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Bob Gullotti 1949 – 2020

One of Boston’s finest, he inspired generations of musicians as a drummer, educator, and cofounder of the Fringe

Bob Gullotti
Bob Gullotti (photo courtesy of Berklee College of Music)

Bob Gullotti, a drummer and percussionist who was a staple of the Boston jazz scene for nearly five decades, as well as a mentor to countless younger musicians from around the world, died January 25 at his home in Waltham, Massachusetts. He was 70.

His death was confirmed by the Office of Media Relations at Berklee College of Music, where Gullotti was a longtime professor of percussion. A cause of death was not disclosed.

Gullotti was the drummer for the Fringe, an innovative free-jazz trio that he cofounded in 1972. The Fringe quickly became a seminal act on the Boston scene, with longstanding residencies across several clubs and other venues. In addition, he headed his own Bob Gullotti Project. Gullotti also toured with the likes of J.J. Johnson, Joe Lovano, and John Patitucci, and was known to fans of the jam band Phish for his sit-ins with the group (and work with Phish member Trey Anastasio on the latter’s project Surrender to the Air).

Perhaps most importantly, Gullotti was a beloved educator, both from his perch at Berklee and in private lessons, master classes, and workshops that he conducted around Boston and the United States with musicians at all levels.

“One of the most kind musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure of making music with, and a huge inspiration for me,” wrote drummer/composer Tyshawn Sorey on Facebook.

“He taught me a lot. On so many levels,” wrote keyboardist John Medeski. “Truly infinitely creative and supportive and always limit pushing.”

Robert Gullotti was born on November 28, 1949 in Boston, the youngest of five brothers. His father was a mechanic and owned a gas station in Waltham. Bob’s brother Steve, six years older, played guitar in a band, and Bob was inspired at the age of 11 to begin playing drums. From the moment he picked up the sticks, he recalled, he was obsessed—he worked through a lesson book each week, sometimes practicing seven hours a day. He began playing professionally at 15.

Gullotti later recalled that there was tension between his father and himself, because his father was opposed to his children making music for a living and “I was an absolute fanatic and didn’t want to do anything else.” However, he also recalled in a 2017 interview that “when we were in high school we all had to work at the gas station during the summer. I lasted three weeks before he said, ‘Go practice your drums.’”

Upon graduation from Waltham High School in 1968, Gullotti matriculated at Berklee College of Music, where he majored in music education and studied with Fred Buda and Alan Dawson—the latter whom he regarded as his most important mentor. He graduated in 1972.

“For me, the most important period of my development was the four years after Berklee,” he remarked. “I was just playing—not teaching, just playing … and I [practiced for] eight hours every day.” He also continued his studies with Dawson, and freelanced with touring musicians who came through the city as well as with the many artists who had come to teach at area universities—a period of intensive work.

In his senior year at Berklee, Gullotti and a classmate, saxophonist George Garzone, enlisted one of Berklee’s professors, bassist Rich Appleman, to form the Fringe, which quickly began playing regularly around the Boston area. The Fringe also gained attention from the larger jazz world after fellow Boston native George Wein heard them and invited them to perform at the Newport Jazz Festival, then at his Kool Jazz Festival in New York. In 1984, Appleman was replaced by bassist John Lockwood, who remained with the band permanently. By that point, the Fringe was already touring around the world in its own right.

Along with the Fringe, Gullotti toured regularly with internationally known musicians, many of whom he met when they came to Boston to work at Berklee or other area music programs—such as Lovano, Patitucci, saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi, and trombonist Hal Crook. He reached a new audience in 1996 when Anastasio, Phish’s guitarist and lead vocalist, recruited Gullotti to perform with Surrender to the Air, a free-jazz side project. It disbanded after only one recording, but that album became an essential item among Phish fans and collectors; Gullotti later sat in with Phish for three concerts in 1996 and 1997.

Gullotti joined the faculty of his alma mater, Berklee College of Music, in 2010. His teaching philosophy hearkened back to his lessons with Alan Dawson: It centered on discipline, efficiency, and practice. He was highly encouraging to students seeking out music as a profession. “If you’re a good player and you’ve got a good attitude on the bandstand and knowledge of what you’re playing, it’s as stable as any other industry,” he wrote on his faculty page at Berklee. “I think it’s just a matter of getting the concentration and the discipline and the repertoire down and having a good attitude and showing up on time and just being a pro. If you hang with it, you can hack out a living.”

Gullotti is survived by his wife, Marion Campos-Gullotti.

The Fringe had performed every Monday night at the Lilypad, a jazz club in Cambridge’s Inman Square, since 2006. Garzone and Lockwood elected to honor Gullotti’s death by not breaking that residency, appearing as a duo in the Fringe’s regular Monday night spot on January 27.

Plans for a further memorial are forthcoming. Originally Published

Michael J. West

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.