Before he started playing jazz in the smoky dives of South Florida, Robert “Be-bob” Grabowski was leading dives off the tranquil waters of Key Largo. In fact, the genial, bearded bassist and educator has spent a good deal of his life on or under the ocean waves. The “life aquatic” has influenced Grabowski’s aesthetic as a composer of music that conjures the marine milieu and as a photographer of some of the sea’s most colorful denizens.
A wry raconteur with a vast store of esoteric knowledge, Grabowski, 57, teaches a popular Evolution of Jazz course at Florida International University. He also conducts regular pre-concert lectures for high school students as part of Larry Rosen’s Jazz/Roots series at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami. And while he lives in Redland, he also maintains a property on Key Largo. “That’s not wavering,” he vows. “They’ll have to pry that out of my fingers.”
Grabowski’s parents, biology professors at the University of Miami, fell in love with Key Largo in the 1960s. They purchased and fixed up a hurricane-damaged house there, which was just fine with their son, who recalls an idyllic childhood on the key.
“Everyone’s life revolved around the ocean,” he says. “You either worked on boats or you fixed boats or you sold fish. If you were 13, you got your first little jon boat with a motor. If you caught enough fish, you got a bigger boat when you were 16. No one got a car until you were like 25.”
At 14, Grabowski started scuba diving. He completed a training course at Harry Harris Park in Tavernier, and soon was hired by one of his parents’ graduate students to assist on dives during the summer.
The purpose of these dives was to collect specimens for the National Cancer Institute. “They had grants to collect certain things they were using to [develop] anticancer drugs,” Grabowski explains. “We were looking for gorgonians, which are soft corals that come in two-foot tendrils, and trumpet fish. They synthesized from [the fish] the very early cancer drug prostaglandin, from which they also made early birth-control pills, which I hope I’ve benefited from at some point.”
Not long after, Grabowski was hired on at Carl Gage Dive Shop, the only one on Key Largo with an air compressor. Grabowski filled scuba tanks, and eventually led dives, while soaking up the atmosphere. Lloyd Bridges, members of Jacques Cousteau’s crew, National Geographic photographers and assorted dive enthusiasts gathered at Gage’s in the early ’70s; the boss himself had helped build submarines used in the James Bond movie Thunderball. “It was a weird bunch of people hangin’,” Grabowski says. “They were all spies and spooks and adventurers of various sorts, pirates, smugglers...”
One of those adventurers was Dimitri Rebikoff, who built cameras for Cousteau. Grabowski assisted Rebikoff during explorations in the Bahamas of the mysterious artifact known as “The Bimini Road,” which he describes as some kind of ancient underwater superhighway. “Whether it was Atlantis or an alien landing site, I’m not sure what it was,” Grabowski says. “I’m just saying, it was not normal.”
During these same years, Grabowski was also developing a passion for music. Gravitating at first to the acoustic guitar, he began playing and singing folk music. He even won a talent contest at The Flick, the famed Coconut Grove folk spot. Introduced to jazz, through the music of John Coltrane, Chick Corea, Dave Brubeck and Archie Shepp, Grabowski began tuning in to WBUS-FM, absorbing the records spun by jazz jocks Symphony Sid and China Valles.
An aspiring bassist, Grabowski entered UM as a music student in 1974, an exciting time for jazz on the campus. Bass innovator Jaco Pastorius was on faculty, following the brief tenure of fusion-guitar giant Pat Metheny. The practice rooms rang with the sounds of jazz stars in the making: saxophonists Bobby Watson and Mark Colby, bassists Curtis Lundy and Mark Egan, vocalist Carmen Lundy and drummer Danny Gottlieb. Grabowski, a composition major, matriculated to Florida State University, where he earned a master’s degree. Returning to Miami, he worked with jazz greats like Ira Sullivan, Jesse Jones Jr., Melton Mustafa and Bobby Thomas Jr., among countless others. Hired on at WTMI-FM, he became a popular on-air presence, often subbing for Valles during midnight to 6 a.m. shifts. It was there he established the easygoing “Be-bob” persona he’d later bring to WLRN-FM, along with his signature sign-off: “Go forth and be beautiful.”
Although he had assisted photographers during underwater shoots, Grabowski never owned an underwater camera until about eight years ago. After purchasing an inexpensive, non-digital model, he began experimenting. His first roll of film, by his own admission, was terrible. But by the second roll, he began to find his groove. What distinguishes his photos from the more archival pictures that appear in nature publications, he says, is the easy rapport he enjoys with his subjects. “I’ve been diving by myself for so many years that the fish interact with me,” he explains.
Grabowski remembers a photo session with a grouper he describes as the size of a “small Volks-wagen.” He says: “He was an old guy. And he had been in a fight with another grouper, and he was kind of recovering. So he was just hanging under a rock, and we hung out for about 20 minutes, side by side. I gave him the nonviolent, noncontentious view, because grouper view things a certain way. I let him know I was not there to confront him, I just want to hang out.”
For a while, Grabowski rented gallery space in the Rain Barrel Artisan’s Village on Islamorada to showcase his large-scale photographs. He’s also shown at the Butter Gallery, now in Wynwood, and at various galleries in the Grove. And his photos grace the covers of his recordings with his Absinthe Project and Gecko Island Jazz Band, as well. On Deepest Blue, his 2009 CD, Grabowski truly evokes the hushed splendor of his pelagic playground. Tunes recall the placid, free-floating qualities of a solo dive (the title track) and the diamond sparkle of sunlight playing off the ocean’s surface (“The Condado Shuffle”).
The bassist allows the possibility that his underwater explorations have seeped into his music, as well as other areas of his life. “Somebody crunched the numbers and found that living in concrete jungles of various sorts vibrates at around 140-160 cycles per second,” he notes. “That’s the hum of the city. And if you get into nature, particularly the ocean, the vibratory phenomenon goes down to about 70 cycles per second. And all the holistic people say the lower your vibration the better. The Buddhists say the same thing. So that’s one of the reasons we love to go to the beach.”
The proximity of the coral reef to the shore in Broward — maybe 200 yards out — made Fort Lauderdale beach an ideal diving option. “I remember coming home from grad school, and my friends would meet me at the airport,” Grabowski recalls. “And at midnight, we’d drive up to Lauderdale to do a night dive. That was a tradition. So I have a lot of fond memories of diving Lauderdale, off the first reef. And then I’d drink a beer and say, ‘Hey! I’m home!’”