Bob Gullotti, an endlessly creative jazz drummer hailed as a guru by several generations of musicians, both for his instruction at the Berklee College of Music and his work in an experimental trio called The Fringe, died on Saturday at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
He was 70, and a lifelong resident of Waltham, Mass. His son, Drew Gullotti, declined to share a cause, noting that he died peacefully, surrounded by family.
As word of Gullotti’s death spread earlier this week, a broad coalition of former students and fellow travelers paid affectionate tribute. “Truly infinitely creative and supportive and always limit pushing,” attested keyboardist John Medeski in a note on Facebook. “No one played lines in their ride cymbal like Bob. Multidimensional hardworking professional musician extraordinaire. Unparalleled, really.”
Gullotti was widely admired for his fluid expressiveness as a drummer; he combined ironclad technical prowess with an apparently inexhaustible imagination. He worked with trumpeter Eddie Henderson, pianist Kenny Werner and saxophonist Joe Lovano, among others. He is also known to serious fans of Phish, as a result of some concerts he played with the band in 1996 and 1997, around the same time he was affiliated with Trey Anastasio’s Surrender to the Air.
But Gullotti’s chief musical association was with The Fringe, which formed in 1971, during his senior year at Berklee. Originally composed of Gullotti, saxophonist George Garzone and bassist Rich Appleman, the group cohered around an idea of free expression, stretching out from a post-bop baseline. Mark Harvey, writing in a slim but insightful book called The Boston Creative Jazz Scene: 1970-1983, characterized the trio as “ferocious and uncompromising, astonishing, and sometimes overwhelming in its explosive force.”
The Fringe became a fixture in Boston, and even something like an institution, by way of a legendary Monday-night residency — first at Michael’s, a bar behind Symphony Hall in Boston; then at The Willow, in Somerville; and eventually at the Lilypad, in Cambridge. The trio weathered one change in personnel, when John Lockwood replaced Appleman on bass in 1985. Aside from that, it was a beacon of stability for more than 45 years, with the important stipulation that its music often suggested quite the opposite: mercurality, mutability, a state of perpetual flux.
“Gullotti lays down intricate webs of rhythmic foundation under the band in a demonstration of true effortless mastery,” wrote baritone saxophonist Claire Daly in a critical appreciation of The Fringe for NPR Music. “His steady thunder is a driving force in the music, but it isn't overbearing. There was a period when he brought a huge gong every week and wrenched bowing sounds from it.”
Robert Kenneth Gullotti was born on Nov. 28, 1949, in Waltham, Mass., to Anthony Gullotti and the former Ida Foskin. He was the fourth of five brothers, a few of whom were also musicians. He was playing the drums by age 12, and gigging professionally at 15. Among his formative teachers was the revered drum instructor Alan Dawson, who had also mentored the young Tony Williams.
Gullotti enrolled at the Berklee College of Music, pursuing a degree in music education. He fell in with Garzone and Appleman during his senior year, initially through quartet sessions with a pianist. He often said that The Fringe hadn’t set out to play free jazz; one term he used instead was “original jazz.”
His ambivalence about the term “free” probably had something to do with his feelings about the value of discipline, which he strove to impart to his students. “When I teach, I give a lot of material,” he said in a 2017 interview with the Drummer’s Resource podcast. “At Berklee I kind of have the reputation of, ‘Go to Gullotti, he’ll give you a lot of work.’” But he was also known as a warm and encouraging mentor.
Yoron Israel, the percussion chair at Berklee, wrote in an email that he had checked in Gullotti’s class as recently as last Thursday. “I remember being particularly impressed by how engaged his students were, not only our drumset principles but other instrumentalists as well. Bob was in the zone, in his wheelhouse doing what he loved. It is unfortunate that those students who I witnessed won’t have another week in 4E1 or 4F with him for further guidance along their musical journey under the direction of this humble master.”
Gullotti is survived by his wife of 15 years, Marion Campos Gullotti; his son, Drew Gullotti, and daughter, Alicia Robillard; his brothers, Russell, Stephen, James and Arthur; and three grandchildren. His marriage to Carol Gullotti ended in divorce.
It might also be fair to say that Gullotti is survived by Garzone, Appleman and Lockwood, his longtime brethren in The Fringe. In a 1983 interview with Modern Drummer magazine, he was asked to name some musical influences. He eventually obliged with a list of drummers — Dawson, Williams, Elvin Jones, Jack DeJohnette and more — but his initial response struck what was probably the truest note.
“My biggest influence,” he said, “has been the two other members of The Fringe.”