Curtis Fuller hits the right Blue Note

by Mattie Kahn

Curtis Fuller didn’t storm the stage. He didn’t appear before the gathered audience demanding applause, nor did he crowd-surf. And yet as I took my seat last Monday in the rehearsal studio of the newly renamed Farkas Hall for "Blue Note Records, Then and Now, featuring guest artist Curtis Fuller," I knew that I was in the presence of a rock star.

Curtis Fuller was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1934, and grew up in a Jesuit orphanage after both of his parents died. By his own admission, his childhood was "a hard road." Officially, he came to music late—playing the baritone horn in high school, before switching to the trombone at age 16—but when asked about what drew him to jazz, Fuller conceded an upbringing unwittingly steeped in music. "My sister," said Fuller, "was a prodigy." The administration at the home in which they grew up was so convinced of her aptitude that she received weekly music lessons. But the orphanage lacked the funds to provide more than one ward with lessons, so each week, after his sister’s teacher left, Fuller would sneak into the practice room to mess around the keys. Moreover, Fuller, along with the rest of the home, went to see the New World Symphony every Saturday morning in Detroit—an opportunity that he wishes every child now could have. "It was disgusting; it was so perfect," he told, of listening to them play.

"Why jazz?" asked Tom Everett, the evening’s moderator and the director of Jazz Bands at Harvard. "Jazz gives you the freedom to think for yourself," Fuller answered immediately. Later, Fuller added, "When you’re playing music—it’s sort of God-like to me. You’re expressing your soul."

Expressing their souls alongside his were the many Harvard instrumentalists who came to play with Fuller during the open rehearsal that followed the talk. The extent to which the assembled group venerated Fuller for his talent and for his career was apparent, but what shone even brighter than Fuller’s illustrious reputation was his deep and abiding humility. He didn’t name-drop. Instead, he told stories whose characters were old friends like Elvin and Thad Jones, Benny Golson and John Coltrane. Settled further into his chair, hands folded across his lap, he did, however, smile boyishly as he recounted a particular interaction with Billie Holiday, who advised him to "always leave people wanting to hear more of you; learn to edit what you play."

As music was the evening’s theme (and variation), it was only fitting that Everett interspersed discussion with interludes from a few notable jazz compositions. Even to watch Fuller listen to music was a performance. When What is This Thing Called Love? (1957) played, every limb on Fuller’s body began to move in perfect time—head nodding, fingers tapping, legs bouncing to the beat of the chords. He was completely immersed in a way that made the music almost visible around him, like he was swimming in it. At the end of the evening, after many attendees paid tribute to his prolific career with their insightful and specific questions, Fuller, in a moment of rare, personal reflection, acknowledged only this: "People will know I came this way."

On Saturday, November 12 at 8pm, you can catch Curtis Fuller reprising his position on stage in the Harvard Jazz Band’s concert, Blue Note Records, Then and Now: The Hard Bop Legacy featuring Curtis Fuller in Harvard's Lowell Lecture Hall. Click here for more information and tickets.

[Caption: Curtis Fuller. Photo by Mark Olson.]

[Caption: Tom Everett, Director of Harvard Bands, and Curtis Fuller. Photo by Mark Olson.]

[Caption: Curtis Fuller rehearses with the Harvard Jazz Band. Photo by Mark Olson.]