Unlike some jazz musicians who complain about their lot, Brooks has put his money where his mouth is. An exciting, free outdoor jazz series debuts in New Brunswick on Wednesday, September 7, with Cecil Brooks III, one of the champions of traditional jazz.
This summer, he celebrated the second anniversary of his relatively new club, Cecil’s Jazz Club and Restaurant located on Valley Road in West Orange. The road has not been easy, Brooks says in a phone interview from the club one recent afternoon. "It’s not a monetary move, it’s an artistic and a quality-of-life endeavor," Brooks says of his decision to open his own club so close to Trumpets, another jazz venue in Montclair that hosts nationally known musicians.
"In my time in the jazz world," says Brooks, the son of Pittsburgh jazz drummer Cecil Brooks Jr., "there were always a lot of expectations from a musicians’ standpoint about what we’re owed. What I’ve learned over the years, is it’s not what jazz can do for you, it’s what you can do jazz. Jazz needs life support, and if everyone came together and tried to do what they could for this art form and not try to take from it what they can, everyone can make a go of it."
Too many jazz artists, he argues, "are just trying to make a name for themselves and extract what they can from this thing, to become famous, when in reality, the musicians they are trying to emulate often died broke."
In his Jazz in the City kick-off on September 7 drummer Brooks will be accompanied by Kyle Koehler on Hammond B-3 organ; Anthony Nelson, tenor saxophone; Ted Chub, trumpet; and Irwin Hall on alto saxophone.
Vocalist Roseanna Vitro, who lives in the Martinsville section of Bridgewater Township, performs with her trio, backed by South Orange tenor saxophonist Donald Braden’s quartet on September 14. Ralph Bowen, based in Piscataway and an accomplished tenor saxophonist, leads the Rutgers Jazz Ensemble on September 21, while West Coast flutist Holly Hoffman and pianist Mike Wofford perform with their quartet, including New York drummer Victor Lewis, on September 28.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, Brooks, 44, says he was deeply influenced and moved by the soul jazz stylings of the great jazz organ players, many of whom played blues-based compositions accompanied by saxophone and drums. Brooks’ organ-based band has been together for 10 years in various groupings.
Brooks says: "I happen to be a big fan of the organ sound. My father was a drummer, and he played in an organ trio around Pittsburgh. When I was young, I got exposed to jazz every time Philly Jo Jones, Art Blakey, or Max Roach stopped by the house. I was raised in a jazz environment, and my grandfather was a classical pianist. Later, I got a chance to go out on the road and record with people like (organists) Brother Jack McDuff and (Richard) "Groove" Holmes.
"In those days (the 1960s and early ’70s), if it wasn’t for these organ groups on the circuit, a lot of people would not have become jazz fans," Brooks says. "These bands went into the individual neighborhoods and made people into jazz fans."
Even though he leads an organ trio from his place at the drum kit, Brooks says, "the root of my groups is in the horn line. I’m a big fan of the horn line, so my group doesn’t operate the way a traditional organ group would operate. We use the power and drive of the organ but we take as many challenges as the mainstream jazz quintet. So we don’t have your classic organ sound; it’s all in the arrangements of the tunes."
To be sure, Brooks and his CBIII Band are a blues and groove-driven quintet. His releases include "For Those Who Love To Groove" and "Live at Sweet Basil’s" on Savant Records. His next release, he says, will be a live recording from Cecil’s Jazz Club that will also offer a DVD in the same package. Brooks has produced or played on more than 300 recordings, and was the drummer for Bill Cosby’s long-running TV show.
His connection with Cosby proved helpful, as the comedian later came into Cecil’s Jazz Club for completely sold-out shows last fall, his first performance in a small venue since the early 1970s. George Benson also performed at the club last fall.
"The musicians have been just fantastic and the informed listener and jazz fans have been fantastic," Brooks says of the success of his club, which was featured on an ABC News "Nightline" broadcast last year. Turns out New Jersey-raised "Nightline" correspondent, Dave Marash, who went to graduate school at Rutgers College and did a stint years ago at WCTC-AM in New Brunswick, lives in the West Orange-Montclair area. Marash also happens to be a big jazz fan.
Despite all the publicity surrounding the opening and continued success of Cecil’s Jazz Club and Restaurant, Brooks admits: "If it wasn’t for Bill Cosby, I probably wouldn’t be open today."
Of Marash, he says: "He came to the club, fell in love with it, and he always said, ‘Whatever I can do to help you, let me know.’ But he found an angle and got us on ‘Nightline!’ It was an unbelievable amount of publicity, and Nat Hentoff came out with a huge article in he Wall Street Journal about us, too, saying Cecil’s reminded him of the small jazz clubs of his youth."
But the reality, with jazz music, is that in spite of all the publicity, it’s still been a struggle to keep the club open, Brooks says. "We have a grand piano, a B-3 organ, and it’s every bit comparative with the Blue Note. We have a great menu and great wine list and we have parking. If you really want to do it, you do it right. It’s an extremely expensive endeavor, and it’s not the party I thought it was going to be, so for the people who really do support this music, my heart goes out to them."
People attending the opening Jazz in the City concert by Brooks and his CB III Band on September 7 can expect some screaming, blues-based organ solos backed by horns and Brooks’ carefully crafted drumming technique. Brooks says: "The best way to describe what we do is blues, R&B, swing and contemporary stylings. We take some popular tunes and put them into a Charles Earland driving Hammond B-3 vein. It’s grooving music. Jazz is a performance, and so at every show, we try to engage people. Some kinds of jazz can alienate people, and we try not to do that."
Jazz in the City Series, Wednesdays, September 7, 14, 21, and 28, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., outside in front of the State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Free. 732-246-7469.
September 7: Cecil Brooks III and CB III Band
September 14: Roseanna Vitro Trio with Don Braden
September 21: Rutgers Jazz Ensemble with Ralph Bowen
September 28: Holly Hoffman/Mike Wofford Quartet with Victor Lewis