© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
From the vantage point of when this article was written in January, 1962, many of the trombonists that Martin Williams writes about were still active in the music.
My one quibble with the piece is that it doesn’t take into consideration some excellent trombonists that were resident on the West Coast during the same period. Players like Frank Rosolino, Carl Fontana and Lou Blackburn probably escaped Martin’s attention due to the fact that his geographical vantage point was the East Coast.
But as it stands, Martin’s essay is a wonderful retrospective of the history of the Jazz trombone and the important Jazz trombone stylists.
One would be hard-pressed to find a better survey, especially one that treats as many of the more obscure early pioneers on the instrument.
“It is usually said that J.J. Johnson was the first trombonist to develop a modern Jazz style on the instrument.
There is more to it than that. It might be more nearly accurate to say that Johnson developed an individual style, which he plays on a trombone. There is not very much about that style that is peculiar to the instrument he uses, not much about it that uses the particular resources of the trombone.
Jimmy Knepper, on the other hand, is the first trombonist in quite a while to find his style specifically in the possibilities of the instrument itself.
To say it another way, and exaggerate it a bit, you could play Johnson style on any horn, but you could play Knepper style only on trombone.
Cannonball Adderley spoke of the distinction and his opinion of it in a review of an LP featuring Knepper a couple of years atzo:
"Knepper is a very good trombonist. But J. J. has spoiled me with regard to a trombone sounding like a trombone. I mean that Knepper, though he's very good, is too tied to the instrument. J. J., on the other hand, is a good soloist who happens to use the trombone. Therefore, if you call Knepper an 'original' trombonist, you may be right. If you mean an 'original' soloist, in the same sense in which I'd use the term for J. J., that's something else.
"Similarly, I think Jimmy Cleveland is an original trombonist but not the original jazz soloist J. J. is. J. J. has a style, and it's the kind of style that allows men on other instruments beside the trombone to emulate it, and they wind up sounding in part like J. J.
"I'd say Knepper is like a modern Jack Teagarden. A man like Curtis Fuller emulates J. J. from a trombone point of view, and a player like Kai Winding was originally a J. J. emulator (not in content but from the viewpoint of the trombone). Knepper's influences, however, sound more traditional — Teagarden, Urbie Green. Even his sound sounds similar to Teagarden's in some spots."
Nowadays, then, jazz trombone has a dual role. It always has had, although the distinction that is now made between an almost abstract style, like Johnson's and a more "trombone-istic" style, like Knepper's, has not always been the distinction that applied.
It is obvious enough and well established enough that jazz first began at least partly as an instrumental imitation of vocal music.
It happens that the characteristics of the trombone are very close to those of the human voice, perhaps closer than those of any other instrument. Therefore, the temptation among early jazz trombonists to imitate human sounds must have been enormous. A surviving practitioner of the early style is, of course, Kid Ory. There are trombonists who probably play the "tailgate" New Orleans ensemble style with more technique than Ory uses (Georg Brunis does), but surely that are few who can play with more expressiveness. And even when Ory is playing the simplest parade smear, he is obviously a man singing on a trombone.
There were some marvelously guttural (and gutter-al) trombone comments recorded in the 1920s by a man named Ike Rodgers.
It has been said that Rodgers could play only two notes but that when he played the blues, they seemed to be the only two notes anybody ought to need. There are examples of Rodgers' work on an available LP, playing with blues pianists Roosevelt Sykes and Henry Brown and commenting on the woes of singers Edith Johnson and Alice Moore (Riverside 150). Rodgers had a trick of his own, of stuffing the end of his horn with window screening. He got a sound that words fail to describe—he still seemed to be talking away on his horn but with a different voice.
Charlie (Big) Green, who graces many an early Fletcher Henderson and Bessie Smith record, carried this vocal tradition further along.
But it reached another kind of development in the work of Duke Ellington's plunger man, Joe (Tricky Sam) Nanton. There are Nanton solos from the late 1930s and early '40s that are so uncannily like projections of the male human voice that they are nearly unbelievable.
