Remembering Merrilee Trost: Jazz lover, promoter and friend to many musicians

Merrilee Trost, 89, died at home Aug. 18, surrounded by her family. The cause was leukemia.

Merrilee Trost once said she felt herself “falling down the rabbit hole into the magical world of jazz” as she listened to the blues of the Count Basie Orchestra in her hometown of Kansas City. What followed was 50 years of dedication to the music — first in the Detroit area where she booked the Buddy Rich Big Band, George Shearing, Maynard Ferguson, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, and Dave Brubeck, who became a close friend. The early effort eventually flowered into a lifetime of associations with jazz musicians from Cuba to New York, to California and a post as a vice president at Concord Records, the renowned jazz label.

Merrilee raised seven daughters (“My proudest accomplishment,” she insisted) as she moved about the country with her husband, Cecil, a Ford Motor Company executive, eventually settling in the East Bay in the mid-’70s. There, Merrilee became an early supporter of the fledgling Monterey Jazz Festival, now an icon in its 62nd year.

Among musicians, Merrilee was known as a consummate organizer, indefatigable promoter and, best of all, someone who could calm the pre-show jitters with a reassuring hand on the shoulder. At a concert or festival, “When Merrilee got there, it was ‘Merrilee is here, let’s start the show!’” recalls Susan Muscarella, a jazz pianist and founder of the Berkeley Jazzschool in 1997.”

Muscarella says she was astonished when Trost offered to handle publicity for the new school, now known as the California Jazz Conservatory, the only independent, accredited full-time jazz school in the country. “She came up to me at a concert and offered to be a publicist at the school — this famous person! Her work completely transformed the school. She really brought professionalism to the school.”

Born in Stillwater, Oklahoma, in November of 1929 in the midst of the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression, Merrilee Buck was raised by her grandparents in Oklahoma while her mother sought work in Kansas City, Missouri. Her mother fetched her at age two and Merrilee graduated from high school and attended Kansas City College.

After the war, Merrilee married Cecil Trost, a U.S. paratrooper and veteran of the Normandy invasion and adopted the itinerant lifestyle of the fast-growing post-war automobile industries, living in Missouri, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan, and finally settling in California.

Despite the moves, Merrilee maintained her connections to music, traveling to jazz bookings around the U.S. and Europe. She joined Concord Records, a small East Bay jazz specialty label in 1979, hired on the recommendation of her friend, Dave Brubeck. She juggled many roles — publicist, promoter, manager, publisher and, eventually, vice president, overseeing the release of hundreds of albums and organizing festivals and tours.

Mimi Fox, a jazz guitarist and composer, recalls a surprise phone call from Concord Records in 1994. “You can really play, girl,” said Merrilee, who had just listened to a demo tape dropped off by Fox’s manager. Said Fox: “She actually listened to demo tapes, which many people in the business did not take the time to do — but that was Merrilee; She took the time to get to know all of us.”

Merrilee promptly signed Fox for a recording contract with Concord. At a 2011 “Tribute to Bay Area Jazz Crusader Merrilee Trost,” sponsored by the Berkeley Jazzschool, Fox dedicated her performance — and a new recording, “Perpetually Hip” to Merrilee. “We were having lunch one day and I told Merrilee, “You are perpetually hip. Then, I said, hey, that’s a great song title. So I wrote the song for her.” Merrilee remained on the school’s advisory board.

Merrilee also could be relentless in pursuit of talented musicians she wanted to book. When Brubeck, born in 1920 in nearby Concord, played for the first time at the San Francisco Symphony Hall in the 1990s, he told the audience that his tardy appearance was due to Merrilee’s determined efforts.

Merrilee helped launch Monarch Records, begun as an independent label of live albums of East Bay musicians. She served as the road manager for pianist Judy Carmichael and promoter for pianist Marian McPartland, as well as publicist and co-manager for blues, R&B and jazz great Etta James.

McPartland and Merrilee were “best friends,” recalls Muscarella. McPartland, who died in 2013 at the age of 95, is best known for her syndicated National Public Radio show, “Piano Jazz” which ran for nearly 30 years, and in which McPartland interviewed and played duets with the famous and many of the soon-to-be-famous stars of jazz.

Merrilee’s last involvement with jazz included the seven years she spent organizing, booking, and producing the annual Filoli Jazz Festival at the Filoli Estate in Woodside. She retired from Filoli in 2018, but attended a concert there this summer. Her last concert was at the 50th anniversary Concord Jazz Festival on Aug. 3.

Merrilee is survived by her daughters: Cathy Trost of Chevy Chase, Maryland; Cecilia Trost, of Alameda; Christine Blackshear, of Granbury, Texas; Carol Layng, of Greenwood Village, Colorado; Beth Marks, of Orinda; Melissa Abadia, of Alameda; and Melinda Trost, of Martinez; 13 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be sent to either the California Jazz Conservatory, 2087 Addison St., Berkeley, CA 94704, or to the public radio station KCSM, 1700 West Hillsdale Blvd. San Mateo, California 94402.