Merilee Trost: nurtured some of the biggest names in jazz

As the mother of seven daughters who started going through high school in the 1960s, Merrilee Trost thought she had hit on a foolproof plan to help keep the kids away from drugs. Born on the eve of the 1929 stock market crash, she herself had grown up in Kansas City, Mo. soaking up the riffing, rollicking blues of the Count Basie Orchestra while nursing a cola.

“I got the crazy notion that if they could hear some really good music, they could get into it without being high,” Trost recalls with a laugh from her home in Alameda. “It never occurred to me that jazz was synonymous with drugs.”

Somehow Trost convinced the PTA to support her plan, and she turned a new auditorium in a suburb of Detroit into a jazz hotbed. Starting with the Buddy Rich Big Band in 1969, she spent the next five years presenting some of the biggest names in the business, such as George Shearing, Maynard Ferguson, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie — and Dave Brubeck, who became a close friend.

Since settling in the East Bay in the mid-1970s, Trost has played an outsized but often behind-the-scenes role in maintaining the music’s vitality. In a classy move that hopefully points the way towards future events honoring the scene’s crucial supporters, Berkeley’s Jazzschool presents “A Tribute to Bay Area Jazz Crusader Merrilee Trost” tonight at Freight & Salvage. It’s no surprise that an impressive roster of musicians has eagerly stepped forward to participate.

A remarkably youthful 82, Trost seems a little chagrined by the all the attention. When first informed about the event she says, “I was stunned and really embarrassed.” Though her accomplishments are legion, she credited the tribute to three factors. “I’m nice. I go out to concerts three times or more a week. And when somebody says something needs to be done I say, I can do that.”

The program includes Brazilian-born pianist Marcos Silva’s quartet with reed expert Mary Fettig, bassist Scott Thompson, and drummer Phil Thompson; guitarist Mimi Fox’s trio with bassist Bill Douglass and drummer Akira Tana; vocalist Dee Bell’s All-Stars; vocalist Clairdee with the Ken French Trio; and vocalist Denise Perrier with pianist David Mathews, bassist Marcus Shelby and Akira Tana. Several surprise guest artists will join the festivities, which will be emceed by veteran music writer Wayne Saroyan, founder/editor of

More than a tribute, the concert is really a love fest. A few years ago, Mimi Fox released an album “Perpetually Hip.” Some thought she was talking smack about herself, but the title track was dedicated to Trost. Tenor saxophonist Anton Schwartz, who’s flying down from Seattle to perform at the tribute, describes the typical arc of a Trostian relationship, from business to frienship.

“I met her in 1998 when I released my first CD and hired her as a consultant to show me the ropes,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Since then we have become close friends. On top of anything else that can be said about her, she’s simply a spectacular human being and a glowing presence on the scene, not to mention one of the most beautiful and youthful octogenarians you will ever meet.”

Over the years Trost has worked in just about every capacity involved with jazz except for playing the music herself. Introduced to Concord Records’ owner Carl Jefferson by Brubeck, she started working for the label in 1979. Before long Jefferson came to depend on her competence, can-do spirit and geniality. Over a dozen years she filled numerous roles in Concord’s ever-expanding undertakings, which included releasing hundreds of albums, producing festivals and tours, and managing publishing. When she left the label in 1992, Trost was Vice President of Publicity and Promotions.

Instead of slowing down, she took on a raft of new challenges, working as road manager for stride pianist Judy Carmichael, learning the artist management ropes with Lupe De Leon (who represents Etta James) and helping to launch Monarch Records, a label that focused on releasing live albums by Bay Area artists. She also spent seven years as the Jazzschool’s publicist, and continues to work for the Monterey Jazz Festival.

Out of all of her musical adventures, it’s Concord and Monarch that she remembers most fondly. “There is nothing like working on a record label,” Trost says. “You go into the studio and get to be part of that little world.”

Andrew Gilbert lives in west Berkeley and covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report.

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Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....