In Music Is My Mistress, Duke Ellington invokes the image of himself as a young boy leaving his home and embarking on a journey. At certain points, standing on a street corner, unable to decide which way to go, a kind adult takes him, turns him in a particular direction and says, “Here, go this way.” In my journey the most important “kind adult” was Bob Brookmeyer.
Bob played a number of roles in my life. The most important was that of mentor. The freelance world typically does not have the built-in mentoring system that more structured professions offer. I was very lucky that this generous man saw something in me and challenged me to develop what he saw as my talent. Whatever reputation I enjoy today as a composer/arranger/conductor can be traced back to early 1979, when I was the pianist with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. Thad had left to assume the chief conductor’s job with the Danish Radio Big Band. Mel took over leadership of the band, and brought Bob in as musical director. He’d had his ups and downs in the ’70s, but came into Mel’s band ready to enter the next great chapter of his life. I remember when he brought in his now-classic arrangement of “Skylark.” Before we played it at the Vanguard for the first time, he told me, “If this doesn’t work, I’m not gonna bother with anything else.” As I played the final phrase, absolutely stunned, I thought, “Damn, I guess he’ll be writing some more!”