Learning Things That Don't Come Naturally

By 
Hal Crook
Hal Crook

About a month after professor emeritus Hal Crook retired from Berklee, I visited him at his teaching and rehearsal studio in Attleboro, MA. During a wide-ranging conversation, I asked him if he had set any goals for himself after his retirement from the college. He answered with characteristic wit.

“I’ve made a few,” Crook said. “I want to learn—if I can—how to be lazy. Then I will tackle being irresponsible. And if I can handle those two, I’ll learn to be reckless. I’ll save the most difficult for last: being impractical. I think I could be very good at these if I practice!”

These are traits Crook will indeed have to consciously cultivate after 30 years of nonstop teaching to help countless students find their musical voices at Berklee. During his decades at the college, in addition to teaching in ensembles and classes, Crook made contributions to the curriculum for jazz improvisation that helped many to gain a deeper understanding of all aspects of the art. He also found the time to write numerous jazz compositions, large-ensemble charts, and eight critically hailed books (most with companion recordings) on jazz improvisation and accompaniment. He’s released 10 albums as a leader and has written music for and/or performed on more than 40 albums with such artists as Clark Terry, Joe Diorio, Phil Woods, Bill Goodwin, Jerry Bergonzi, and others. Crook’s résumé attests that laziness and irresponsibility are not things that come naturally to him.

His influence at Berklee was underscored last February, when five of his former students, now top jazz artists (Esperanza Spalding ’05, Lionel Loueke ’01, Leo Genovese ’04, Antonio Sanchez ’97, and Chris Cheek ’91), returned to play with Crook in a concert of his cutting-edge jazz compositions. The second half of the show featured his 10-piece R&B group Behind These Eyes featuring vocalist Deb Pierre, which included some of Crook’s highly accomplished former students performing 10 of his original songs. (Visit halcrook.com to watch videos of the concert.)

A Family Tradition

Crook was raised in Cranston, RI, in a family with extensive musical bloodlines. His grandfather played stride piano to silent movies, and his father, an auto mechanic by day, was a Dixieland jazz pianist in his off hours. “My father rehearsed his Dixieland band in our living room,” Crook says. “I’d see them having so much fun and the neighbors coming over to listen and dance. At five, I told my father I wanted piano lessons. He hooked me up with his own teacher, Carmine Pisano.” Crook received solid training in music theory, harmony, arranging, and piano from Pisano. He was writing original tunes by eight and at 12, began transcribing big band arrangements from records.

In junior high school, a girl who played piano in the school’s dance band caught his eye. Hoping to meet her, he approached the band director about joining the group. Crook recalls, “He said, ‘You’re a piano player, we need trombone players.’ So I started playing trombone and got into the band. But by then, the girl was going out with the drummer. Those are the breaks for trombone players!”

It all worked out for the best though as Crook dove more deeply into jazz and burnished his skills as a trombonist. Born in the middle of the 20th century, Crook sees his musical development paralleling the evolution of the jazz genre. “I started by hearing my father playing ragtime, blues, and Dixieland, then I followed that to swing, bop, and post-bop. So while I didn’t live through the [entire] evolution, by the time I was 10 years old, I was seriously listening to music.”

It’s Possible

“I remember being 14 and going to hear John Coltrane play in Boston, and I’d see Duke Ellington’s band whenever they came to Providence,” he says. “The inspiration from seeing these musicians perform and realizing that they were making a living doing it made me think that was for me. Once you get the idea that it’s possible, all you have to do is plug yourself into that formula and see what happens.”

Following high school, Crook came to Berklee with the aid of a DownBeat magazine scholarship, and majored in composition and arranging. By then, he had been playing regularly with a big band at Bovi’s Tavern in East Providence. That group and others were playing his charts. “I learned so much by hearing my music played,” he says. “After playing piano, studying orchestrations, and transcribing things from records, I understood a lot about arranging. I had written a few hundred arrangements by the time I got to Berklee.” By his second semester, Crook was taking professor Herb Pomeroy’s legendary Line Writing class and playing with Berklee’s recording band.

A Mentor and Friend

While a teenager, Crook had befriended famed trumpeter Clark Terry. Impressed by Crook’s talent, the elder jazz statesman became Crook’s friend and mentor. After graduation from Berklee in 1971, Crook moved to New York where Terry was working as a member of the NBC Tonight Show Band, then led by Doc Severinsen. Terry recommended Crook for the trombone chair in Severinsen’s road band. That led to Crook playing with the TV band and penning arrangements for the group.

When the show moved to Los Angeles, Crook opted to stay in New York. He subsequently toured throughout the U.S., Europe, and Asia playing with such artists as Bob Brookmeyer, Phil Woods, James Brown, Woody Herman, Lionel Hampton, Chuck Israels, and Thad Jones, among others.

After establishing himself as a small-ensemble jazz player with his album Hello Heaven in 1981, Crook moved to Los Angeles. There, he reconnected with other alumni, including Alan Silvestri ’70, who was then scoring the TV show CHiPs. Crook began playing with top studio players on sessions for Silvestri and others.

“Doing recording sessions was a great experience,” Crook says, “but it didn’t feed my soul. It wasn’t jazz and didn’t involve improvising. It didn’t have that kind of interaction.” He also teamed up with top L.A. jazz players such as Joe Farrell, Ray Pizzi, John Guerin, John Heard, and George Cables, but the gigs were sparse.

Crook decided to relocate to San Diego, CA, where he launched his own jazz school with the help of his wife, Joyce, jazz pianist and arranger John Ferrara ’70; and jazz vocalist and guitarist Glenna Gibson. “I thought I’d live down there and see what would happen,” he says. “But it was like selling sand in the desert. After four years I decided to move.” He followed up on an ad Joyce found describing a faculty opening at Berklee. He reached out to Clark Terry, who made a call to Berklee’s then-dean of faculty, Warrick Carter, to recommend Crook. He landed the job. After returning to New England in 1986, Crook rolled up his sleeves at Berklee, first teaching composition and, later, in the performance division. His work with improvisers bore fruit for those who returned for his retirement concert as well as Roy Hargrove ’89, Danilo Pérez ’88, Ingrid Jensen ’89, Miguel Zenón ’98, Kendrick Scott, Julian Lage ’08, and so many more.

Embracing Your Weaknesses

When asked what he sought to instill in his students through the years, Crook replies, “I tried to impart to them that they should learn to embrace their weaknesses. Everyone has them, myself included. There are things I need to work on—and I’ve been practicing music for 60 years now. Finding your weaknesses is a good thing. When I listen to recordings of my playing and hear something I could do better, I’m more inspired by that than by hearing what I already do well. I listen to players that I’m coaching and pick out what they do well and what is weak so I can help them.

“I keep notebooks filled with things that are my problems and the exercises I write to solve them. If these things work for me, chances are they will work for somebody else. If you don’t have a healthy attitude about where your weaknesses are, you will run from them. You’ll just sit there polishing your trophies and maybe not get any better.”

Crook plans to continue coaching students in improvisation at his Attleboro studio. He teaches them in person because he believes that teaching improvisation remotely via Skype is ineffective. “Students come here from as far away as Italy or Spain,” he tells me. “I had some of them in a Berklee class or gave them a private lesson at some point. I also have U.S. military jazz combos coming to me.”

These days when he’s not teaching, Crook might be found lying on the couch in his darkened studio dreaming of—someday—becoming lazy, irresponsible, reckless, and impractical.