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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Cummings: Brofsky Remembrance

Howard Brofsky was an icon, a legend, a jazz pioneer; a Brooklyn-born trumpeter who moved to Vermont 20 years ago. He lived down the road from us in a ramshackle red farmhouse. Friends called him Howie. We’d see him on neighborhood walkabouts; sometimes we’d drop off a casserole or my husband would help out in other ways – like getting into crawl spaces when Howie no longer could. There was always live jazz at the Brofsky’s house; good food, wine, and children underfoot. My three children adored him, as a grandfather figure, yes, but also as a mentor in music and in life.

When my older son began to play jazz piano, Howie took an interest and encouraged Sam to study at the Vermont Jazz Center. Sam played in the all-state jazz band – including when they opened for Wayne Shorter at the Flynn Theater in Burlington. Howie always made time for young people. He’d drop everything to listen to their stories. He taught and played jazz right up until his quiet death last October.

Howie is survived by his wife, Robin Westen, his children and grandchildren; and a legacy in his name at Queens College. Many friends gathered at the 68 Jay Street Bar in Brooklyn for a tribute, but the best memory for me, is Howie at his 86th birthday party last May, jamming at that same venue - still vibrant, teaching, and loved by so many.

Just recently, I attended another tribute to this late, great jazz master at the Vermont Jazz Center. It was a celebration of his life with musicians coming to Brattleboro from all over the world to play music and remember. Howie’s wife, Robin, told the audience that near the end her husband had advised her to “get it right” and his son, Gabriel Sky Westen, spoke about how close he and his father had become in Howie’s final days. Among the many jazz songs — both classics and some composed by Howie himself — there was one that made this listener, neighbor, and family friend, really feel his presence. Granddaughter, Cordelia Tapping, sang Johnny Green’s “Body and Soul,” accompanied by pianist, Eugene Uman, director of the Vermont Jazz Center, with Howie’s older son, Alex Brofsky, on horn. And I thought that Cordelia, Eugene and Alex, “got it right,” as did the rest of the musicians throughout the evening. Howie wasn’t with us in body any more, but he was still with us in soul.

A few years ago, the Brofskys sold the old farmhouse and moved back to Brooklyn. When they did, our family was the fortunate recipient of a few dozen vinyl records that had belonged to Howie. So now, on quiet afternoons at home, I'll put one of his records on to play the old fashioned way — say something from Duke Ellington — and sense his presence once again.

Dede Cummings, a writer who attended Middlebury College, lives in Brattleboro where she makes books and represents other authors.
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