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Curtis Fuller 1932–2021

A Detroit orphan who became a hard-bop architect, he played one of the most celebrated trombone solos in jazz history

Curtis Fuller
Curtis Fuller at the Jazz Standard, New York, January 1999 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Curtis Fuller, a trombonist, composer, and NEA Jazz Master who was a key player in cultivating bebop language on his instrument, died May 8 in Detroit, Michigan. He was 88.

His death was confirmed by his daughter, Mary Fuller, and her partner, Lilly Sullivan. Cause of death was not disclosed; however, Fuller had been inactive as a musician for about five years due to health problems.

Fuller was the pre-eminent trombonist of the hard-bop era, known for his technical prowess—particularly his ability to articulate wide intervals—and rhythmic ingenuity. He was also hailed for the colloquial flavor in his improvisational style. “The magnificent chops for bebop trombone may have fallen to J.J. Johnson,” critic Fred Bouchard wrote in JazzTimes, “but God gave Curtis Fuller a big chunk of the soul.”

As testimony to his predominance, Fuller belonged to two of the most important bands in hard bop: the Benny Golson/Art Farmer Jazztet, of which he was a founding member, and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, participating in one of that band’s most storied periods (with Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Cedar Walton, and Reggie Workman). He also made nearly three dozen albums under his own name and appeared on many significant and popular recordings as a sideman with the likes of Bud Powell, Sonny Clark, Lee Morgan, Quincy Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Jimmy Heath, and Count Basie.

However, his single most famous moment on record is undoubtedly his solo on John Coltrane’s classic “Blue Train,” recorded on September 15, 1957. Fuller contributed five choruses that expertly balanced restraint, virtuosity, and thoughtfully deployed grooves, adding up to arguably the most famous trombone solo in jazz history.

Asked in a 2012 interview by writer Mark Stryker about the keys to a good solo, Fuller replied, “Humor and dialogue. … Music is English composition. Each song should have a subject, and phrases should have a noun, a verb, and like that. It should be expressive. Exclamation points: Bap!”

Curtis DuBois Fuller was born December 15, 1932 in Detroit to Antoinette Heath Fuller, a widow. His father, John Fuller, was a Ford Motor Company factory worker who died of tuberculosis while his wife was pregnant. Fuller’s mother died in 1942 of kidney disease, leaving Curtis to be separated from his older brother and sister and consigned to the Children’s Aid Society, an orphanage in central Detroit, where he grew up.

When he was around 12, Fuller saw Illinois Jacquet at Detroit’s Paradise Theatre and was floored by Jacquet’s trombonist, J.J. Johnson. Soon after, he saw Detroit native Frank Rosolino perform and was equally captivated. He took up trombone in the orphanage’s band and took some lessons from Rosolino. He switched to baritone horn at Cass Technical High School, though he continued studying trombone on his own and during a brief tenure at Wayne State University (where he roomed with Joe Henderson).

Drafted into the Army in 1953, Fuller was stationed at Fort Knox and played in an Army band led by Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. After his discharge in 1955, Fuller returned to Detroit and established himself on that city’s fecund jazz scene, including work in bands led by guitarist Kenny Burrell and multi-reedist Yusef Lateef. In April 1957, however, Fuller went to New York with Lateef’s band and decided to stay.

By the end of 1957 Fuller had made at least 21 recordings, including several of his own as well as key dates with Lateef, Powell, and Morgan—and Coltrane’s Blue Train. (Fuller had another claim to fame on the latter session, naming the date’s second most famous tune when he complained that Coltrane expected them to learn it “at a moment’s notice.”) He was instantly the hottest trombonist on the scene, and was soon working with Miles Davis, Lester Young, and Dizzy Gillespie.

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By 1960, Fuller was a member of both the Jazztet and the Quincy Jones Orchestra. The following year he joined the Jazz Messengers, for which he wrote the classic compositions “A La Mode,” “Three Blind Mice,” and “Buhaina’s Delight.”

However, work slowed to a trickle after he left the Messengers at the end of 1964. Although Fuller ended 1968 on a European tour with Gillespie’s big band, he began it with a desk job at the Chrysler Corporation’s New York offices and occasional freelance gigs.

Steady work began again in 1975, when he joined the Count Basie Orchestra for a three-year spell, through which he got to know Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. After leaving Basie in 1978, Fuller kept the momentum going, recording several albums as a leader and beginning fruitful collaborations with Woody Shaw, Lionel Hampton, and an assemblage called the Timeless All-Stars (created by the Dutch label Timeless Records).

A bout with lung cancer slowed Fuller down in the 1990s, but he beat the disease and rebounded late in the decade through work with Benny Golson, then went on a tear of new releases under his own name in the 2000s. Even so, further health problems became apparent, affecting his teeth. He began working more in the classroom than onstage, becoming 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 the early 2010s, 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 their three children, Paul, Mary, and Anthony Fuller; five children by a previous marriage, Ronald, Darryl, Gerald, Dellaney, and Wellington; nine grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren.

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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.