Jazz musician and co-founder of the New York City Artists’ Collective, Tom Bruno died at home, of natural causes on August 22, 2012. He was 75 years old, lived in Manhattan, and played a red sparkle drum set.
As a drummer, Bruno made a significant contribution to the world of avant-garde jazz, forging a unique style while working with a multitude of musicians including Ellen Christi, Juan Quiñones, Sonny Simmons, William Parker, Jemeel Moondoc, Roy Campbell Jr., William Connell, and with the band TEST, featuring Daniel Carter, Sabir Mateen and Mathew Heyner. Tom Bruno’s sound on the drum set is instantly recognizable: warm, dark, sizzling cymbals carefully interwoven with mellow, tubby drums, accented by a high-tuned, crackling snare drum. With a heightened sensitivity to space and phrase, Bruno shaped the sounds from his drums and cymbals into cascading rolls, evocative swells, and lush beds. He propelled soloists, added and eased tension at transitions, and implied form to the seemingly free-form music. His playing was a poetic paradox where sophistication and barbarism coexisted without compromise. Through this wondrous twofold condition he offered a unique expression of space, dynamics, timbre, melody and humor, without diluting the fiery and assertive function that the drum set often provides in avant-garde jazz.
Thomas __________Bruno, the only child of Giovana and Thomas Senior was born April 14, 1932, in ______________Canada. In his late teens he moved to Buffalo, NY and later gained U.S. citizenship through his service with the Army, serving throughout Europe during the Korean War. While stationed in Denmark, Bruno met his future wife _________________. Together, they settled in __________California, and had four daughters: Jeanne, Sasha, Annie and Laura.
Relocating to New York City in 1972, Bruno devoted himself whole-hearted to making music. He was met by a like-minded generation of musicians committed to advancing a new form of jazz, as well as controlling the social conditions of their vocation. Inspired by the fervor of the civil rights movement, creative musicians throughout the city were seeking economic and creative independence from record companies, venues, and festival impresarios. With this motivation Bruno co-founded the New York City Artists’ Collective, a non-profit organization that produced recordings, organized concerts, and procured affordable housing and rehearsal space for artists. Exemplary recordings from this period include Sounds of Life with Tom and Ellen (NYCAC, 1976), which was recorded with Ellen Christi, Tom’s second wife and longtime collaborator; and The New York City Artists’ Collective Plays Butch Morris (NYCAC, 1982).
Though Tom Bruno lived a life of austerity, marked by periods of genuine poverty, he remained generous and altruistic. Through the auspices of The New York City Artists’ Collective he often pursued grants that allowed him to pay musicians, commission new works, support emerging musicians from a younger generation, and host benefits for musicians in need. A notable example of this was a series of concerts he organized in 198_ for the drummer Ed Blackwell, to help pay his medical bills. In an effort to support his colleague, Bruno organized a staggering array of talent for a matinee concert series at the Pyramid Club in the East Village, which included Sonny Murray, Charles Gayle, William Parker, Andrew Cyrille, Rashid Ali, Frank Wright, and many others.
Beginning in the 1980s Tom Bruno’s quest for independence and the devotion to his art (as well as the need for money) was furthered as he began playing at strategic subway stations under the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Music Under New York program. Despite the transient nature of the settings, Bruno dug-in deep, giving concert-level performances as trains stormed by. His record Getting Away With Murder (Eremite, 19XX) with Sabir Mateen - recorded in the cavernous glory of New York City’s Grand Central Station - captures one of these sessions; still though, it is a but sliver of Bruno’s weekly subterranean mission.
A constant presence at select subway stations, Bruno lugged his drums up and down stairs, honing his craft, and bringing his music to the people of New York City. Having a place to play several days a week further refined his already idiosyncratic style, and afforded the opportunity to play with a myriad of musicians, the best of whom would be featured on the bandstand when Bruno played above ground. From this experience, a core group coalesced, a group called TEST. Daniel Carter, Sabir Mateen, Matthew Heyner and Tom Bruno: TEST. Though born and nursed on the city’s subway platforms, this group was destined for an audience not rushing through a turnstile.
TEST played clubs, concert halls, and festivals and, yes, still played in the subway. World-renown, with an audience beyond the margins of the avant-garde, TEST would become Tom Bruno’s most celebrated and most documented ensemble. Fronted by Carter and Mateen - two of the most deft, powerful and determined woodwind players - it is in TEST perhaps that the full depth of Tom’s playing is revealed.
On May 6, 2012 TEST stood before a standing room only audience at the Whitney Museum of American Art, for what would prove to be Tom Bruno’s final performance. Over the previous few years Parkinson’s Disease had increasingly curtailed his ability to get out and play. His gait was pained, balance unsure, the signature trembling of the affliction was nearly always evident. Anyone arriving to the concert a little early witnessed a most vulnerable sight as Tom painfully labored to take his place behind the drum set, finally requesting for his feet to be placed on the pedals beneath him. The scene did not at all anticipate what was to follow. The pensive silence from which improvisers negotiate the first note was broken as the bead of Tom’s stick found the bell of his heavy ride cymbal. A pure, high tone filled the room and they were off. T E S T
-Shane “Goofy” Bellson