Paul Broadnax, 92, jazz singer and pianist known for his grace and longevity
Bryan Marquard August 20, 2018
Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe/File
Mr. Broadnax (center) with former Scullers Jazz Club booker Fred Taylor and singer Donna Byrne during a party in Taylor’s honor last year.
Still nimble at 92, Paul Broadnax played his last two gigs on back-to-back days in mid-July.
“Music is in my blood,” he had told a Vermont interviewer years ago. “I couldn’t get rid of it if I tried to, and I never would want to.”
Mr. Broadnax, who died Aug. 1 in his home in Newton’s Lasell Village of complications from a lung disease, had been a staple of New England’s jazz scene for nearly eight decades, appearing as a vocalist and pianist since his Roxbury childhood as a son of classically trained singers.
As a teenager, he performed at a USO event in Roxbury for World War II-bound soldiers. As a 91-year-old, he was at Brasserie Jo last year paying tribute to former Scullers Jazz Club booker Fred Taylor.
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His baritone still silky a few months after turning 90, Mr. Broadnax performed “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” with his trio two summers ago during an outdoor gig at the Hampton Falls Bandstand in New Hampshire, singing with a hint of a smile: “I’d tried so, not to give in. I said to myself, ‘This affair never should go so well.’ ”
With neither wasted nor gratuitous notes, Mr. Broadnax soloed that day as he often did, with spare, eloquent improvisations and carefully chosen chords.
“I cannot begin to convey the respect this man had from so many, many musicians,” said Donn Trenner, a nationally known pianist, arranger, and longtime friend, who added that as Mr. Broadnax sailed past 90 “he still played wonderfully. He was still performing very, very well.”
The two met in the military during World War II, when both were assigned to Special Services as musicians. While performing for the troops, they launched a friendship that transcended music and lasted more than 70 years.
“His singing was very honest, very sensitive, and he never showed any ego whatsoever, either in his performance or in his speech,” Trenner said. On the keyboard, Trenner added, Mr. Broadnax’s playing offered “a great message in simplicity. He never played too much.”
Over the decades, Mr. Broadnax either shared the stage with or arranged for a constellation of jazz greats, among them bandleader Lionel Hampton, trumpeter Clark Terry, singer Jimmy Witherspoon, and vocalist Rebecca Parris, who died earlier this year.
He also was a contemporary of jazz singer Joe Williams, to whom he paid tributewith the 1996 CD “Here’s to Joe,” which featured Mr. Broadnax on the cover, toasting Williams with a flute of champagne.
Trenner played with Mr. Broadnax on that album, and they were joined by Herb Pomeroy on flugelhorn, Peter Kontrimas on bass, Matt Gordy on drums, and Fred Haas on saxophones.
“He had a gentle but relentless sense of swing. It was never forced, but regardless of the tempo or the feel, there was always a deep groove,” said Haas, a Dartmouth College professor who played with Mr. Broadnax on four other CDs.
As a bandleader, Mr. Broadnax “was incredibly generous. Everybody had a chance to solo, everybody got featured,” Haas added. “It was not a competitive kind of energy at all. We were all in this together and we were creating a story that we were telling the audience.”
While playing in the background as other musicians soloed, Mr. Broadnax might slip in substitute chords that enlivened the arrangement and added “a sense of richness that the original composer didn’t get,” Haas said.
Performing with Mr. Broadnax was “an incredible joy,” Hass added. “I’d be smiling all the way home from the gig. And every gig we had together, I couldn’t wait to get there.”
Mr. Broadnax, who was born in Cambridge, shared the stage with and arranged for a constellation of jazz greats.
Born in Cambridge in 1926, Paul Leo Broadnax Jr. was the second of four siblings in a family that moved to Roxbury when he was young. His father, Paul Sr., was a tenor with the Lyric Male Quartet. “They had great voices,” Mr. Broadnax once told an interviewer. “I can remember lying in my bed supposedly sleeping and they were rehearsing in the next room.”
His mother was the former Rebecca Ellastine Lee, a soprano soloist, choral director, and well-known voice teacher. She also was a dressmaker and bartered those talents to secure piano lessons for young Paul.
After graduating from Mechanic Arts High School, Mr. Broadnax was drafted into the Army Air Forces and sent to Texas. “I was a foot soldier for two days,” he recalled in an interview. “Then I was picked up in a staff car, taken to headquarters, and assigned to Special Services as a musician. I couldn’t understand my good fortune.”
Returning to Roxbury after World War II ended, he began playing with ensembles at jazz venues throughout the region. He also set up other sources of revenue to supplement his earnings as a musician. Mr. Broadnax attended what is now the Wentworth Institute of Technology to be certified as an airplane mechanic, and he graduated from Northeastern University with an associate’s degree in engineering.
He worked at Raytheon for many years before leaving to focus more on music, and also ran an Amway business. Mr. Broadnax married Millicent Brooks and they had two sons before their marriage ended in divorce.
“Even though he had the ability to make everyone under the sun feel special, it never took away from his affection and attention to us as his sons. We both felt just as valued and esteemed,” said the Rev. Jay Broadnax, pastor of a church in Philadelphia.
“He was a very spiritual man as well. He loved God and felt his music was a gift that he wanted to share with the world,” his son said.
Mr. Broadnax’s wife, Caroline Schwarz-Schastny, said that the “essence of his life was one of kindness and gentleness.”
When he performed, she added, he “would look out and sing to the audience, and not just sing to be heard. His singing was to the people who were there, and it was for them.”
Though he might have achieved greater fame by decamping to New York City, Mr. Broadnax said in a 2004 interview with the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus in Vermont that he was satisfied “with what I’ve been doing all my life. I haven’t really been looking for kudos. If I were, I probably would have taken a different path. But I’m happy living in New England, playing around New England, and working with guys that I love to play with. So, what more could you ask for?”
In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Broadnax leaves his other son, Marc of Pottstown, Pa.; two sisters, Leona Broadnax Emerson and Rebecca Broadnax Scott, both of Hyde Park; and two grandchildren.
Family and friends will celebrate the life and music of Mr. Broadnax at 11 a.m. Sept. 1 in the St. Paul AME church in Cambridge.
“Elegance is a great word for Paul’s personality, his performance, his taste in music, his feelings about life,” Trenner said. “I cannot even speak of him in the past tense. Paul is here. For me, Paul will always be here.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.