Bobby Broom is a widely respected working and touring Jazz Guitar player who, at the age of 15, was asked to go out on the road with sax legend Sonny Rollins and has since played and recorded with many of the top names in Jazz including Jazz Guitar great Kenny Burrell. In this interview, Bobby shares with us his philosophy, his musical relationships, his current trio and his early years coming up. A definite must read that is as exciting as Bobby Broom’s playing is. Enjoy!
This email interview was conducted May 23, 2008. Check out his website at www.bobbybroom.com
JGL: How old are you?
BB: I was born in 1961. I’m 47 years old.
JGL: What geographical area do you live in?
BB: I live literally a step north of Chicago in Evanston. I moved to Chicago at 24 years old, but was born, raised and began my career in New York City.
JGL: How long have you been playing guitar for and at what age did you first get into guitar playing?
BB: I started taking folk guitar lessons at age 12, then got a jazz guitar teacher the following year.
JGL: Were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz?
BB: There was plenty of music going on around the house via my parents’ records and the radio. Even as a very young boy, I was attracted to and very moved by most of what I heard. Pop radio was very diverse in the 1960s and ’70s and you could hear a wide variety of styles in the top 40 without the genre and marketing restrictions of today. So what I liked and what influenced me was so vast I can’t even begin to list everything.
I suspect that my taste became somewhat diverse because of this kind of conditioning. As a youngster, I just loved music. I wasn’t aware of styles and didn’t care about making those distinctions. When I was eleven years old I fell in love with the Charles Earland record “Black Talk” – the one where he plays “More Today Than Yesterday” (which he made a big hit again in the Black community) and “Aquarius”. I played that record every day. I never thought about it being a jazz record, it was simply moving music that I really enjoyed.
JGL: Can you recall that particular moment that first excited you about jazz guitar or jazz in general? The one that made you say “that’s what I want to do”!
BB: My jazz guitar epiphany happened when I heard a George Benson record called “Bad Benson”. I had become curious about jazz around that time after hearing ’70s jazz-crossover hits by Herbie Hancock and saxophonist, Grover Washington, Jr., so I wanted to know if there was a guitar player on the scene that was akin to those guys. I was directed to the Benson record by the salesman at my local record store. When I heard ‘Bad Benson’ I didn’t just hear jazz, but all music in the freedom and imagination of his playing. Everything came together for me then. Through his guitar I heard endless possibilities and I realized how expressive the guitar could be. At that point I decided that I wanted to be a jazz guitarist and to one day get the same exhilaration from my own experience that I was getting from listening to George.
JGL: What was your first guitar?
BB: It was a tenor guitar that my Dad brought home when I was eight years old. It wound up in the closet after I broke all of the strings. Then when I decided I wanted t take lessons he got me a nylon string and eventually a Univox solid-body electric.
JGL: What Guitar are you playing these days and what kind of gear are you using?
BB: I play the Höfner Jazzica exclusively and have for the past eight years. My amps of choice are Peavey Special 112s when I’m at home and I just started using JazzAmp heads by Henricksen for on the road.
JGL: Who were your influences on jazz guitar when you were beginning, and have they stayed the same or have they changed over the years?
BB: Benson introduced me to the art and from him I discovered Wes Montgomery. I was also very impressed with Pat Martino who was very popular in the ’70s. These were my main influences as far as jazz guitar goes. I also liked Jimmy Raney, Kenny Burrell, Barney Kessell, Jim Hall and Earl Klugh. However, more than just guitarists, the music of jazz and the important figures during my childhood (Miles, Trane, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, etc.) and all of their associates and branches was what really influenced me.
I became aware early on that the musical language of jazz transcended any particular instrument and was shared by all. I wanted to play jazz music and to play be able to play ideas like a saxophonist, trumpet, pianist, or anyone who could really play.
JGL: Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?
BB: My listening waxes and wanes. I just heard Earl Klugh’s “Naked Guitar”, his recent solo guitar record. That record is out of this world and I would rate it alongside Joe Pass’ “Virtuoso” in terms of the command of the true jazz idiom, technical execution, inventiveness and the integration of all of these into an organic feeling solo guitar presentation. Otherwise, I was just listening to some Jobim that was recommended to me and Miles’ “Doo Bop” record.
