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

Howard "Dr. Bebop" Brofsky Remembered For Contribution To Vt. And National Jazz Scene

Vermont Jazz Center
Brofsky at his last gig, at J Street Bar on Sept. 29th, 2013

Jazz lovers will gather in New York Sunday celebrate the life of trumpeter and cornetist Howard Brofsky. The well-known jazzman and music educator died last week in Brooklyn at the age of 86.

Brofsky also had strong ties to Vermont. He lived for many years in Brattleboro, and was a guiding force behind the Vermont Jazz Center.

Brofsky earned the nickname “Dr. Bebop” in the late 1940s and early 50s at the outset of the Bebop era in New York.

Brofsky was a student at New York University, where he earned his doctorate degree in 18th Century Italian music. But he spent his nights following the great jazz innovator Charlie Parker from club to club.

Eugene Uman directs the Vermont Jazz Center in Brattleboro. He says Brofsky studied Parker’s solos and learned to play them.

“And then he would incorporate those ideas into his own improvisations,” Uman says. “ So he was really somebody there at the beginning of the evolution of the bebop movement.”

Brofsky was both a working musician and an educator. He’s credited as ‘the primary architect’ of the highly regarded masters program in jazz at Queens College in New York.

Uman says Brofsky recruited working jazz musicians to teach in the program he helped found.

“And it was such an important thing that Howard had that idea to bring in  the people who were actually in the trenches, who really knew the music from the bottom up’ Uman says. “It was a very prescient idea that he had.”

Uman studied jazz at Queens College at Brofsky’s urging after the two met at a jam session in White River Junction.

He counts himself as one of many beneficiaries of Brofsky’s kindness and his passion for sharing the music he loved.

Brofsky first came to Vermont in the 1970s  to visit Atilla Zoller, the Hungarian jazz guitarist. Zoller had a house in Townshend where he invited young musicians for jam sessions and eventually a summer workshop.

Brofsky helped Zoller develop a curriculum for what became the Vermont Jazz Center. He served for many years as the center’s president.

In 1992 Brofsky retired from teaching and moved to Brattleboro full time with his wife Robin Westen and their son Gabe.

Westen says it wasn’t for the wildlife.

“To be quite honest,” she says, “Howard was not a nature boy. Growing up in New York, he was actually a little freaked out by nature. But he loved the people and the community in Vermont.”

(Keese) Westen met Brofsky in a club in Greenwich Village where he was playing. She says she heard his music and she fell in love.

“And I thought, ‘This guy’s way too old for me,’” Westen recalls. “ But it didn’t matter. I was so in love with his sound and then when he got off the stage, his energy, you know. He’s such a beautiful person.”

The couple moved back to New York several years ago. Brofsky returned to teaching as an adjunct professor.  Despite failing health, Westen says, he taught a three-hour class ten days before he died.

Through his final weeks, Brofsky also played  cornet every other Sunday with a group of younger musicians at the 68 Jay Street Bar in Brooklyn.

Sunday’s memorial will be held there. A tribute concert is planned at the Vermont Jazz Center next spring.

Susan Keese was VPR's southern Vermont reporter, based at the VPR studio in Manchester at Burr & Burton Academy. After many years as a print journalist and magazine writer, Susan started producing stories for VPR in 2002. From 2007-2009, she worked as a producer, helping to launch the noontime show Vermont Edition. Susan has won numerous journalism awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for her reporting on VPR. She wrote a column for the Sunday Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. Her work has appeared in Vermont Life, the Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times and other publications, as well as on NPR.