Ask the ordinary Itzik or Ronit on the street to name the instrument they identify most with jazz, and the odds are they will go for the saxophone or drums or, possibly, the piano. The trombone would probably not rank too high. Still, there have been some sparkling trombonists in the jazz fraternity over the past century or so, and Curtis Fuller is definitely up there.
But 72-year-old Fuller - who will play in Tel Aviv next Friday as part of this year's Opera House Jazz Series - didn't choose the trombone willingly.
"My parents died when I was small, so I ended up in an orphanage in Detroit," he recalled when we met at the recent Jerusalem Jazz Festival. "I got the trombone because, when all the instruments were handed out, black kids got the ones the white kids didn't want."
You could say Fuller has made the most of his involuntary choice. Over the past half century he has mixed it, in the most lyrical of fashions, with most of the jazz greats - the likes of avant-garde titan saxophonist John Coltrane, bebop founding fathers pianist Bud Powell and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and legendary big band leader Count Basie, to name but a few. He has also put out dozens of recordings as leader, and contributed to many more as sideman across a wide range of genres. He was a major figure during the hard bop heyday of the 1950s, notably playing in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, and also enhanced the work of Miles Davis, saxophonist Yussef Lateef, and even the New York Philharmonic.
More than anything, you could say that Fuller has remained his own man. He is soft-spoken and maintains a healthy sense of proportion, but you get the feeling he has always known where he was at, despite having to deal with not a little adversity along the road.
"When I joined Blakey's band I used to stand straight as an arrow, like [seminal jazz trombonist] JJ [Johnson]. JJ didn't do any of that fancy stuff, but he played so beautifully. But then Blakey told me: 'I don't want any of that JJ thing; I want you to swing.' He wanted groovin'. I didn't like that but I did it."
Fuller's line toeing didn't last long.
"The funny thing is when [trumpeter] Freddie Hubbard joined the band he used to just stand and play straight, but later he started imitating me and doing all those showy things. I went back to JJ's style. You know the energy it took to keep up with Art's band, with [saxophonist] Wayne [Shorter] and Freddy! I told Freddie that if he didn't take it easy he'd burn himself out real fast. But, for me, Freddie will always be the greatest trumpet player."
Not all the challenges Fuller has had to deal with have been music related. His generation of African Americans often had to contend with social and political issues that impinged on their freedom.
"When I was in the army we were driving to a gig in Ohio," Fuller recalls. "When we crossed the state line I was told by a policeman to get in the trunk. And I used to steal into a white neighborhood in Detroit to jam with [saxophonist] Art Pepper. He was a great player. You could say I've had things to deal with."
With everything he's encountered, it's a wonder he's survived intact. "Maybe I've come through OK because I tend to keep to myself. People have come up to me after a show and said: 'We wanted to hear more of you.' But I'm not a crowd pleaser. I don't play things just for the audience. I'm telling my story through what I play. I don't have the flair.
The trombone can't do what the saxophone or trumpet can. Wayne [Shorter] gets 18 choruses out real fast - doo-do-de-do-doo. That means nothing to me. I started the [seminal hard bop combo] Jazztet. I named that band. I've played jazz for 50 years. That's a long time. I did six albums with John Coltrane, but people only talk about [big-selling Coltrane album] Blue Train. Maybe I chose the trombone because it suits who I am."
Curtis Fuller will perform with fellow Americans trumpeter Jim Rotondi, pianist Larry Willis, and Israelis bass player Gilad Abro and drummer Shay Zelman at the Tel Aviv Opera House tonight at 10.