JGL: Who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist and why?
BB: I would have to say Wes Montgomery because of all that he brought to the art of jazz guitar. There were and are so many amazing players, but Wes had it all: technique, harmonic sophistication, a blues sensibility and an unwavering sense of time and ability to swing. He developed and perfected the use of octave and chord soloing to a point that has gone unmatched since. And, he also left us with 4 or 5 jazz standards and that should also help to solidify his name among those of jazz geniuses and legends.
The thing that is most meaningful to me about all this is that Wes Montgomery was a sensitive and deep feeling musician who played the guitar from his heart and soul and not his memory and fingers. To me there is a depth and a spirituality attached to everything he played, whether it was “Smoking at the Half Note” or “Bumpin’ on Sunset”. Whenever I go back and listen to him I can always hear all of the elements that make for musical greatness, without any of the ego-based additives.
JGL: You were playing Jazz at the relatively young age of 15 and while still in high school you were asked by sax legend Sonny Rollins to go on the road. That must have been an awesome experience even if you did have to turn it down at the time. What do you think it was that Sonny saw in you as a player and a person?
BB: Being 15 years old and being affirmed by a jazz legend was an experience that I can’t explain in words. It was something like a message that I was doing what I was supposed to do. I used to feel that maybe I was born in the wrong place and time because of the strength of the love that I felt for jazz. I thought I had missed the period to play with those greats that I mentioned earlier and to really be involved in jazz to the extent that I wanted to. So then the experience with Sonny happens and it’s like God or whatever you believe in saying, “You just practice and let me handle the details.”
As far as what Sonny saw, I’m not sure. But I think it was the sincerity of my desire. I really wanted to be a part of jazz and to have fun while doing so. Of course my extreme desire had manifested in a certain degree of proficiency. I mean I could play with him and not get lost, nervous, or fall apart – but that was about it. There wasn’t much more happening than that.
JGL: Your Bio describes you at one point as having been a teenage prodigy. How did you achieve such musical abilities at so young an age? What kind of material were you working on during your early development as a Jazz Guitarist and what kinds of pressure did you have to deal with to maintain that status?
BB: I was no prodigy. I was learning and developing. I could hear and play chord progressions and tunes and could solo a little bit, so if anything I was talented and I had a lot of potential. I felt I had all the time I needed to get it together. There was no pressure other than what I placed on myself to get better, but I think I tried to be reasonable and practical about that process. I practiced everyday, as much as I could – 3 or 4 hours I guess. I worked on basic skills – scales, arpeggios, chords – and playing tunes, memorizing melodies and chords and being able to solo on tunes. After I’d been listening to jazz for a year or so I started to recognize phrases that were idiomatic and I started trying to mimic these phrases to build my vocabulary so that I’d sound legit. That’s what the early years were like. I was focusing on getting the right things together so that I could get along in real playing situations. I guess that takes some insight, but it sure seemed like logical stuff to me at the time.
JGL: Was there a defining moment when you decided that Jazz Guitar would/could be your career path?
BB: Yes, it was when I had my jazz epiphany while hearing George Benson. I realized then that the guitar could actually be played in a way that was captivating and compelling to my imagination. At that point the decision was kind of made for me, I just kept practicing and following the course where it led.
JGL: You have played with a host of big-name Jazz Musicians such as Sonny Rollins, Stanley Turrentine, Charles Earland, Eric Alexander, Kenny Burrell and for a short period, Miles Davis amongst a slew of others I’m sure. At some point you must have been in awe to be playing alongside some of the “Royalty” of Jazz artists. What experiences did you walk away with from these situations and do you still keep in touch with these cats today, apart from Sonny who you are currently playing with?
BB: Well, some of these guys have moved on to other realms so we can”t talk, but sure, I’m in touch with quite a few of these people, they’re friends and colleagues. When I was young I guess I should have been in awe of people like Sonny or Al Haig, guys that had played with and knew Charlie Parker. A part of me did know that these were awesome experiences for me to be having. And yes, I guess I could have gotten hung up on the stature of these people, but for me it was different for the most part when I would play with them. I was not really nervous because they had asked me to be there and so I felt I was supposed to be. I had jobs to do – to play the best I could at the time and to learn all I could.
