Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Curtis Fowlkes, Avant-Jazz Pioneer of the 1980s, Dies at 73

Curtis Fowlkes, a trombonist and vocalist who was best known as a founder of the Jazz Passengers, a playfully eclectic ensemble that emerged from the New York avant-jazz underground of the 1980s to achieve critical acclaim while collaborating with the likes of Elvis Costello, Debbie Harry and Jeff Buckley, died on Aug. 31 in Brooklyn. He was 73.

His son, Saadiah, said he died in a hospital of congestive heart failure.

Blending sly humor and artistic daring with soft-spoken dignity, Mr. Fowlkes was the “balancing magician” of the Jazz Passengers, Roy Nathanson, the band’s co-founder and saxophonist, said in a phone interview.

The Jazz Passengers released 11 albums, starting with “Broken Night Red Light” in 1987, without ever achieving more than modest commercial success. But with a fan base largely consisting of cognoscenti and fellow musicians, the band’s reputation far outweighed its sales.

Mr. Fowlkes’s supple trombone stylings also stood out in his work as a sought-after sideman for jazz notables like Henry Threadgill, Charlie Haden and Bill Frisell, as well as for rock stars like Lou Reed and Levon Helm.

“He was equally at home with boppish fluency or a gutbucket blare, often incorporating the array of lip slurs, wobbles and pitch slides that can make a trombone evoke a human voice,” Nate Chinen, a former New York Times music critic, recently wrote for the Philadelphia-based public radio station WRTI.

He also provided rich, nuanced vocals for the band, which made waves in 1994 with the album “In Love.” That album featured vocals by Jeff Buckley, the star-crossed sensation who was then just beginning his career (he would die young in 1997), as well as Mavis Staples and Ms. Harry, who became a regular member of the band.

The band’s 1996 album, “Individually Twisted,” included a duet with Ms. Harry and Mr. Costello on the jazz standard “Don’cha Go ‘Way Mad.”

“Its pleasures are various and manifest,” the critic Robert Christgau wrote in a review, “and if they’re over the head of the average Costello completist, that’s because this pop move isn’t aimed at any kind of average.”

The Jazz Passengers were part of a wave of musicians pushing the frontiers of jazz in the 1980s and ’90s that was centered in clubs like the Knitting Factory in downtown Manhattan and included the saxophonist John Zorn, the clarinetist Don Byron and the saxophonist John Lurie, who became a face of New York cool as an actor in films like Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise” and “Down by Law.”

Mr. Fowlkes and Mr. Nathanson, who met while playing in the pit orchestra of the Big Apple Circus in 1981, broke onto the scene in Mr. Lurie’s band the Lounge Lizards in the early 1980s before splitting off to pursue their own off-kilter musical vision.

Blending post-bop jazz, performance art and old-time vaudeville slapstick, the Jazz Passengers were “a crew of jazz oddities,” as New York magazine once described them, specializing in “perky, irreverent, sometimes gorgeously cinematic music that somehow manages to orbit both Sun Ra and the Marx Brothers.”

The live production “The Jazz Passengers in Egypt,” which premiered at the La MaMa Experimental Theater Club in the East Village in 1990, was equal parts jazz show, performance art piece and borscht-belt comedy routine, with a plot involving a dream sequence in ancient Egypt.

“We were really goofballs,” Mr. Nathanson said. “We really wanted this band to be like Brooklyn guys on the street — funny, less cool — but also seriously connected to the language of jazz.”

Curtis Mataw Fowlkes was born on March 19, 1950, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, along with his twin brother, James. His father, also named James, made machine parts for an aircraft manufacturer on Long Island; his mother, Rosa (Coor) Fowlkes, was a homemaker.

In addition to his son, he is survived by his brother; a daughter, Elisheba Fowlkes; and three grandchildren. His marriage to Cynthia Lewis ended in divorce last year.

Mr. Fowlkes grew up in a house filled with the jagged rhythms of his father’s bebop records. He chose trombone for his instrument in elementary school because he figured too many people would want to play his first choice, saxophone.

“People didn’t even know what the trombone was,” he said in a 2011 interview with Kira Joy Williams, a Brooklyn-based artist and photographer. “I barely knew what it was. But I had made a statement that gave me some control.”

As a student at Samuel J. Tilden High School, Mr. Fowlkes started to earn money with his music, playing trombone with local Latin, R&B, funk and reggae bands, and continued playing part time after graduation.

“I was into my 20s and still playing music, but I was taking day jobs too,” he said in a 1988 video interview. “I worked construction jobs, and some of my friends would say, ‘Well, look, we want to do a certain style of music but we can’t make a living off of it, so we’re going to take jobs so we can do the music we like to do.’”

“But now,” he added, “when I look back on it, I realized that you have to devote yourself to music.”

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