Preview: Ron Brooks Trio+ Remembers CJQ & More
Jazz bassist Ron Brooks has held many roles as bandleader and sideman. Among them are working with famed pianists Bob James and Stanley Cowell and serving as a founding member of the legendary Contemporary Jazz Quartet/Quintet (CJQ), the Latin jazz band Mixed Bag, and of course many versions of the Ron Brooks Trio. As the owner and operator of the late lamented Bird of Paradise nightclub, Brooks performed nearly every night in Ann Arbor for over four decades.
Brooks’ performance schedule since the Bird closed its doors in 2004 has been reduced to select gigs. He spends his daytime hours as a mediator for a Jackson, MI dispute resolution center - as he has most of his adult life. But jazz fans who know him as "The Mayor" will have an opportunity to hear both the Brooks trio and a recreation of CJQ in a single performance at the Kerrytown Concert House. This is a repeat of an historic show at the recent Detroit Jazz Festival (DJF) in tribute to CJQ and DJF’s founding father, pianist/composer Kenn Cox. It will also feature the music of Brooks’ partner, Eddie Russ, along with Larry Nozero in Mixed Bag.
Beyond CJQ, Brooks is the founder and President Emeritus of the Southeastern Michigan Jazz Association. He's worked with arts and philanthropic organizations including The Jazz Alliance of Michigan (JAM). He's been one of the most prominent African-American business persons in Washtenaw County. And he's a prolific performer in his own right, backing many major jazz performers coming through town.
Some of those artists have been Tommy Flanagan, Frank Morgan, Diana Krall, David “Fathead” Newman, Shirley Horn, Kenny Burrell, Mark Murphy, Betty Carter, Sonny Stitt; and countless others, including the greater contingent of Detroit jazz players. Brooks also has the distinction of playing with the legendary Eric Dolphy prior to his untimely death in the early 1960s.
The 2016 Brooks 3 + 2 combo will include saxophonist/flutist Vincent Bowens and trumpeter Rayse Biggs, two of the more prominent Detroit based musicians. With the passing of Leon Henderson (brother of the renowned saxophonist Joe Henderson) and the iconic trumpeter Charles Moore from the CJQ, Bowens and Biggs are two of Detroit’s more capable interpreters of contemporary regional jazz.
Kenn Cox's parts will be taken by pianist Gary Schunk, while drummer Djallo Djakate Kieta has the unenviable duty of taking over for two CJQ drummers who played side-by-side - the late Bud Spangler and West Coast transplant Danny Spencer. They will play material from the recently reissued Blue Note album Introducing Kenn Cox And The Contemporary Jazz Quintet, the landmark recording that stands alongside the Miles Davis epic Bitches Brew as one of the pivotal bridge recordings between the modern acoustic mainstream and jazz rock fusion movements.
In a recent interview, Brooks remembers all the places he played over six decades - most of which are long gone. They include Mackinac Jack's; the original Canterbury House, when it was on Maynard Street; the Loma Linda; the Del Rio; The Towne Bar; Mr. Flood's Party; the Old Town Tavern; the Golden Falcon; Schwaben Hall; and the People's Ballroom. He also recalls the 1972 Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival at Otis Spann Memorial field next to Huron High School where he played with the CJQ+.
Brooks also played The Earle; the top floor Sandalwood Lounge with Mixed Bag every Sunday night; the lobby of the Ann Arbor Inn; of course The Bird; as well as more recently, The Raven's Club and Bigalora on Washtenaw Avenue.
Brooks recalls the origin of "The Mayor" moniker, bestowed upon him by the late Marcus Belgrave. “When there was the political challenge or coup of getting a liquor license,” Brooks reminisces, “during a time when they were based on the repopulation of Ann Arbor and only seven new licenses came up, I was one of several people to apply. Larry Hunter was helpful on the City Council - he was a good guy - and I was the last to get a license as there were no other minorities who had them. Marcus made a comment like, ‘Well, you're like The Mayor,’ and it stuck."
Brooks addressed why now is the right time to bring the music of Cox and Russ to the forefront. “Stanley Cowell from Toledo and Danny Spencer were my roommates,” said Brooks, “Pianists Mike Lang or Dr. Tim Tomke, drummers Bob ‘Cleve’ Pozar and Bob Elliott were there in the early days, too. We were trying to find places to demonstrate what the music was and how valuable it would be in the community. Bob James left Ann Arbor after we won the Notre Dame Intercollegiate Jazz Festival, followed by the forming of CJQ.”
Fast forwarding some fifty years later, Brooks added, “I was approached by the Detroit Jazz Festival as a surviving member of CJQ, so we put it together and pulled out a few of Kenny's old tunes and I thought it was a good idea to keep the band going if I could.
“It’s about time. The charts are sprinkled all around - [longtime RB3 drummer] George Davidson had some, [Mixed Bag percussionist] Dave Koether had some from Eddie, and the music was accessible. Barbara Cox [Kenny's widow] was very cooperative. Vincent and Rayse were aware and into it, so I was encouraged to commemorate Kenny's and Eddie's music.
“The experiences I've had were wonderful for me,” concluded Brooks. “I owe so much to music - my life and my success - to the advent of being around and exposed to these musicians who helped in my personal growth. I miss the people the most, but the quality of the music especially at The Bird was so high. What flashes in my mind was the night we had Dizzy Gillespie in town and there were two or three hundred people off the street looking through the window at his trumpet bent up in the air. That vision comes back to me often."
Michael G. Nastos is known as a veteran radio broadcaster, local, national and international music journalist, and event promoter/producer. He is a former music director and current super sub on 88.3 WCBN-FM Ann Arbor, founding member of SEMJA, the Southeastern Michigan Jazz Association, Board of Directors member of the Michigan Jazz Festival, votes in the annual Detroit Music Awards and Down Beat Magazine, NPR Music and El Intruso Critics Polls, and writes monthly for Hot House Magazine in New York City.
The Ron Brooks 3 + 2 play The Kerrytown Concert House, 415 N. Fourth Avenue this Friday, November 18 at 8 pm. For more information call (734) 769-2999 or visit http://kerrytownconcerthouse.com. They also appear at Schoolcraft College in Livonia for a SEMJA benefit at 3 pm on Sunday, November 20.