Tina is certainly an unusual name for a man. But 50 years ago, in a world including an Ornette and a Thelonious, it didn’t seem all that strange. What mattered was the way Tina Brooks — born Harold, but rechristened with a corruption of Teenie, a childhood nickname — played the tenor saxophone.
Born in North Carolina in 1932, at the age of 12 he moved with his family to New York, where he studied music and took his first gigs with R&B bands in the early 1950s. Subsequently he became one of the many gifted jazz musicians whose lives were blighted, either through early death or prolonged inactivity, by the heroin plague of the post-war years. He died in obscurity in 1974, after more than a decade of silence.
The years of notable activity were brief. The trumpeter Little Benny Harris recommended him to Alfred Lion, Blue Note’s co-founder, and in 1958 he took part in his first session for the label, Jimmy Smith’s The Sermon. Sessions as a sideman with Kenny Burrell, Jackie McLean and Freddie Hubbard would follow. Of his own four Blue Note albums, only one — True Blue — was issued during his lifetime. The others — Minor Move, Back to the Tracks and The Waiting Game — were put on the shelf, for reasons about which we can only speculate. They appeared long after his death, when it had become apparent that a coterie of fans cherished his special qualities.
All those albums are now available together on a two-CD package called Tina Brooks Quintet: The Complete Recordings (Master Takes), released on the Phono label, one of those companies shrewdly taking advantage of music falling out of copyright. To say it represents a bargain is an understatement, and since none of the musicians involved is still alive, I don’t suppose anyone is going to suffer financial duress as a result.
Brooks was a middleweight tenorist, like Hank Mobley or Oliver Nelson, with the fluid inventiveness of the former and the graceful balance of the latter. In terms of substance, his improvising was exceptionally creative. Every solo contained something worth hearing. And, within the hard bop idiom, he was a composer of the highest quality: listen to “Street Singer”, which has the graceful melodic shapes associated with Benny Golson (and is an interloper, being borrowed from the McLean session, in which the quintet became a sextet).
The sidemen chosen for these albums form a roll-call of Blue Note favourites. The trumpeters: Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Blue Mitchell and Johnny Coles. The pianists: Sonny Clark, Duke Jordan and Kenny Drew. The bassists: Doug Watkins, Sam Jones, Paul Chambers and Wilbur Ware. The drummers: Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones and Art Taylor, who never sounded better in his life, as you can hear on “Street Singer”.
I know of only one piece of film featuring Brooks: a DVD of Ray Charles in São Paulo in 1963 titled O Gênio: Live in Brazil. issued by Warner Music Vision in 2004. He’s in the reed section alongside the altoists Danny Turner and Geezil Minerve, his fellow tenorist Fathead Newman and the baritone-player Hog Cooper. Newman, the band’s music director, gets most of the solo space, but on Quincy Jones’s “Birth of a Band” he’s joined by Brooks, with whom he trades choruses and fours. Clearly new to the band, Brooks appears unsure of the routine, and his more oblique style is somewhat overshadowed by Newman’s robust bluesiness, but you could just about close your eyes and know it’s him. See it here.
I’ve always thought that if I could put together a dream quintet of musicians who fell victim to the infernal plague, he’d be there alongside Dupree Bolton, Dick Twardzik, Albert Stinson and Frank Butler. What a band that would have been. But his own four albums form an imperishable legacy, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.
* One of Tina Brooks’s few pieces of certified good luck was to have found himself in front of the lens of the great Roy DeCarava at the Blue Morocco club in the Bronx one night in 1956, when he shared the stage with Benny Harris. I’ve used one of DeCarava’s shots from that evening at the top of this piece; it’s taken from the Mosaic vinyl box set of complete quintet recordings, compiled by Michael Cuscuna and released 30 years ago this month. If you don’t know DeCarava’s work, look for The Sound I Saw, his classic essay on the jazz life. He put it together in 1962, but had to wait until 2001 — eight years before his death at the age of 89 — to see it published, thanks to the good offices of the Phaidon Press. Here, if you’re interested, is the obituary I wrote for the Guardian.