• November 28, 2023

Curtis Fuller, Leading Trombonist Of Jazz’s Detroit Wave, Dies At 86 : NPR

From left: Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxophonist Johnny Griffin, Curtis Fuller and bassist Reggie Workman stand on stage in New York City Hall on February 22, 1985. Anthony Barboza / Getty Images hide the caption

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Anthony Barboza / Getty Images

From left trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxophonist Johnny Griffin, Curtis Fuller and bassist Reggie Workman on the stage at New York City Hall on February 22, 1985.

Anthony Barboza / Getty Images

Trombonist and composer Curtis Fuller, a key figure on his instrument and a beloved mentor since the 1950s, passed away on May 8th. He was 86 years old. His death was confirmed by his daughter, Mary Fuller, and the Jazz Foundation of America.

“Its sound was massive, eye-catching and immediate, a waveform that was calibrated to overload the senses and saturate the magnetic tape that recorded it,” says trombonist and composer Jacob Garchik. “In our time of obsession with harmony and mixed meters, Curtis Fuller’s legacy reminds us of the importance of sound.”

Ryan Keberle, another currently leading trombonist and educator, agrees. “Curtis Fuller’s genius can be heard in the warm and lively timbre of his trombone sound, the rhythmic lift and his deeply vibrating sense of time.”

Born in Detroit on December 15, 1934, Fuller has always been immensely proud of his Motor City roots. His parents, who were from Jamaica, died when he was young – Fuller grew up in an orphanage, eventually recorded music in high school, first playing the baritone horn, then switching to the trombone at age 16. After graduating, he served in the army for two years, during which time he played in bands with future greats such as bassist Paul Chambers and alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley.

Upon his return to Detroit in 1955, he began playing in a quintet directed by Reedman Yusef Lateef. This band traveled to New York in 1957 to record three albums, and it was there that Fuller’s influence began to grow dramatically. In his first nine months as a New Yorker, Fuller recorded eight times as a leader or co-leader and appeared as a sideman on 15 other recordings, including John Coltrane’s Blue Train (Blue Note), the legendary saxophonist quoted as one of his favorites.

John Coltrane:

Fuller’s big, wide tone added depth and breadth to the trumpet and saxophone frontline that had become the convention in hard bop. On his own recordings, Fuller branched out in unique ways – one of his earliest recordings, Bone and Bari (Blue Note), featured a frontline of Fuller and baritone saxophonist Tate Houston with a standout rhythm section by pianist Sonny Clark, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Art Taylor; The dark, atmospheric mood at the front emphasized the broad sound of Fuller’s instrument.

Curtis Fuller Quintet, “Bone and Bari”


It was an unprecedented Motor City influx of the New York jazz scene. A short list of influential musicians includes Chambers and Lateef, trumpeter Donald Byrd, pianist Barry Harris, guitarist Kenny Burrell, pianist Tommy Flanagan, drummer Louis Hayes, baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, bassist Ron Carter, tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson and the Jones brothers. Pianist Hank, trumpeter Thad and drummer Elvin. Fuller often recorded with these great musicians, but he also made canonical recordings with others. He was a member of the first Art Farmer / Benny Golson Jazztet and played with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers for three and a half years. Ryan Keberle cited Fuller’s solo on “One for One” from the Ugetsu album as one of his favorites.

Fuller’s solo on “One for One” by Art Blakey and the album “Ugetsu” by the Jazz Messengers is an outstanding part of a career that is not lacking.


“Fuller was deeply rooted in the fundamentals of blues, swing and bebop, and his improvisations balanced his mind and heart convincingly,” said Mark Stryker, author of Jazz from Detroit. “He married a soulful lickety split technique and by his early twenties already had a distinctive identity that is ideal for the hard-bop mainstream.”

Fuller spent much of the late 60s to late 80s touring with bands led by legends such as Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie, and performing with the collective ensemble The Timeless All Stars. Like many of his colleagues, he joined the ranks of academics, taught at the Hartt School of Hartford University and was on the faculty of Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead program at the Kennedy Center, where he supervised musicians and saxophonists Caroline Davis and bass player Dezron Douglas.

In Connecticut, trombonist and educator Steve Davis met Fuller in the mid to late 1980s, and the two became friends. Davis often traveled to New York in the late 1980s to hear Fuller with either the Jazztet or Timeless bands. “Curtis’ game was absolutely incredible … almost mystical,” says Davis. “Curtis always said, ‘I’m not trying to win any Trumpet Olympics.’ We all knew he could, but we loved him because he never cared about playing someone. He was too handsome and hip for that. He was all music. ”

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