Sidewalks of New York was a particularly striking example, because there Nanton was playing a well-known melody, and he seemed almost to be singing it wordlessly. It might be said with only slight exaggeration that Nanton had but one solo, which he put together in various ways. But Ellington used that solo, and the impact of its sound and emotion, so resourcefully and with such variety of settings that to this day there must be a capable Nanton imitator in the Ellington trombone section. He not only must play the old pieces, but he must re-create some of the old effects even on many of the new tunes.
Before Nanton, jazz trombone had already taken another step that gave it its first duality.
There were trombonists in the early 1920s who were playing the horn as a brass instrument, not just using its slide in limited and obvious ways and not using its resources only to re-create human sounds. The first such men to be celebrated in jazz history, were, of course, Jack Teagarden and Jimmy Harrison, and independently they worked out rather similar approaches. (Actually, Miff Mole did the same sort of thing concurrently, if not slightly before them, and Mole was a fine instrumentalist if not quite so good an improviser.)
Coleman Hawkins, who was in the Henderson band with both Big Green and Harrison has put the story this way:
"Jimmy, he was quite a trombone player. . . . I'll never forget it. You know I used to kid Jimmy a lot. I'll never forget the first time we ever heard Jack Teagarden. It was in Roseland. This other band played the first set. I'd heard about this Teagarden ... so I went up to hear him, you know. I went downstairs to get Jimmy and the fellows, to start kidding about it. So I said, 'Umm, man, there's a boy upstairs that's playing an awful lot of trombone.'
'Yeah, who's that, Hawk?'
I said, 'what do they call him . . . Jack Teagarden?'
I said, 'Jimmy, you know him?'
" 'No, I'm not gonna know him. I don't know anything about him. What's he play? Trombone player, ain't he? Plays like the rest of the trombones, don't he? I don't see no trombones. Trombone is a brass instrument. It should have that sound, just like a trumpet. I don't want to hear trombones that sound like trombones. I can't see it.'
"So I said, 'But, Jimmy, he doesn't sound like those trombones. He plays up high, and he sounds a whole lot like trumpets to me.'
"I'll never forget it. Jimmy and Jack got to be the tightest of friends."
So they did, and played together nightly. Sometimes they played all night long in Hawkins' apartment. They did it out of mutual respect, of course, but Hawkins adds slyly that they also did it because each was trying to find out what techniques and ideas the other had that he hadn't learned yet.
It has not been possible during the last few years to hear Harrison on currently available LPs, but Columbia's recent four-record set, The Fletcher Henderson Story (C4L 19; also available as a CD boxed set), presents a great deal of Harrison, and also of Big Green. It is also possible on that set to hear Harrison, J. C. Higginbotham, and Dickie Wells all taking solos on various versions of King Porter Stomp during the evolution of that important Henderson arrangement.
Teagarden remains a superb instrumentalist, and he can be a first-rate improviser. Bill Russo said of him in a recent tribute, "... it was not until a few years ago that I realized that Jack Teagarden is the best jazz trombonist. He has an unequaled mastery of his instrument, which is evident in the simple perfection of his performance, not in sensational displays; the content of his playing illustrates a deep understanding of compositional principles. ..."
A favorite, representative Teagarden solo is the variation he played on Pennies from Heaven during a Town Hall concert with Louis Armstrong (on RCA Victor 1443). It is a free invention within the harmonic framework of the piece that makes little reference to melody itself.
Once Harrison and Teagarden had shown the way, a number of trombonists followed. One of the best was Dickie Wells. Another was J. C. Higginbotham, whose style humorously carried both the vocal tradition and the trombone-instrumental tradition as one. One of Higginbotham's later heirs decidedly is Bill Harris.
Wells has been most highly praised by French critic Andre Hodeir as one of
those who need only "blow into their instruments to achieve something personal and move the listener. Dickie Wells gets this expressive quintessence out of the most thankless instrument of all. When played without majesty, the trombone easily becomes wishy-washy and unbearable. Dickie Wells is majesty personified, in style and particularly in tone."
