Longevity's the key for local institution — the Ron Brooks Trio
By Jim Kane
If there was an award for longevity in playing jazz in Ann Arbor, it would probably go to Ron Brooks, a local musical institution who has left his mark on the community in more ways than one.
Blown in from the Windy City, the bassist-vocalist has been sharing his particular brand of jazz with concertgoers and nightclub patrons here for more than two decades.
There are few places in town where Brooks hasn’t performed. For the past couple of years, he and his trio have been pouring forth the soft, relaxing sounds which have been blending with the chatter and clatter of diners and their dishes at The Earle on W. Washington Street on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings.
The present trio, together for two years, includes Kevin O’Connell on piano and Larry Bell on drums. O’Connell, a Grand Rapids product who is a University of Michigan senior majoring in electrical engineering, has been performing with Brooks for five years. Bell, from Lansing, used to keep the beat in the Glenn Miller Orchestra.
Besides playing at The Earle, the trio has also gigged at the Ann Arbor Inn downtown. It also appears at other nightspots in the Ann Arbor-Detroit area and occasionally picks up a concert date.
Last September, the trio performed at the Montreux International Jazz Festival in Detroit where it may possibly perform again this year.
The short, athletic-looking Brooks still tries to stay in shape, as he did when he captained the Eastern Michigan University wrestling team. A student there in the late 50s and early 60s, he received his bachelor’s degree in speech and physical education. Soon thereafter he enrolled at the U-M where he earned a degree in counseling.
During his college days, he wanted to become a jazz vocalist. However, his singing career never got off the ground because of a lack of demand for his art. Instead the bass — not his voice — became the principal instrument of his musical expression.
A self-taught musician, the personable Brooks says his early influence came from Ray Brown, then bassist with the Oscar Peterson Trio. Brooks’ style, then and now, is still rooted in bebop. He considers himself a jazz musician although he can also turn out a mean rock or blues lick on both acoustic and electric bass.
As a member of the Bob James Trio in the early 1960s, the group walked off with top honors at the Fourth Annual Notre Dame Intercollegiate Jazz Festival. The musicians in addition to Brooks, also U-M students then, were James on piano, a successful, pianist-composer-arranger who runs his own record label, and Bob Pozar on drums. Each musician was also honored for being the best individual soloist on his respective instrument during the competition. The trio then went on to wax a recording, “Bold Conceptions,” which appeared on the Mercury label, one of a dozen recordings Brooks has contributed to through the years.
Meanwhile, he has played with more than a dozen bands including the Contemporary Jazz Quintet, Mixed Bag, the George Overstreet Quartet and the Rick Burgess Quartet. He has also fronted his own trios for many years as well. A few jazz notables he has performed with have included Alice Coltrane, keyboardist; Sonny Stitt, saxophonist; Stanley Cowell, pianist and Terry Gibbs, vibra harpist. Cowell was a member of the Ron Brooks Trio in Ann Arbor during the mid 60s.
Despite his busy musical activity. Brooks says he is not a full-time musician. For the past two years, he has been executive director and a counselor at a private clinic called the Ann Arbor Institute Inc., which treats people with psychological and behavior problems.
Playing for a long time is not a matter of survival to him. Instead, he considers his longevity in performing as an extension of the environment.
“I don’t see playing as a job. I consider it as a vehicle for personal growth and expression. The human experience for me is expression and listening.”
As he slipped into a bittersweet rendition of the song, “No Tears," it became apparent that Ron Brooks also has no regrets about his life or his music as he and the environment became one.
Ron on bass, Larry Bell on drums, Kevin O'Connell on piano.
NEWS PHOTO BY LARRY E. WRIGHT
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