Curtis Fuller in Memoriam, 1934–2021

Curtis Fuller passed away in Detroit on May 8. He was a giant of modern trombone who was part of the major wave of Detroiters who left for the Big Apple in the latter half of the 1950s.  Once in New York he was a constant presence in recording studios. In 1957 alone he took part in nine recording sessions under his own name! That same year he was part of the classic John Coltrane recording, Blue Train, on Blue Note. Fuller’s solo on the title track was transcribed and often studied by younger musicians stepping up to the challenge of mastering the trombone. Fuller hit the ground running in New York City as Detroit had prepared him well.

Fuller was born in Detroit in 1934 and grew up in an orphanage after his parents died.  A Jesuit nun took him to see the Illinois Jacquet band at the Paradise Theater and was impressed by the band’s trombonist, modern jazz pioneer J.J. Johnson. “J.J. looked like the man with the head. He had the smarts; it was not all about money” as he put it in an interview with Jim Gallert in 1998.  Fuller was also inspired by two Detroit trombonists who later went to New York:  Frank Rosolino and Bernard McKinney (Kiane Zawadi). More hands-on instruction came from one of Detroit’s piano greats, Claude Black, who doubled on the trombone. Another pianist who gave young Curtis useful advice was Barry Harris, a central figure in Detroit’s jazz life who also relocated to Manhattan.

A hitch in the U.S. Army from 1953 to 1955 gave Fuller the opportunity to play in a dance band led by saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. On his return to Detroit Fuller formed a band with baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams called Bone & Bari that appeared on the Soupy Sales nighttime TV show. Adams was also part of the Four Sharps, a band initially organized by guitarist Kenny Burrell during a job at Klein’s Show bar.  The band included pianists Tommy Flanagan or Hugh Lawson, and bassist Ernie Farrow. 

Drummer Hindal Butts took over the band when Burrell left to tour with Oscar Peterson, and he remembered Fuller in a 1993 interview with Lars Bjorn:

“Curtis used to drink nothing but milk. He drank so much of George Klein’s milk, he used to send him across the street to the Cream of Michigan to buy a quarter or a half-gallon of milk and put it behind the bar…He didn’t smoke cigarettes, he didn’t drink whiskey, he just drank milk!”

In November 1955, Fuller made his recording debut in Detroit with a sextet led by bassist Paul Chambers for the Jazz West label. John Coltrane and Pepper Adams completed the front line and were supported by pianist Roland Alexander, Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones.  It is interesting to note that Chambers, Fuller and Jones were also on Coltrane’s Blue Train recording (waxed in September 1957 and released in 1958 on Blue Note).  Coltrane was a frequent visitor to Detroit, knew a lot of local musicians, and attended the near constant jam sessions in saxman Joe Brazil’s basement. Fuller said that “meeting John Coltrane was the greatest thing that happened to me.”  Not surprisingly, critics have noted that Coltrane influenced Fuller’s playing in various ways. Fuller is the sole trombonist to record with Coltrane in a small group setting.

By the spring of 1956 Fuller was a regular member of Yusef Lateef’s quintet at Klein’s.  This was one of the most important groups in the city at the time.  Lateef was a saxophonist who had been in New York since 1946, most notably playing with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, and he was now fronting his own groups in Detroit. 

In an interview with Charles Latimer, Fuller remembered the time with Lateef fondly: “Yusef was such a nice human being. He touched everybody. Brother Yusef and I used to go to Belle Isle at night and practice.  He had his flute and oboe.  What a sound playing over the Detroit River at night!”

Lateef’s quintet was unusual among Detroit modern jazz groups since it was able to record several times in New York City during their three-year shift at Klein’s. Fuller took part in the band’s first three record dates for Savoy (Jazz Mood, Jazz for the Thinker, Stable Mates) and one for Verve in April, 1957 (Before Dawn: The Music of Yusef Lateef).  The center of attention on these recordings is Lateef, and Fuller adds depth to the front line and pulls off several inspired solos.

After moving to New York, Fuller became a member of two important hard bop groups: The Jazztet (he was an original member 1959–60 with Art Farmer and Benny Golson) and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (1961-65). He toured regularly in Europe from the early 1980s with the Timeless All Stars and kept his big band chops in shape by playing in top drawer bands led by Quincy Jones, Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie.

He also did some teaching at the University of Hartford and Lincoln Center in Manhattan. He inspired young ‘bones like Detroit’s Vincent Chandler. Chandler is a Lecturer of jazz studies and jazz trombone at Wayne State University, took full advantage of Fuller’s presence in the last years of his life, involving him in his classes. Chandler has studied Fuller’s recordings in depth and has been deeply touched by Fuller as he puts it:

“Curtis played on many significant jazz sessions. There isn’t a trombonist alive who hasn’t studied his solos, especially on Blue Trane. He was a master of double-tonguing and had great slide technique. He developed a distinct and unique sound on his instrument. Curtis was soulful and funky, a lot of people lean to him because of that. He showed us what was possible on his instrument. Trombones are not as represented as much as other instruments, like tenor sax or trumpet. Fuller gave us trombonists hope of achieving hip success, of creating a sound that exceeds what people think of as a ‘trombone sound’.”