Sunday, January 31, 2021

Thoughts on Jazz Trombone by Martin Williams with an Introduction by John Litweiler

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"The slide trombone is a primitive-looking instrument which, next to a trumpet, seems like a cycle to an auto. If your arms are short, don't even attempt to play it, for while you hold it to your lips with your left hand, you must move the slide back and forth in front of you through seven positions with your right, meanwhile manipulating your embouchure within a large mouthpiece in order to achieve the instrument's usual two and a half octave range. It’s no wonder that the trumpet is so vastly preferred as a Jazz instrument., far apart from  its carrying power within a higher range, its streamlined size and valves permit easy mobility where acrobatic coordination is required of the trombonist. Thus it's traditional in big bands for the trombone section to be rather simpler than those of the other winds, and indeed, in early jazz, the trombonist's role was to chuff away at rhythmic and harmonic support for the more mobile instruments.

Yet until the advent of jazz, the deep communicative power of the trombone had not been realized: its big sound, rich textures, and classic expressive techniques were the most distinctive of early jazz sonorities. Soloists emerged in the '20s as the big bands grew in versatility and the New Orleans ensemble style began to disappear, and while the liberating influence of trumpeter Louis Armstrong was a major factor in evolving trombone styles (transmitted most influentially by the young New York big band soloist Jimmy Harrison, who died in 1931 the grand manner of early masters such as Kid Ory retained its attraction, too. Surely the Swing Era was the jazz trombone's time of glory, for a diverse group if individualists flourished while, for example, trumpet and tenor sax players seemed to depend on the resources of Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins. There were the majestic arrogance of J.C. Higginbotham, the powerful and subtle mastery of Dicky Wells, the suave melodism and blues interpretations of Jack Teagarden, and the elegance of Lawrence Brown to provide standards of excellence; Tricky Sam Nanton, with the Ellington band, was another world of expression entirely; outstanding players such as Trummy Young and the eclectic Vic Dickenson proved important influences themselves.

The end of the trombone's greatest significance was forecast when Lester Young introduced a wholly new sensibility to Jazz, when small combos with their emphasis on treble clef horns gained important as sources of jazz innovation, and finally when the fresh winds of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie renewed the whole atmosphere of the music. Bebop was a music wherein small note values and the clarity of the melodic line, almost the exclusive source of aesthetic values, could not in the least be obscured. The Swing trombone's nobility of sound and dramatic capacities had no place in such a completely lyrical idiom, for if even a trumpeter as accomplished as Gillespie had to sacrifice sonoric richness in order to achieve mobility of execution, how much more did the player of the ungainly slide trombone abandon. A teen-aged Indianapolis J.J. Johnson [born 1924] listened to the graceful, ornate Fred Beckett, with the bands of Harlan Leonard and then Lionel Hampton, "the very first trombonist I ever heard play in a manner other than the usual sliding, slurring gutbucket style. He had tremendous facilities for linear improvisation." Johnson's sense of musical values is important, for he is the leading modern trombonist, almost the exclusive source of '50s and '60s style — yet he maintained that tenor saxist Lester Young and trumpeter Roy Eldridge were more important to his developing art than his trombone peers; later came the impact of Parker and Gillespie on his work.

What Johnson's playing particularly offered — with Parker, Gillespie, and the other major bop figures; with the two-trombone Jay and Kai (Winding) quintets and then his own small touring groups, before he abandoned playing for a Hollywood composing career in the '60s — was fast, highly active lines played with a vibratoless tone so light that it abandoned expressive capability. These qualities made Johnson the dominating figure on his instrument, as two generations of players based their art on his perceptions; without his ideas, the trombone may not have survived in the bop hothouse. "There was a time in my life in the mid-1940s, when my aim was to play as fast as physically possible," he told Ira Gitler in an important interview (Jazz Masters Of The Forties, Macmillan, 1966). "In Philly a ridiculous club owner had a sign outside which read, 'Fastest Trombone Alive.” Inevitably, Jazz and tempos became more civilized . . ." The Johnson style made virtuoso demands on the player's stamina, dexterity, and intellect — thus Johnson was aware of the pitfalls of bop intensity, despite his natural attraction to a Romantic musical outlook."

- John Litweiler insert notes to The Trombone Album [Savoy SV-0276]

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


  1. Well respectfully I think Martin is wrong in his analysis. In my eyes, JJ's style is more tied to the trombone for numerous reasons. #1 being Knepper himself told a lot of people many many times over the years that he WAS NOT IN ANY WAY influenced by other trombonists. Ironically, quite the opposite of what the article said he was sort of discontented with the overall mediocrity of most jazz trombonists harmonic sense compared to other great jazz instrumentalists and he is right. To my ears, as great as JJ is his lines are fairly harmonically and rhythmically simple compared to some of the greats on Saxophone , Trumpet and what have you. I dont mean this in the sense of trombone being an inherently more limited instrument in terms of practical technique either. From a musical stand point a person like JJ Johnson played very lyrical melodic linear phrases, however the harmonic content was always very straight forward and very obvious. I hate to start some kind of shit storm over this, I dont know why this is maybe its from JJ being other trombonists who also compared to their counter parts were simple or whether it is a byproduct of simply being conditioned to a trombonists mindset, which often encourages us only to be parts player and to keep our solos simple and melodic so as to "suit" the instrument but I find it frankly baffling that the article you quoted is unable to see that. Jimmy saw it and saw it well and hated it. He was influenced by other saxophonists mainly like Lester Young, Bird, and Dexter Gordon. Not only this but he reflected much more harmonic and melodic complexity in his solos than any other trombonist from this era really who all really seem to fall in the same boat pretty much. I do really like guys like Carl and Frank but their styles are also very tied to the trombone in my eyes. Its really only getting to more modern people like Hal Crook, whom I studied with for many years at Berklee, or Conrad Herwig, Elliot Mason, even some of the guys who did a lot of free improvisational work like Albert Mangelsdorff and George Lewis. These were the guys that really broke through that barrier of trombone being considered a self contained instrument. They influenced many different types of musicians with their playing. In the case of Hal, he has 30 years worth of students from Berklee who are directly inspired by his trombone playing and teaching methods ... students like Esperanza Spalding, Roy Hargrove ,Antonio Sanchez ... now THATS a versatile trombonist. This is in no way meant to demean JJ or his achievements. I also freely admit that I was just never a huge JJ Johnson fan. I see him as an important figure in developing bebop language on the trombone, he was the most important for that no doubt. I just think his application of it was most definitely tied to the historical short comings of the trombonist in more ways than people like to admit. I guess if I could sum my thoughts up about him I would say he used the trombone in such a way that still submitted to its nature. He never overcame it. He learned how to play the characteristic sound of bebop using the trombone in a way that works very well WITH the instrument and not against it. Knepper by comparison in my eyes never really considered himself a trombonist nor learned the instrument with the same view as Johnson. He was noted for using various alternate positions and natural slurs and was influenced through imitating saxophonists off the radio. Its two different mindsets.

  2. Trummy Young who played with Louis Armstrong has to be in any discussion.

    Warren Smith was another from the late 1930s onward. Originally from Chicago, Smith played with Duke Ellington and was a regular with Bob Crosby band.

    Los Angeles in the 1960s seemed to be filled with great young trombone players including Mike Barone and three I played with, Jim Trimble, Randy Aldcroft and Ron Myers.

  3. Thanks for devoting a paragraph to the wonderful blues artist Ike Rodgers


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