Back then I never looked at playing jazz from a sense of lack or any negative place like that. It was all about music, which is such a positive and joyful way of communicating and fellowshipping. I was always so happy to be included. So playing the best Bobby Broom I could at every opportunity was the only thing I could honestly do and that was sufficient – even for jazz royalty.
JGL: Speaking of Sonny, is it any different playing with him now than it was back in the ’80’s in terms of your own playing or his?
BB: Well of course it’s different now because I’ve matured as a player. I have much more to offer him now in terms of support and inspiration. It’s kind of like a master-pupil relationship that has developed over 30 years. It’s fascinating to hear what Sonny is playing now and how he’s evolved – what he’s added, changed, edited and deleted. It’s still such an inspiration and is thrilling to realize through him that the process of change of growth doesn’t have to end.
JGL: Could you talk a bit about your involvement in Kenny Burrell’s Jazz Guitar Band?
BB: I met Kenny in around 1985 or so when was asked to sit in with him when he appeared at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago. I made a favorable impression on him and the next time he came to town he hired me and another young, local jazz guitarist to join him in a group that was billed as “The Jazz Guitar Explosion”. So I guess that was a precursor to Kenny Burrell and The Jazz Guitar Band, which he formed in 1986.
For the Jazz Guitar Band he chose me and Rodney Jones to share the front line with him. We came together and rehearsed for a live recording at the Village Vanguard for the Blue Note Record label. I was 26 or 27 years old and Rodney was just in his early 30s. It was also significant for me personally to be playing alongside Rodney because he was somebody that I idolized when I was in my teens. He was a young guy (then in his early twenties) who was playing on the scene with Dizzy. Anyway, the Jazz Guitar Band released two live records from The Vanguard on Blue Note and did some touring, but otherwise wasn’t very much publicized or noticed. I wonder why that is?
It was certainly an extraordinary and magnanimous thing for a jazz elder to do for two up and comers – to give them that opportunity and that kind of endorsement in such a public way. It was a great experience that I will forever be grateful for.
JGL: Since we now know about the “high-end gigs”, what have been the “lesser” known gigs or situations you have done to make a living playing Jazz to “pay the bills”?
BB: Well let’s see… In 1993 I toured with British saxophone sensation Courtney Pine and in1997 I toured Europe replacing Pat Metheny in Kenny Garrett’s band. Oh, that’s not what you meant right? You mean weddings and corporate functions and things like that? Sure, I’ve done a fair share of “jobs” such as that over the years. I’ve been fortunate to have been able to be a musician my whole life and to have always been able to work. That in itself is a blessing. I also started teaching very early on when I was in my early twenties. Jackie McLean started me in the field of jazz education when he was the director of African American Music at the University of Hartford. He brought me in to teach master classes and encouraged me that teaching was something that I could and should do.
JGL: How difficult do you/did you find it making a living as a jazz guitar player, or have you found it to be relatively easy?
BB: No, it’s not an easy or normal thing to play jazz as a profession. But it was a mindset for me from the beginning – something that I wanted and believed I was supposed to do. So even when times were difficult I never freaked out so much that I thought about quitting or doing anything else.
JGL: Were your parent(s) and family members supportive of your musical career choice?
BB: My parents were nothing but supportive because they just wanted to facilitate my interests. They never had to tell me to practice and never told me to stop either. When I was 19 or 20 and was in college, my Dad encouraged me to major in Music Ed. To “have something to fall back on…” I reluctantly agreed, but wound up dropping out for many years to go on the road, which led to my first recording contract about a year later. I broke my parents’ hearts for me to quit school then, but they didn’t give me too much grief about it because it became apparent pretty quickly that maybe things could work out. I started traveling internationally at around that time and making records with people. I made an amends of sorts to my parents in 2006 when I got my masters degree in Jazz Pedagogy. They attended my graduation.
