There wasn’t much in jazz that Bob Ojeda couldn’t do.
A masterful trumpeter, inventive arranger, creative composer and mentor to uncounted musicians, the Chicago artist was revered by peers and sought out by some of the greatest names in the art form.
Singers Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Peggy Lee and Lena Horne – among many others – turned to him to write arrangements and orchestrations. Bandleaders Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Kenton, Lionel Hampton and Benny Carter featured him in their trumpet sections. And after Count Basie died in 1984, Ojeda toured and recorded with the Count Basie Orchestra from 1985 to 2001, writing arrangements for that propulsive swing machine.
Ojeda, 78, died March 26 at Elmhurst Hospital of pulmonary problems as a result of multiple surgeries, said Gil Ojeda, his brother.
“He was just a wonderfully thoughtful and melodic improviser,” said Chicago trombonist Russ Phillips, a longtime colleague and friend.
“He wasn’t a high-note player, but he could read anything. He was a complete player.
“I’ve played a lot of his charts over the years – they’re uniquely his, and they’re quite typically challenging but very rewarding.
“The things that make him a unique and wonderful improviser also make his arrangements unique. He brings that quirky quality to his arrangements – like maybe a hip little countermelody that’s some other tune.”
Stylistically, “He was the quintessential bop and post-bop guy,” said Chicago saxophonist Eric Schneider, referring to bebop, a virtuosic, mid-20th century idiom conceived by Charlie Parker and Gillespie.
“Bob was a very serious player,” added Schneider. “To him, the music was serious – it could be solemn, but it wasn’t somber. Whenever he’d play, I’d hear a twinkle in his eye.”
Born Sept. 1, 1941 in Austin, Texas, Ojeda moved with his family a couple months later to Chicago, where he grew up. As a teenager he was consumed with music.
“He would go around to the (jazz) clubs when he was underage,” said Gil Ojeda. “He and a friend organized a band in the neighborhood when he was 15. He was already doing orchestration and arranging at that time.”
Bob Ojeda attended Farragut High School, but “when he was 16, he just said he wasn’t learning anything there,” said Gil Ojeda.
As the emerging musician approached 18, Kenton – whose orchestra was one of the most ambitious, idiosyncratic and famous in jazz – recruited him.
“Stan was in town and said: ‘Bob, we’re down a horn player – are you interested in coming with us?’” said Gil Ojeda.
“They called my dad at around midnight: ‘Mr. Ojeda, we want your son to go with us tomorrow morning,’” Kenton told the elder Ojeda.
Thus began Ojeda’s whirlwind career. “By the age of 21, he had traveled almost all over the world,” said Gil Ojeda.
In the 1970s, as youth-oriented rock music overwhelmed jazz in the marketplace, Ojeda moved to Los Angeles, where he wrote arrangements for singers and composed for jingles, TV and film. He played trumpet in the rock musical “Hair” in the early 1970s and performed with the Rolling Stones in 1975, according to his website. In the 1980s, he was a staff arranger for Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show.”
And though much earlier he’d had it with living out of a suitcase, he couldn’t resist the opportunity to join the Basie Orchestra in 1985, touring more than 40 weeks a year with the band and accompanying stars such as Frank Sinatra.
For the past couple decades, Ojeda again was a significant presence in Chicago jazz.
Chicago singer-bandleader Petra van Nuis remembered first hearing him at the since-shuttered Chambers in Niles, around 2004 or 2005.
“I was so taken with him the first night I heard him, I went up and asked how/what he practiced,” said van Nuis in an email.
“He said he liked to play along with the TV as it provided quickly changing tunes in different keys/styles/time signatures.”
Van Nuis invited Ojeda to join her Recession Seven band in 2013, the authority and musicality of his work evident to anyone lucky enough to have heard him in this setting.
“It was still Bob, but it was more filtered through Roy Eldridge than through Clifford (Brown),” said Recession Seven bandmate Schneider, meaning that Ojeda was slightly retooling his sound and style to reflect the band’s earlier period repertoire.
Ojeda’s work as orchestrator reached thousands of listeners when Chicago singer Joan Curto hired him to write scores for three massive Auditorium Theatre shows she organized: “Cole Porter 125 – A Birthday Celebration” (2016), “Ella & Lena: The Ladies and Their Music” (2017) and “Chicago Celebrates Sondheim!” (2019).
“I asked several musicians I respected a lot: Who did the best charts and orchestrations in the city of Chicago?” said Curto. “And unanimously, it was Bob Ojeda.
“He was invaluable to us. He could tell us how a song would work: How many horns, how many strings, did we need percussion? He was the leader in those decisions.”
Ojeda also was deeply involved in nurturing new generations of musicians, partly through his work with the jazz competition of the Luminarts Cultural Foundation at the Union League Club of Chicago.
“That was one thing he really appreciated – the idea of reaching out to young players,” said Gil Ojeda.
Said trombonist Phillips, “We’re all just brokenhearted.”
In addition to Gil Ojeda, Bob Ojeda’s survivors include siblings Liz, Ron and David Ojeda, and sister Gloria Koller.
A public memorial service will be planned after the coronavirus restrictions end, said Gil Ojeda.
Howard Reich is the Tribune's Emmy-winning arts critic; author of six books, including "The Art of Inventing Hope: Intimate Conversations with Elie Wiesel"; and writer-producer of three documentaries. He holds two honorary doctoral degrees and served on the Pulitzer music jury four times, including for the first jazz winner, "Blood on the Fields."
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