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Friday, September 1, 2023

Curtis Fowlkes (1951 -2023)

Curtis Fowlkes (Photo by Peter Gannushkin)

By Martin Schray

When a fundraiser for Curtis Fowlkes was created in August 2023 because the man had been struggling with congestive heart failure and, according to friends, was beginning the process of home palliative/hospice care, one already had to fear the worst. Now the great trombonist, the man with the characteristic cap, has passed away.

Curtis Fowlkes was born in Brooklyn in 1951 and was raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville neighborhoods. Throughout his life, only few people embodied the New York borough as much as he did. He learned to play the trombone quite early and started earning his living since high school as a musician in various Latin, reggae, calypso, funk and R&B bands. Fowlkes studied at Manhattan Community College, where his classmates at the turn of the decade in 1970 included William Parker, Roy Campbell Jr. and Charles Tyler. Like many musicians of these days he played music that was inspired by John Coltrane in apartments and lofts - New York was a creative hot spot at that time. From 1977 on, when he got into the CETA program with Ernie Wilkins’ Jazzmobile project, he considered himself a full-time musician, he said in an interview. In the 1980s he became famous as a member of The Lounge Lizards, the super-hip so-called punk-jazz band lead by saxophonist John Lurie. He had joined them for gigs earlier, but on record he could be heard for the first time on their Live in Tokyo - Big Heart album in 1986. Shortly before, in the summer of 1982, a year after he and his wife moved into the Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone that his grandfather purchased in 1921, Fowlkes met saxophonist Roy Nathanson in the Big Apple Circus band at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. This was a crucial moment for both, since Nathanson introduced him to the Lounge Lizards and - even more important - the two started the Jazz Passengers in 1987, a typical New York Downtown scene band dedicated to putting entertainment and humor back into jazz - typically postmodern. In the following years Fowlkes also performed as a sideman with bassist Charlie Haden’s reunited Liberation Music Orchestra and with the alumni Ellington Orchestra led by Louis Bellson. What is more, he always played with bands outside the jazz circle: He performed and recorded with The Band’s Levon Helm, Glen Hansard, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Cibo Matto and The Police’s Andy Summers, only to name a few. He was also part of the Kansas City All-Stars, who appeared in Robert Altman’s 1996 film Kansas City.

Curtis Fowlkes played on a lot of very good, recommendable albums. You can’t go wrong with the three Lounge Lizards releases, Live in Tokyo - Big Heart (Island Records, 1986), No Pain For Cakes (Island Records, 1987) and Voice Of Chunk (veraBra Records, 1989), the last one is a personal favorite. The many Jazz Passengers albums are wonderful examples of the New York Downtown Jazz era, if you ask me I would listen to Live at the Knitting Factory (Knitting Factory Works, 1991) and Plain Old Joe (Knitting Factory Works, 1993). A very nice album with him as a leader is Curtis Fowlkes/Catfish Corner: Reflect (Knitting Factory Works, 1999). Of his later works I would recommend Sean Sonderegger, Areni, Agbabian, Curtis Fowlkes, Harvey Valdes, Greg Chudzik and Joe Hertenstein: Eat The Air (Skirl Records, 2015). Also great: The Charlie Hunter Trio’s Let Them Bells Ring On (self released, 2015).

Not only Brooklyn will miss this wonderful musician. Our condolences go out to his family.

See Curtis Fowlkes and Roy Nathanson play live at KBOO in 2012: