I remember when I first realized I was infected by his musical spirit. I had begun listening to his music and with no effort, my own playing changed. Many years later, I found myself spending a day at the passport office with him. We were both headed to Austria with Slide Hampton’s World of Trombones. My passport was expired and I had arranged an appointment with the passport agency to get a “same day” renewal. Unfortunately, the appointment they gave me was 2 days before we departed. I was nervous.
We had a week’s worth of rehearsals in NYC, before the gig. Curtis and I chatted a bit and he confided that his passport had been a problem for him, on his previous overseas trip. He had an old school laminated passport and the cover had begun to separate and peel around his photo. I invited him to join me at the passport agency, that day, in hopes that someone could repair his.
I picked him up at his hotel, that morning. We took a cab down to the agency and arrived quite early for my appointment. A stern guard told me that I was early and to come back at my scheduled time. So, I took Curtis to a deli for a bagel and some orange juice. He began telling me stories of growing up in an orphanage in Detroit. The nuns took him, as a young teen, to see/hear Benny Carter’s Big Band because they wanted him to have a sense of his “community”. There, he first heard J.J. Johnson. He fell in love with the trombone. He told me other stories of ducking down in the back of a car to ride into Pepper Adams’ neighborhood, where they would hang in Pepper’s basement and play tunes while Pepper’s mom cooked amazing meals for them. He told me of when Frank Rosolino took a road gig and passed along a horn and all his gigs to the young trombonist. He told me of being in the jazz band at Fort Knox….the last one conducted by Cannonball Adderley. Man….I got a jazz history lesson, that day.
When we finally got into the passport agency, I asked the receptionist if Curtis would be allowed to accompany me and if they might be able to look at his passport. The woman said and a gruff tone, “He can go up….but they won’t talk to him unless he has an appointment.” Curtis began to say things like, “It’s okay….this trip is for the young guys, like you….I’m not making this trip.” When we got upstairs, we sat and waited. Curtis kept repeating that he wouldn’t be making the trip. I listened.
After a few minutes, I said, “Hey, Curtis….can I ask you a favor?”
“Sure….let you do the talking, when we get up there?….No problem.”
He could feel that I was getting nervous. When they called my number, we both walked up to the counter. As I approached, I announced to the agent, “This gentlemen is accompanying me on my trip and his passport is valid but it has caused him some issues.”
He replied, “Let’s take care of you first and I’ll take a look at his passport.”
We stood in nervous silence for a few minutes. Upon completing my paperwork, the agent looked at Curtis’ passport.
“Yes….I see what you mean, but it really shouldn’t be a problem.”
He took the passport into the back room. When he returned, he handed it to Curtis.
“Here you go. I ran it through the laminating machine again. Good as new!”
“See there, Curtis? You’re going on this trip with us.”
He replied, “I like you, Gibson….you’re a positive cat.”
I’ll never forget that day and all of the other moments I’ve been lucky to share with the beautifully sensitive spirit that is Curtis Fuller.
Happy birthday, Curtis! You’re a gift to us.