I was in college around 1967 when I discovered the Jazz Messengers. And of course, Curtis blew my mind. Later, in 1973, I sat in with Art [Blakey] in San Francisco at the behest of Woody Shaw. Art asked me to join the band and brought me to New York. He put me up in his apartment for about two weeks until I found a place.
That first gig, opening night at the Village Gate, I noticed that this guy was sitting right in front of me, eyeballing me the whole shift. I didn’t realize who he was. I guess Art had told him he had a new trombone player in the band, so he was checking me out. Thank goodness I didn’t recognize who he was. I was the baby in that band, with Woody and Cedar Walton. During the intermission, that same guy that had been staring at me was in the back talking to Art and they were carrying on—reminiscing and stuff. I still didn’t get it. Art said, “Hey Steve, c’mon over here.” I go over there and Art says, “Steve, this is Curtis Fuller.” I thought, “Oh shit.” My heart was beating so fast, I thought everybody could hear it.
He was really sweet. He said, “Steve, welcome to New York. You sound great. Not many of us trombone players get to come through this school—keep up the good work.” Then Art starts in: “Curtis, you know, you’re still a Jazz Messenger. You’ll always be a Jazz Messenger. Get your horn.” And Curtis says, “I didn’t bring it. C’mon, Art, I’ve been here and done this. It’s Steve’s turn.” Art says, “Nah, I want you to play something.” Curtis says, “Are you going to give me money to catch a cab and get my horn from the apartment?” Art wasn’t going to give him any money, so Art says to me, “Steve, can Curtis play your horn?” Man, Curtis looks at me and he has this look in his eyes like he didn’t really want to play. But Art is so persuasive that Curtis says, “Steve, can I play your horn?” And I say, “Yes, please bless it for me.”
For a brass instrumentalist, playing someone else’s horn with their mouthpiece, it can really do something with your chops that you’re not used to. He took my horn with my mouthpiece and played one tune and, man, he sounded the way he sounded on Blue Train. On my horn and my mouthpiece. He got down. And then I had to play. Talk about having to scrape yourself off the floor. I didn’t try to play super-strong or loud or high. I just tried to swing and make the music sound good. Curtis appreciated that it wasn’t about competition. It was just about being yourself. Afterwards, we talked and exchanged numbers. From time to time, he would show me some things. We were friends ever since then.
Later that same summer, he got mugged in Harlem. He gave the guy his wallet and got hit in the mouth anyway with the guy’s gun and it knocked out his front teeth. He had to get false teeth and that’s when he went with Count Basie, playing third trombone, trying to get his sound back. But when he played with my mouthpiece that night, he sounded just like his old self.
I would go see him whenever I was in Detroit. He was such a gentle spirit. A beautiful cat, who didn’t like pretension. He had a quick mind and a natural humor. He could look at something and say something about it that would make you laugh. But if you don’t know him, he wouldn’t open up.
Curtis’ legacy was established when he was with the Messengers. After J.J. Johnson, the next extension of that trombone lineage was Curtis. J.J. was Charlie Parker’s trombonist and Curtis was Coltrane’s trombonist. I think that says it all. Just like what Coltrane did with the saxophone, Curtis is still fresh every time I listen to him. And as fast as Curtis could play, he played the most beautiful ballads where he just played the melody.
I think he never got the credit on a larger scale. He wrote a lot of great tunes and people recorded them. And he did a lot of albums at one time. But he never had the opportunity to work that much as a leader. Then again, how many trombone players work a lot as a leader?
I last saw him about two years ago, when I was playing in Detroit at the Dirty Dog. He was in a nursing home and I went with the group and we played for him. And the other residents in the home came and listened too. I have a picture with me and him at the nursing home. He’s one of my heroes, so it was the least I could do for him.
[as told to Lee Mergner]