Family, friends remember Dr. Bebop
BRATTLEBORO -- On the eve of his 80th birthday in 2007, jazz musician and mentor Howard Brofsky was a man aging beautifully and powerfully.
"I have the feeling that I'm playing better than ever," he told the Reformer. "Age is just a number. I feel like I've done a lot of interesting things in my life."
Brofsky, known universally as Dr. Bebop, continued to teach and play jazz right up to the end of his interesting life. He died Oct. 17 at age 86, surrounded by family and friends, and in peace and comfort, at home in Brooklyn, N.Y.
A masterful jazz improviser with a gift for crafting melodies on trumpet, cornet and mellophone, Brofsky is being remembered even more as a man whose greatest gifts lay in the important arts of human decency, love and kindness.
"He was just such a brilliant person, and he was a goodhearted guy. He was really accepting of all kinds of people," said his longtime friend, Sherm Fox, of Brattleboro. "Jesus ... I'll miss him."
"He was so brilliant but so modest. There was no arrogance in Howard. There was just humility and humanity," said Brofsky's widow Robin Westen, who expressed her appreciation for the hundreds of calls, e-mails and Facebook messages that have come from folks young and old and from all corners of the globe offering condolences and expressions of gratitude for the life he led.
"We have lost a great musician and friend. ... I am truly saddened by his passing, but it gives me a bit of comfort to know how many people both young and old he touched with his music," wrote legendary jazz vocalist and teacher Sheila Jordan. "He kept jazz alive, and I will miss him deeply. I know you're up there playing with Bird and the Cats, Howard."
Though he was born and died in New York, Brofsky had deep ties to the Brattleboro area. His first came to Vermont to visit his friend Attila Zoller, who had founded the Vermont Jazz Center. In 1992, Brofsky and Westen moved to the area, and Brofsky spent nearly two decades as the president of the Vermont Jazz Center Board of Directors. He was a steadying influence who helped the VJC transition from Zoller to current Director Eugene Uman and guided its growth as an institution.
"Howard has always been the kind of patriarch of the Vermont Jazz Center. ... There's a certain sense of dignity of having someone like him at the helm," said Uman, who enjoyed a close, 30-year friendship with Brofsky and his family. "He was a sweet man. ... He was brilliant, and he was also kind and accepting of who you are. He was somebody who really cared about what was going on in your life."
Brofsky touched many lives during his lifetime. He was the primary architect of the jazz master's program at Queens College, where he was professor emeritus, and was still teaching there 10 days prior to his death. He also continued to play a regular gig at DUMBO at 68 Jay Street, where he relished the chance to play with young students a quarter of his age, as well as seasoned professionals.
A lifelong teacher, Brofsky earned his MA and PhD from New York University in Italian classical music and taught at the University of Chicago, University of British Columbia, Boston University and the University of Oslo. He received Fulbright Awards to study and teach in France (1953) and Italy (1972). He co-authored a still widely used textbook "The Art of Listening: Developing Musical Perception."
"He had a desire to pass this music on. It was like his mission, our mission. If we didn't do it, who would?" said legendary saxophonist and NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Heath, a close friend who acknowledges a deep debt of gratitude Brofsky -- it was Dr. Bebop who helped secure a teaching position at Queens College for Heath.
"My whole life changed," said Heath, who enjoyed teaching and also recharged creatively during that time, creating many big band arrangements and revitalizing a career that still has him touring all over the world. "All of these things I attribute to Howard giving me that push.
"He's a larger-than-life person. It's deep the way I feel about Howard Brofsky," said Heath. "It's like any really serious brother, and to lose a brother is really hard. ... But we've got what he did for us."
Born on May 2, 1927, Brofsky studied trumpet with Nat Prager of the New York Philharmonic and composition with Natalie Boulanger in Paris. As a young man, his musical life was informed by the beboppers who revolutionized jazz in the late 1940s and ‘50s. He remained a champion of bebop and an accomplished player.
"His primary gift as a player was the ability to create spontaneous melodies that have a beautiful shape and are expressive," said Uman. "He was one of the best improvisers I ever heard."
As he started his career in academia and devoted his life to his family, Brofsky put away his horn and distanced himself from the darker elements of the jazz scene -- a friend of his had died of an overdose.
After two decades, the jazz world beckoned him back. He picked up his horn and never looked back. "I realized that I was missing something that is very deep and meaningful, and that is jazz. It was like going back to a first love," Brofsky told the Reformer in a 2007 interview.
Divorced by then, Brofsky was playing in a club in New York when Westen walked in and heard him play.
"I fell in love with him first with his playing. ... It was as if my heart few out of my chest. Our eyes met, and we were in love," Westen said. "He was the love of my life."
They married and had a son, Gabriel, when Brofsky was 62. He had two children from his first marriage, a son, Alex, and a daughter, Natasha. Both of them are musicians. Alex Brofsky is a French horn player who has performed at the Vermont Jazz Center; Natasha Brofsky is a classical cellist with the Peabody Trio and comes up every summer to teach at the Yellow Barn Music School and Festival in Putney.
Among his other accomplishments, Brofsky was instrumental in the establishment of the Louis Armstrong House and Archives in Queens, N.Y.
"I had to convince (people) that this was really a national treasure with precious archives. Now it's open to the public as a museum. I'm proud of having been a part of that," he said in 2007.
He also performed with many jazz greats, including Dexter Gordon, David Amram, Antonio Hart, Larry Rivers, Attila Zoller and many others.
There will be a memorial concert for Brofsky at DUMBO at 68 Jay Street in Brooklyn, this Sunday, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Queens College is putting together plans for a memorial event sometime in November, according to Heath. Also, the Vermont Jazz Center will be dedicating a concert to him on April 19.
Donations in Brofsky's memory can be made to the Vermont Jazz Center scholarship fund. For details, visit www.vtjazz.org.
Jon Potter can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 149.
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