Guitarist Bobby Broom played his first paying jazz gig at age 16–with saxophonist Sonny Rollins at Carnegie Hall. “Isn’t that sick?” asks Broom, now 40, with a laugh. “Where do you go from there?” He spent the next couple decades trying to figure that out, but he says it wasn’t until the late 90s, at the end of a long stint with New Orleans R & B man Dr. John, that he realized he was “really a jazz musician.”

Broom had played with Dr. John’s ensemble for nearly five years, helping stir the bandleader’s gumbo of lean funk, parade anthems, swampy psychedelia, and soulful rhythm and blues. Before leaving the group, he played on the album Duke Elegant (Blue Note), where the doctor put his fingerprints all over a dozen tunes written by or associated with Duke Ellington. Broom had been thinking about doing something similar with the pop music he grew up with since 1990, when he turned Derek & the Dominos’ “Layla” into a smoldering jazz vehicle, and when he returned to his home in Evanston, he galvanized his nine-year-old local working trio to record its first album, Stand!, a superb collection of jazz versions of 60s and 70s pop and soul tunes, from the Sly Stone title track to the Box Tops’ nugget “The Letter.”

Broom, who grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, had picked up the guitar only four years before the Rollins gig, and he was not immediately drawn to jazz. “This guitar teacher I had would try to get me to listen to people like Wes Montgomery,” he says. “I would say, ‘OK,’ but then I’d go home and try to learn Al McKay’s solo on ‘That’s the Way of the World’ by Earth, Wind & Fire.” Eventually, however, Broom was attracted to jazz by the funky records people like Grover Washington and Herbie Hancock were making in the mid-70s, and after a record store clerk recommended George Benson’s Bad Benson, he was hooked.

He got into New York’s famous High School for the Performing Arts, where fusion keyboardist Weldon Irvine recruited him and his classmate Marcus Miller to staff the pit for an off-off-Broadway musical. During the show’s nine-month run he landed an audition with Rollins. He played Carnegie Hall, of course, but reluctantly turned down an invitation to join the saxophonist’s band–his parents wanted him to graduate first.

In 1978 Broom shipped off to Boston’s Berklee College of Music, which was lousy with future young lions, including Branford Marsalis. But Miller had remained in New York, where he was working with trumpeter Tom Browne and keyboardist Dave Grusin, founder of the popular commercial fusion label GRP. Broom went home to join them, and his debut album, Clean Sweep, a slick fusion affair, was released by GRP in 1981. Not long afterward Rollins noticed an ad for the record and called him up. Broom went on to work with the saxophonist for four years.

By the time Broom made his second solo album, in 1983, GRP had shuffled him over to Arista, where his new A and R man wasn’t a fan of his sound. “They assigned these dance music producers to me,” he says. “It was very noisy and electronic and they had me play this guitar synth. Just awful. The record was called Livin’ for the Beat; it’s hard to live this one down.”

In 1984, ready for a change, he let romance lure him to Chicago, where he finished his schooling at Columbia College. When he wasn’t on the road with Rollins or Japanese saxophonist Sadao Watanabe, he played pickup gigs around town. In 1986 he sat in with guitarist Kenny Burrell at the Jazz Showcase, which led to a three-year association and a couple records, and in 1987 he got to perform with Miles Davis, whose working band was based here. Broom felt distanced from Davis’s rock-oriented sound, but he was magnetized by the man. One night he was scheduled to play with Davis and Burrell on the same night in different cities. “I called up Sonny because I didn’t know what to do,” he says. “I told him, ‘Part of me wants to do the Auditorium gig in Chicago with Miles.’ And he said, ‘What part is that?'” Broom played that night in Trenton, New Jersey, with Burrell.

“In 1990 I decided that doing gigs here and there was tired, just throwing stuff together and playing [standards],” says Broom. “I wasn’t developing anything and the way to do that was through writing and having my own group.” So he formed a trio with bassist Dennis Carroll and drummer George Fludas, and they began playing weekly at the Underground Wonder Bar. But a longtime marijuana habit was increasingly sapping Broom’s energy and his wallet, so when Dr. John called in 1994 he felt like he had no choice but to hit the road again. “It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do,” he says, “but I felt like I had a purpose, like I was contributing something.”

Broom cleaned up and began saving money, and by 1997 was coming home as often as he could to play with the trio. (Fludas had left, to be replaced by the great drummer Dana Hall.) After leaving Dr. John, Broom paid for the recording of Stand! himself, and then he got down to business. “I was my own secretary, manager, and agent,” he says. “I sent out my own packages and called, faxed, and E-mailed people trying to get the record out.” Nobody was biting. To keep busy, he recorded Modern Man in the summer of 2000, a nice one-off soul-jazz album for Delmark that featured Dr. Lonnie Smith on organ, Idris Muhammad on drums, and Ronnie Cuber on baritone saxophone. By the time it was released earlier this summer Premonition’s Mike Friedman–the guy who gave Patricia Barber a break–had agreed to put out the trio album.

Although none of the ten tracks is an original, Broom, Carroll, and Hall have made them their own. Jazz versions of the Frankie Valli hit “Can’t Take My Eyes off You” or Simon & Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa” might sound dubious on paper, but the trio’s economical, whip-smart treatments give the tunes a new immediacy. Broom has come to see expanding the jazz repertoire as essential to his relevance as well as his sanity–though to his credit, he’s avoided referring to his choices as “new standard,” a term both Herbie Hancock and Joshua Redman have used to market makeovers of shopworn rock songs. “I don’t like the Herbie record, because he’s rewritten the stuff,” says Broom. “I want to play the songs…these are beautiful songs. I’m a jazz musician and I’m trying to find material that’s going to keep me interested in doing this, and it’s not ‘Stella by Starlight.'”

The Bobby Broom Trio plays every Sunday night at Martyrs’ and every Tuesday night at Pete Miller’s Steakhouse in Evanston.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Audrey Cho.