tunes like “Layla” and “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again.”
It should be clear by now that I’m gonna do what my muse directs me to. I don’t actually know what the next adventure is going to be until I’m planning it. By then, in a way it's done already, but I have to wait and follow through to completion to see what it’s gonna turn out to be.
Pre-Order Bobby Broom's New Release (available October 12th)