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Jim Rotondi, a leading hard-bop trumpeter of our era, dies at 61

Trumpeter Jim Rotondi performing at Jazzkeller in Frankfurt, Germany.
Wolfgang Schottstädt
Trumpeter Jim Rotondi performing at Jazzkeller in Frankfurt, Germany.

Jim Rotondi, who stood within the first rank of his generation’s hard-bop trumpeters, died on Sunday, July 7. He was 61.

His wife, Julie, announced his death without providing a cause.

With his sterling technique, grounded by a warmly centered tone that could soften even the most blistering phrase, Rotondi brought a level-headed calm to the role of a trumpet hero. But there was no doubting his imposing command of the instrument or its modern-jazz language, which he practiced in an array of settings, notably the collective One For All.

That band — an all-star sextet featuring some of his closest collaborators, like tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, drummer Joe Farnsworth and pianist David Hazeltine — formed in 1997 and released well over a dozen albums. The most recent, released this spring, is Big George, named after its guest of honor: George Coleman, the saxophonist and NEA Jazz Master whose musical example looms as a lodestar.

Rotondi also released two albums as a leader this year — including Finesse, a large ensemble effort featuring musicians largely based in Austria, where he maintained his primary residence, as well as a faculty position at the University of Music and Dramatic Arts in Graz. “In Graz” is, in fact, one of his compositions on the album, rearranged for orchestra by Jakob Helling.

In its original form, the song opens Rotondi’s 2016 release Dark Blue, a high point in his discography, featuring Hazeltine alongside vibraphonist Joe Locke, bassist David Wong and drummer Carl Allen. The originals on that album nod to some of the far-flung places that have made a deep impression on Rotondi; among them is British Columbia, the inspiration for a lively cooker titled “BC,” which he stamps with a blazing authority.

James Robert Rotondi was born in Butte, Montana on Aug. 28, 1962. He was the youngest of five siblings, all of whom learned to play piano, initially from their mother, who taught lessons for a living. So the piano was his primary instrument until age 12, when he turned to classical trumpet.

Because there was nothing resembling a scene in Butte, his early exposure to jazz came on record — fatefully including the Max Roach-Clifford Brown output on EmArcy, which he first encountered at 14. The bravura poise and lightning reflexes of Clifford Brown, ever rooted in bebop and blues, became a formative influence; it would later be matched by the harmonic ingenuity of Woody Shaw.

Rotondi refined his musical acumen at the University of North Texas, where he played in the exalted One O’Clock Lab Band. While still pursuing his undergraduate degree in 1984, he won the International Trumpet Guild Conference Student Jazz Improvisation Competition. He graduated the following year and, after accuring some savings from a gig on a cruise ship, moved to New York City.


He initially found work where he could find it, playing wedding gigs and serving brief stints in big bands led by Lionel Hampton and Artie Shaw. A deeper and more lasting affiliation was with Ray Charles: he toured with the Genius of Soul for the better part of two years, as a featured soloist. (Decades later, in 2009, Rotondi would fondly call back to this tenure on a surefooted soul-jazz album titled Blues For Brother Ray.)

Rotondi’s ascendance on the New York scene was both gradual and communal, as he participated in Farnsworth’s sessions at Augie’s, the uptown jazz dive that would later be reincarnated as Smoke. One For All emerged out of this scene, releasing its debut, Too Soon to Tell, in 1997 — the same year that Introducing Jim Rotondi appeared on the Dutch label Criss Cross Records.

For an indication of Rotondi’s steadfast self-assurance as a player even in this early part of his career, consult “The Prevaricator,” which he wrote for the second One For All album, Optimism. A modal invention in polyrhythmic waltz time, the tune makes smart use of the three-horn front line, recalling Wayne Shorter’s pithier orchestrations for Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.

Like many in his peer group, Rotondi endured the occasional gripe that his music was too focused on the rearview, at the expense of forward progress. He defied this line of thinking with the vitality in his playing, but also came to understand it as a facet of his role as an educator. “I think jazz music has always favored innovation but key principles from the previous generation’s music were retained,” he said in a 2014 interview with pianist George Colligan.

He went on: “Young people are always going to be young, they’re going to want to change the world, conquer it, and do their own thing. I dig that and I think that’s very important in young people, and that keeps us young. As a teacher, I don’t want to fight that, but rather balance that. My responsibility as an older musician who knows a bit of that stuff is to get them into what has already happened.”

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes. As Editorial Director at WRTI, he oversees a range of classical and jazz coverage, and contributes regularly to NPR.