The Curtis Brothers performance was a display of the mentoring system at its best.
Mentoring is one of the foundational elements of jazz culture; the elders teaching the young ones until they are ready to establish their own identities and careers. This mentoring happens in a lot of ways. It happens by observing how an experienced jazz person dresses, carries him or herself, walks through a room, talks to an audience or handles him or herself on the bandstand. Of course, it happens by listening to the playing. In fact, when jazz people describe what it was like hearing someone play, they might say “they sounded great,” but they will almost certainly say: “I learned a lot.”
A more direct communication is established if the veteran thinks the young musician has potential and the pair are personally simpatico. The mentor might invite his protégé over to the house to practice or just to hang. The relationship bears full fruit when the elder invites the mentee to sit in at a gig, or even takes him on the road. As Luques Curtis wrote to me in an email: “The lessons I learned on the road were more life lessons. I learned how to behave respectfully and how to adapt to almost every musical situation by paying attention to how my mentors would deal with things.”
Although it was billed as The Curtis Brothers at Scullers Jazz Club on Thursday, Feb 1, the performance would more accurately be called The Curtis Brothers and Mentors. Drummer Ralph Peterson, trumpeter Brian Lynch, and alto sax player Donald Harrison had all taken the brothers under their wing at one point or another and helped build their careers and nurtured their artistic growth. Zaccai Curtis, the piano-playing brother, introduced the tunes at the club, and with each opportunity made it clear how important these veteran musicians have been to him and bass-playing brother Lugues Curtis.
Thursday night’s songs all sat under the umbrella of Zaccai’s Algorithm Suite, which was commissioned by Chamber Music America, New Jazz Works. Several of the songs were dedicated to and written for the mentors. “Chief” was for Donald Harrison — who is Big Chief of the Congo Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group. “The Professor” was for Brian Lynch — and one could see by the signaling he made throughout the evening that Lynch was making sure the brothers were doing right by the music. “Sensei” was for drummer Ralph Peterson who, Zaccai explained, taught them how to play with a trio.