JGL: Apart from being a Master Guitarist you are also an accomplished educator and are currently teaching at the Vincentian DePaul University in Chicago. This begs the question, can Jazz be taught in a formal situation like a classroom or should the learning come from the bandstand and night-clubs like “back in the day”?
BB: That scenario from “back in the day” is essentially what institutions are attempting to recreate and perhaps replace with ensemble programs. I think the learning in these new laboratories has the potential to be as potent as the instructor is knowledgeable and inspirational and the students are eager to play.
Jazz, as any music, is a performing art. There are certain aspect of jazz knowledge and data that can be taught: history, theory, basic execution. But, there are also elements that cannot be easily transferred, from a performance standpoint, between teacher to student. Some of these might be talent, taste and sensitivity or proclivity to certain feelings that are essential to making jazz what it is. But not everyone is meant to be a high level jazz performer. We can still teach people to identify and appreciate elements that make great jazz and in so doing, perhaps we can preserve and advance the art.
JGL: Aside from your formal teaching, do you teach privately and if so, how does one go about studying with you? Is there a particular level of student you are looking for?
BB: Yes, I teach privately as my schedule permits. Students usually get in touch with me via my website. I don’t take on a lot of students and don’t usually take beginners because I just don’t have the time. In recent years I’ve taken on more high school age students who are pursuing jazz guitar toward college entry.
JGL: How do you approach improvisation? Is it based on the usual scale/chord relationships or are you coming at it using other concepts?
BB: Yes, chord to scale and arpeggio relationships are the theoretical basis of my jazz music making. These are the tools of construction that we use. However, that is a very simplistic description because, as you know, there is so much more involved in playing jazz and improvising than just hammering out scales. Every musician uses this basic system as a springboard toward their own personal method of processing to yield a greater understanding and ability to make music.
JGL: For the student of Jazz Guitar, what would you say is the most important thing to do when learning to improvise and play over changes?
BB: An aspiring jazz musician on any instrument should listen to records. The answer to how to improvise is on the recordings. After listening for a year or so, you should begin to be able to sing what these guys are playing – with the records, and eventually on your own. You should begin to be able to hear chord changes in your head and to construct your own jazz melodies. Once you can do that you know you’re on your way because the music is in your system. It’s been uploaded to your hard drive. Adding more info and being able to access the files with ease is the continuing life work of the jazz musician.
JGL: What is your practice routine like these days? Do you work on specific things or just play tunes?
BB: These days my practicing varies and isn’t routine, but right now I’m doing some chord work, always playing tunes and trying to add on to my vocabulary via the concepts and ideas that I’ve been developing over the years.
JGL: You have been both a leader and a sideman. Which do you prefer and what are the differences in roles that you bring to the table?
BB: As a leader, I set and control the programming and presentation. There are certain liberties and responsibilities that go along with this roll, but ultimately, as far as being a musician who has ideas about what I want my music and career to be, it’s the only game in town.
As far as musical experience is concerned, playing with like-minded musicians can be as joyous whether I’m a sideman or leader. When that realm is reached it doesn’t matter who the leader is really. The music is most important
Being a sideman has been particularly gratifying and edifying for me. As a jazz musician who appreciates the legacy of the art from the standpoint of a Black American, I’m thrilled to be included in that legacy because of having played with people like Stanley Turrentine, Charles Earland, Al Haig, Sonny, Miles, Kenny Garrett and people of that nature. I’ve been fortunate to come through the ranks so to speak by apprenticing in the bands of some of the elders who are and were the jazz greats.
JGL: You have been playing a weekly gig at Pete Miller’s Steakhouse in Evanston, Illinois for over ten years. How does the audience react to your status as an established artist with huge credentials? Are they just there to eat or do you find that they actually dig the music and the group and come to see you specifically?
BB: Well, on one hand there’s no cover charge and so that creates a sort of casual vibe about what’s being presented. Then that’s countered by the look and feel of the venue, which is very professional. The area that we play is kind of sectioned off and there’s a stage, sound system and lighting – but ultimately we’re in a steak house. However, wherever I’m playing there’s a certain performance air that I wish to bring – whether it’s Lincoln Center or Pete Miller’s. So, I’d guess that some customers that have no idea probably think either, “this guy is good” or, “who does he think he is?”
