Curtis Fuller, a trombonist and composer whose expansive sound and powerful swing made him a driving force in post-war jazz, died on May 8 in a Detroit nursing home. He was 88 years old.
His daughter Mary Fuller confirmed the death but did not give the cause.
Mr. Fuller came to New York in the spring of 1957 and almost immediately became the leading trombonist of the hard-bop movement, which emphasized jazz’s roots in blues and gospel while delivering crisp and humble melodies.
By the end of the year he had recorded no fewer than eight albums as a leader or co-leader for the independent labels Blue Note, Prestige and Savoy.
In the same year he also appeared on saxophonist John Coltrane’s “Blue Train”, one of the most famous albums in jazz, on which Mr. Fuller developed a series of timeless solos. On the title track, which is now a jazz standard, its trombone plays a central role in carrying the bold, declarative Melody.
Mr. Fuller’s five-choir solo in “Blue Train” begins with the final notes of trumpeter Lee Morgan’s improvisation, as if curiously picking up an object a friend had just put down. Then he moves through a spontaneous repertoire of syncopated phrases and skillfully crafted flourishes.
In his book, Jazz From Detroit (2019), critic Mark Stryker wrote, “The excitement, authority, and construction of Fuller’s solo explain why he became a major influencer.”
Mr. Fuller was also responsible for naming “Moment’s Notice”, another now classic Coltrane composition on this album. “I made a comment,” Fuller said in a 2007 interview for the National Endowment for the Arts, recalling the scene at the Van Gelder Studio in New Jersey. ‘John, you put this music on us in no time. We have three hours to rehearse this music and we are going to record? ‘And that became the title of the song. “
Mr. Fuller carried his talent for a precisely set melody and for elegantly tracing the harmonic seams of a melody into his work as a composer. His many original pieces include “À La Mode”, “Arabia” and “Buhaina’s Delight”, all of which are now considered standard.
These three pieces found their way into the repertoire of drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Hard Bop’s flagship ensemble, of which Mr. Fuller was a core member from the early to mid-1960s. The band was arguably at its peak in those years when their membership included trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Cedar Walton, and bassist Jymie Merritt (later replaced by Reggie Workman).
“I owe Art Blakey a lot in many ways,” said Fuller. “We were all driven by the fact that he encouraged us all to write. There was no leader. “
In 2007, Mr. Fuller was named NEA Jazz Master, the country’s highest official award for a living jazz musician.
In addition to his daughter Mary, seven other children survive, Ronald, Darryl, Gerald, Dellaney, Wellington, Paul and Anthony; nine grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren. His first marriage to Judith Patterson ended in divorce. His second wife, Catherine Rose Driscoll, died in 2010 after 30 years of marriage.
Curtis DuBois Fuller was born on December 15, 1932 in Detroit. (His year of birth was incorrectly stated throughout his life – a discrepancy that was not resolved until after his death – in part because at 17 he had exaggerated his age by two years and could enter the world of work.)
His father John, who was from Jamaica, worked at a Ford Motor Company plant but died of tuberculosis before Curtis was born. His mother, Antoinette (Heath) Fuller, a housewife, had come north from Atlanta. She died when Curtis was 9 years old and he spent the next several years in a Jesuit orphanage.
During his mother’s lifetime, she paid for Curtis’ sister Mary to take piano lessons. He listened through the wall and learned the basics of second hand music. He showed interest in the violin at the orphanage, but became discouraged after a teacher told him it was an unsuitable instrument for blacks.
Shortly afterwards, he saw JJ Johnson, the leading trombonist of Bebop, in concert with saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, and he was fascinated by the “majestic sound” of the trombone, he said in an interview with Mr. Stryker.
“Illinois Jacquet was an act: honking and screaming, biting reeds, squeaking and such. The crowd was going to go wild, ”said Mr. Fuller. “But JJ just stood there and played and he looked like the guy who really knew what he was doing.”
He was also impressed by the local trombonist, Frank Rosolino, whom he soon heard performing and who became his teacher. He met a group of young jazz musicians in Detroit, many of whom were destined for jazz notoriety, including pianist Barry Harris and guitarist Kenny Burrell.
“It was like a network in Detroit. We generally stuck together, “he said in 2007.” There was a lot of love and real closeness. “
in the In 1953, Mr. Fuller was drafted into the army, where he joined one of the last all-black military bands, the other members of which were future stars Cannonball Adderley and Junior Mance.
After leaving the armed forces, he returned to the Detroit scene before traveling to New York in 1957 with saxophonist Yusef Lateef’s band. When Miles Davis offered him a job, he decided to stay.
Playing with Davis led to his meeting two particularly important people: Coltrane, the band’s tenor saxophonist, and Alfred Lion, a founder of Blue Note Records, who heard Mr. Fuller on stage with Davis’ band and invited him for the Record label.
As he made a name for himself as a band leader, Mr. Fuller also found work alongside celebrity musicians such as Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie and James Moody.
Holiday, who became a mentor, encouraged him to consider the range and tempo of his own voice when improvising. “When I came to New York, I always tried to impress people and play long solos as quickly as possible – lightning fast,” Fuller said in 2007. “And suddenly Billie Holiday said, ‘When you’re playing, you’re talking to me People. So learn how to edit your thing you know ‘ That I have learned. “
In 1959 Savoy released The Curtis Fuller Jazztet, a lively album that featured saxophonist and composer Benny Golson. Soon afterwards, Mr. Golson and the trumpeter Art Farmer formed their own band under the name Jazztet with Mr. Fuller as a side musician. It would be one of the epitome of the 1960s jazz ensemble, but Mr. Fuller soon moved on to other endeavors. (He and Mr. Golson remained close friends until his death.)
The untimely death of Coltrane, who was also a dear friend, and Mr. Fuller’s sister in 1967 plunged him into a depression, and he left the music business and took a job at the Chrysler Corporation in downtown Manhattan. But about a year later, Gillespie persuaded Mr. Fuller to join his band on a world tour, and he re-entered the jazz scene for good.
In the mid-1970s he spent two years in Count Basie’s orchestra and again directed his own ensembles.
In the 1990s, he survived a battle with lung cancer (although he had never smoked) and had part of a lung removed. He spent two years reinventing his trombone technique to accommodate his impaired breathing ability. He succeeded and released a number of well-received albums in the late 1990s and 2000s.
But as his health continued to deteriorate, he devoted himself more to teaching, transferring to faculty at Hartford University’s Hartt School of Music and the Kennedy Center’s Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program.
When asked in 2007 to describe the distinctive sound that had so indelibly shaped jazz, Mr. Fuller mentioned the importance of accepting one’s own identity. “I’m trying to be warm. Warm and effective, you know. And sometimes I feel cold and defective, ”he said. “This is how water runs. I am not God, I am not perfection. I’m just me “