Wells is also praised for his sense of balance and for the fact that he also knows how to use contrast within a solo. Among the solos Hodeir cites are those on Fletcher Henderson's 1933 version of King Porter Stomp and on Count Basie's Texas Shuffle (Brunswick 54012), Panassie Stomp (Decca 8049), Taxi War Dance (Epic LN 6031-2), and his accompaniments to Jimmy Rushing on Nobody Knows and Harvard Blues (Columbia 901).
And then there is Benny Morton. A compliment once was extended to Morton on the originality and compositional balance of his solos. It was a half-humorous remark: "I don't see why you throw them away by just playing them. You really ought to publish them, they are so lovely and complete." His modest reply was, "Well, I don't have an awful lot of flashy technique so I figured the best thing for me to do was to work on making melodies in my playing."
One of Morton's other contributions was inadvertent and came about because one of his solos happened to get orchestrated.
Even into the late '30s, the written parts and section effects for trombones, although sometimes highly effective, were likely to be rudimentary. In fact, the trombone style that still was used in many swing arrangements can be heard in scores from the mid-1920s by King Oliver's and Jelly Roll Morton's groups.
However, there is included in The Fletcher Henderson Story a remarkable pair of pieces, originally sold back to back on a 78-rpm single, called Hot and Anxious and Comin' and Goin'. Bits of those two orchestrations were lifted by swing arrangers to make "originals" (including In the Mood). The most notable "borrowing" was the Count Basie arrangement Swinging the Blues, which comes directly from these Henderson pieces, and during the course of which Morton's trombone solo on Comin' and Goin' is orchestrated for the entire Basie section.
So far no mention has been made of a singular trombonist in American popular music, Tommy Dorsey. There is hardly a man on the instrument who does not look up to Dorsey as a player, and Dickie Wells recently dedicated a piece to him with a tribute-title: Bones for the King.
On the other hand, it is quite possible to maintain that Dorsey was not a very good jazzman, perhaps not a jazzman at all, although he was in several respects a dedicated musician, and there was never anything phony or patronizing about his use of jazz or of jazz musicians. About Dorsey as a jazzman, one remembers the story of the Metronome all-star date on which both he and Teagarden appeared. Dorsey would not agree to solo with an improviser like Teagarden in the studio, but he did agree to ad lib an accompaniment, using his lovely sound, when Teagarden played The Blues. The result is now available on Camden 426.
Another trombonist who was celebrated in the late '30s and early '40s among musicians was Jack Jenney, who had a lovely tone and ballad style and some fine variations on Stardust. He recorded them with his own band in 1939, and repeated them with Artie Shaw in 1940 (the latter reissued on Victor LPM 1244).
As was indicated, J. J. Johnson gave the trombone an almost abstract style that depended neither on the fact that a trombone can be made quite readily to imitate the human voice nor on the specific resources of the instrument.
As Johnson himself has indicated, he was inspired by one predecessor in this, Fred Beckett.
The more vocal style of trombone continues in J. C. Higginbotham, in the Ellington trombone section, in Al Grey's plunger style, in Bill Harris, and in Bob Brookmeyer, who punctuates his fluent improvising with allusions to the sighs, laughs, grunts, and other yeahl-sayings of the vocal-trombone tradition.
Brookmeyer has spoken with deep respect of Vic Dickenson. To Brookmeyer, Dickenson's horn has gone beyond being an instrument and is an extension of himself, not only of his voice but also of his whole being, so that it is hard to know which is Dickenson and which is trombone. And Dickenson also combines the instrumental tradition and the vocal tradition in a very personal way.
The trombone-instrumental style— or as it may somewhat awkwardly be called, the trombone-istic style—that reappeared in Urbie Green's and Jimmy Knepper's work may find its following again.
This discussion has not been an exhaustive treatment of the history of jazz trombone, or of all its major players in any sense, but it was intended to indicate that there long have been at least two jazz trombone traditions and that now there are three. A young player whose ears are really open to the past has a varied tradition to draw on.”
Down Beat Magazine
January 8, 1962