Harold Floyd “Tina” Brooks and his twin brother Harry were born on June 7, 1932, in Fayetteville, Illinois. They were the youngest of eight children. Tina’s parents, David and Cornelia Brooks, moved their family to the Bronx, New York in 1944. After being mugged in New York as a teenager, the small, timid Brooks returned to Fayetteville to live with his secondary family. Tina then returned to the Bronx for his senior year of high school in the late 1940s.
Nicknamed “Tina,” or “teeny” in school due to his small stature, Brooks decided to accept the name as his own, in part to dismiss the mockery of his classmates. Throughout his upper-grade school years, he studied the saxophone with his brother, David “Bubba” Brooks, Jr., who was an in-demand rhythm and blues saxophonist. Realizing his younger brother’s musical proclivities, Bubba recommended that Tina substitute for him in pianist Sonny Thompson’s band in 1950. It is with Thompson that Tina made his first recordings on January 3, 1951.
Tina then accrued recording and touring experience with rhythm and blues and big bands led by Joe Morris, Charles Brown, Amos Milburn, and ultimately Lionel Hampton, with whom he appeared for a short period during the summer of 1955. Tina was somewhat dissatisfied with the rhythm and blues scene, and was developing interest in the swing, bop and post-bop tenor legends – Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins and Hank Mobley.
Before long, Tina was frequenting Manhattan and Harlem jazz clubs, and in 1957, friend and pianist Benny Harris had recommended that Blue Note’s Alfred Lion listen to Brooks’ playing at local jam sessions. Lion swiftly invited Tina to record with organist Jimmy Smith. On one of his first major jazz recordings, Brooks played alongside Lee Morgan, Lou Donaldson, Kenny Burrell and Art Blakey on Jimmy Smith’s legendary 1958 track, “The Sermon.” Brooks felt right at home in this rhythm and blues drenched jazz, and his fine playing warranted his invitation to play alongside Junior Cook on Kenny Burrell’s Blue Lights recordings, also featuring Bobby Timmons and Art Blakey.
Brooks then led his first Blue Note session featuring Art Blakey and Lee Morgan in March, 1958. The all-star session entitled Minor Move was not officially released until 1980 (Japan), beginning a trend of now-revered Brooks recordings that were not released during his lifetime. In May of that year, Brooks disappeared from the jazz scene for a year before reemerging and performing on Kenny Burrell’s 1959 session, Swingin’.
1960 marked the busiest year of Brooks’ career. Fellow saxophonist and friend Ike Quebec introduced Brooks to up-and-coming trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. The two became friends and Tina appeared on Hubbard’s debut recording as a leader, Open Sesame. Hubbard famously recalled the importance of Brooks’ talents on his debut record: “He wrote “Gypsy Blue” for me on the first record and I loved it. I just loved it. Tina made my first record date wonderful. He wrote and played beautifully. What a soulful, inspiring cat. I loved him.” Other highlights from Open Sesame include the Brooks-penned title track and the Brooks-arranged standard, “But Beautiful.”
When it was time to record his second session as a leader one week after Open Sesame, Brooks enlisted Hubbard to play on True Blue, Brooks’ most revered solo record. Brooks and Hubbard were joined by Duke Jordan, Sam Jones and Art Taylor on classic recordings including “Miss Hazel,” “Good Old Soul,” and “True Blue.” This marks the only record that was released during Brooks’ lifetime.
When pianist Freddie Redd was hired to serve as the musical director for Jack Gelber’s play, The Connection, Tina Brooks acted as the understudy for Jackie McLean, the primary saxophonist for the Gelber production. These theatrical connections led to more studio dates, and throughout the remainder of 1960, Brooks frequently performed and recorded alongside altoist McLean. They were joined by Blue Mitchell, Kenny Drew, Paul Chambers and Art Taylor for the McLean-led dates, Jackie’s Bag and Street Singer.
The same musicians, without McLean, reunited one month later to record Brooks’ final session date as a leader, entitled Back to the Tracks. Once again, even though this session had been mastered, had a Blue Note catalog number, and had art work already completed, the session was shelved and released posthumously in 1979.
Tina Brooks recorded once more for Freddie Redd in early 1961, and then led a long-unreleased session a few months later. These unreleased recordings featuring Kenny Drew, Wilbur Ware, and Philly Joe Jones have since been released on The Complete Tina Brooks Blue Note Quintets and on 1999’s The Waiting Game.
These 1961 sessions marked the final recordings of Tina Brooks. Although he frequented Bronx jam sessions throughout the 1960s and performed with Ray Charles in 1963, his incarcerations and mounting health issues kept him largely out of the jazz scene.
Brooks passed away on August 13, 1974 at the age of 42 from kidney and liver failure. His remembrance in the jazz world, despite his brief discography, is a true testament to the high quality of his recorded output. His compositional style was uncluttered, soulful and catchy, most notably on tracks such as “Gypsy Blue” from Open Sesame, “True Blue” from True Blue and “Street Singer” from Jackie McLean’s Street Singer. His effortlessly inspired improvisations were combinations of graceful blues lines and complex bop runs, making them some of the ultimate hard bop tenor saxophone improvisations.