"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]