Years ago, it was interesting to see the jazz students from the various Chicago-land college programs coming out on a regular basis. I wasn’t used to that kind of attention being paid to my guitar playing with regularity on a local level. That kind of attendance helped to establish the room as a serious venue for jazz. And it’s always a heart-warming surprise when travelers visit because they have my recordings and know I’m there.
So over the years I’ve had to reconcile the obvious contradictions inherent in having that particular job. Some times are better than others of course. Not everyone will always familiar or care about what we’re doing, but that’s jazz in America. I try not to take it personally. I’ve been able to accomplish quite a bit as a result of having that gig.
JGL: How are you currently marketing yourself and your music? What technology are you using to get the word out about Bobby Broom?
BB: I got my first computer in 1999 right after I left Dr. John’s band. Since then, I’ve used the internet as a primary means of personal business communication and resource gathering. Fortunately, I’ve had some decent recording opportunities during this time as well, so the internet has worked in my favor as far as disseminating national publicity in reviews and things of that nature.
A couple of years ago I acquired an agent and a manager and that has taken a load off of me. Eventually, I hope I’ll return more fully to being a practicing musician rather than a managing one.
JGL: Do you find the business side of being a Jazz musician something that should be taught in music schools or should the playing be left to the player and the business side of things be left to managers and agents?
BB: There was a point in my career that I believed that I could be taught the business in school. When I returned to complete my undergrad degree in the mid-eighties I wanted to understand more about the business after having a record deal and not really knowing what was going on. I quickly realized that unless I planned to be the guy behind the desk, the music business program that I was enrolled in wasn’t for me.
Since then most of what I’ve learned comes from common sense, experience, understanding common business practice and how you and your situation fit’s into the equation in terms of self-worth. Business is not something that musicians usually want to do, but often we must do it in order to maintain and develop our careers.
JGL: In your Bio, you are referred to as being quite “self-critical”. Has that always been the case and do you find it to be a blessing or a curse?
BB: I think the self-critical mode has always been the case with me to some extent. When I was younger it was the inner voice that was a guide in my practicing and that propelled me toward something beyond mediocrity. I think it’s still basically the same thing – a desire toward something more.
It is both a blessing and a curse I think. A curse because it’s not an easy thing to have to deal with; and a blessing based on the response and feedback from people about my music and my playing.
JGL: Could you talk a bit about your current Trio as well as your Deep Blue Organ Trio? What’s the “secret” to working a successful Trio and how do you approach that particular format?
BB: The Bobby Broom Trio was first formed in 1991 or so. I decided that I needed a regular band so that I could define myself and musically via the development of a group sound and by composing for that group. We began modestly by playing regularly on Sunday nights for the door at a small club in Chicago. Our music and reputation began to develop from there.The group really has helped me in all of the ways that I thought it would and it satisfies the drive that I have that is purely about musical expression through the jazz guitar medium.
The Deep Blue Organ Trio began playing together in various configurations (with and without saxophone and/or percussion) in the early 1990s as well. From 1993 and ‘94 we held a regular Thursday night at Chicago’s Cotton club. Then in 1999, after a lot of gigs and musical maturation, we realized that we had something special to offer because of the unique relationship that we had cultivated over the years.
Both these groups are formats where I can express in different ways and in doing so, meet my own personal creative needs.
JGL: Your current book of tunes range from Standards to Be-Bop to re-workings of Pop tunes like the Beatles, “Can’t Buy Me Love”. How do you go about picking tunes and what, if any, are the harmonic limitations of playing these tunes in a Trio format?
BB: I basically choose tunes to play that allow me to express myself fully and honestly and those that relate to the groups’ sound and feeling. There are no more harmonic limitations to the “pop” tunes I play than there are to many other tunes in the jazz repertoire. That erroneous thinking comes from an assumption that there’s something simple and deficient about pop music. Actually, from the 1930s through the mid ‘70s pop music was memorable or catchy. As far as I can tell, the harmonic complexity of popular songs from the ‘30s and the ‘70s (up until vamp music with its repetitive harmonies came to the fore) are not that different
JGL: Has your impressions and experiences of being a Jazz Guitar player been what you had expected when you first decided to become a musician?
