Curtis Fuller, pioneering jazz trombonist, dies at 88

Curtis Fuller, one of the most influential trombonists in jazz whose career spanned nearly 70 years, has died. He was 88.

One of the forefathers of the jazz trombone, Fuller was a key part of classic jazz recordings with John Coltrane, Count Basie, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and many others. In addition to his career-defining work as a sideman, Fuller recorded more than two dozen albums as a leader between 1957 and 2018.

A trombonist with a deep, rich tone, Fuller was steeped in bebop and took the instrument’s technique to a new level. His ability to play fast, intricate lines and solos on what had traditionally been seen as the unwieldy slide trombone set him apart from everyone else and opened up a world of possibilities.

JAZZ.FM91 host John Devenish has written that Fuller’s playing was “inventive, wry and articulate,” with a tone that was “expressive and deeply rich.”

His death on May 8 was confirmed by his daughter, Mary Fuller. The cause of death was not disclosed.

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Born in Detroit on Dec. 15, 1932, Fuller was the son of Jamaican immigrants but grew up in an orphanage after his parents’ death when he was a child. When one of the nuns brought him to see Illinois Jacquet in concert, Fuller was inspired by trombonist J. J. Johnson and developed an early passion for jazz. He eventually took up the trombone as a teenager and studied with Johnson and Elmer James.

Fuller served in the U.S. Army from 1953 to 1955 during the Korean War, where he played in a band with Paul Chambers and brothers Cannonball and Nat Adderley. Upon his return, he moved to New York, where he began playing with Yusef Lateef’s quintet and recorded his first sessions as a leader with Prestige Records. During a gig with Miles Davis, he was discovered by Blue Note executive Alfred Lion. By 1958, Fuller had served as a sideman on Sonny Clark’s recordings Dial “S” for Sonny and Sonny’s Crib and John Coltrane’s highly acclaimed album Blue Train, setting the stage for a lucrative recording career that included work on albums led by Bud Powell, Jimmy Smith, Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, Joe Henderson and more.

Fuller joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1961 and remained with the band until 1965. In the late ’60s, he was a part of Dizzy Gillespie’s band and toured with Count Basie.

Fuller was granted an honorary doctorate of music from Berklee College of Music in 1999, and he was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2007. He served as a faculty member of the New York State Summer School of the Arts’ School of Jazz Studies. With an abiding love for the music, Fuller continued to perform and record until only a few years before his death.