BB: I didn’t have any real expectations about what I’d experience in my career when I decided I wanted to be a musician. I was purely interested in things having to do with music and reaching a point of satisfaction about my playing.
I remember as a teen, after I’d become obsessed with jazz, feeling like I must have been born at the wrong time because I felt so strongly about wanting to be a part of what I heard and on the same level. I figured that there was no way that this was possible for someone my age. I guess that feeling was minimal compared to the desire I had and the thought and effort that I put toward reaching my goals or dreams.
JGL: If you could do one thing over again, what would that one thing be and why?
BB: I don’t think in these terms. For me it’s not real nor healthy. I feel that things are as they should be and everything has happened and will happen according to plan. I think my job is to make sure that I’m available and be ready to carry out my part. All things considered, things are working out well for me.
JGL: What does the future hold for Bobby Broom?
BB: Who knows? Let’s just hope that it continues to evolve and grow.
JGL: Any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar?
BB: You mean like: don’t do it? Really, playing music is something that a person is compelled to do beyond all reason. Music compels the musician and even then, there are no guarantees for success. This sounds grim, I know.
As a youngster my goal was to become a respected guitarist in my field. I said I didn’t want to be famous. Perhaps that was a disclaimer or what I thought was a noble attitude. Well, about ten years ago I had to revamp that visualization because a certain amount of fame is necessary to reach a level of success. And I’m not talking about having fancy cars, but just playing respectable venues and maintaining a career.
JGL: Have you ever had second thoughts about your choice to have music as a career and if so, what other career path do you think you would have followed had you not been a guitar player.
BB: No, I’ve never had a second thought about being a musician.
JGL: Apart from music, what else do you like to do for fun?
BB: When I’m not playing music I love hanging out with my wife, my daughter and my dogs. I’m a computer junkie and wannabe geek, so I spend a lot of time with that. I really like to travel, so my job is perfect – especially when my wife gets to go.
JGL: I’ve kept this question for last since every other question after it paled in comparison. In your Bio you state that Jazz is “…an American story, and a story of Black people in America. It’s a cultural thing for me and I don’t want to see that part of it overlooked.” With the rise of urban music such as the commercially ubiquitous music of Rap/Hip-Hop and Adult Contemporary middle of the road R&B, do you find that the cultural aspect of Jazz is waning amongst the black youth of America? And if so, how can one instill the importance of Jazz as a cultural institution not only amongst the African-American community but America at large?
BB: It is a sad phenomenon that the art of jazz is not more recognized as the cultural gift of the African-American to the world, because that’s what it is. Jazz should be celebrated as the national music of our country, but it will not be until some details about its place in our culture have been altered or removed. In the meantime, our society isn’t taught to be familiar with its greatest cultural accomplishment and the history that comprises its amazing story.
There’s a passage in Sidney Bechet’s autobiography, “Treat it Gentle”, where he talks about the change in black-music during the time period around emancipation. He explains how there was a certain feeling of uplift in this music that “wasn’t [exclusively] spirituals, the blues, or ragtime, etc., but all of these things together – each one trying to put one over on the other…” It is really powerful for me that out of such grave conditions something so glorious could be created and could evolve so brilliantly. Jazz thrived through the early 1900s and into the ‘20s, even as it was being ridiculed and vilified for it’s deep and unabashed feeling and decidedly African rhythms. And then after its first bout with capitalism in the 1930s, it arose again in the ‘40s and sailed high on its varied muses into the mid seventies.
Right now, the way that I champion the cultural legacy of jazz music is by playing it and talking as truthfully as reasonably possible about it. It’s hard to institutionalize art without shrouding it in dogma, but maybe it’s necessary and comes with the territory. Maybe that’s what it takes to preserve it.
JGL: Thank you Bobby for participating in jazzguitarlife.com. It is most appreciated and I wish you great success in your career and life.
BB: The best to you as well and thank you for recognizing me and having me appear here.
Filed Under: Interviews
About the Author: Lyle Robinson is the owner/creator/editor of Jazz Guitar Life, a popular web based publication focusing on the Jazz Guitar Community and related news.