We've all heard the old story about the elephant's being designed by a committee, the members of which couldn't agree on anything. As a result, the elephant has wide, flat ears, a long trunk, tree-like legs, a thin tail and tusks, parts so disparate that each seems to belong on another animal.
The trombone is like that. It has always seemed to me that, more than any other instrument, it appears to belong more as a moving part in a car or a washing machine than in a band or orchestra. Who would choose such a weird ax anyway?
I've asked many a music student how he or she arrived at a choice of instrument, and the answers have varied from a desire to emulate a musical hero, to delight in a particular sound or timbre, to the dictates of parents.
Some forty years ago, I decided to learn to play music and wound up in the trombone section. How this happened was the combination of vague boredom with summertime sandlot baseball in my neighborhood, a natural and abiding love of music, and a naive belief that band rehearsals would exempt me from some of the daily household chores that burgeoned until school reconvened in the autumn.
So I pedaled my bicycle to the local high school one warm morning to a session with the band director, who was trying to build a program that would allow youngsters to mature musically and, into the bargain, would set him up with a crackerjack high school band for years to come as older musicians graduated. It was a sort of musical farm system.
I'd had a vague notion of myself as a trumpet player, mainly because they were the melodic guys in a high school band and I wanted to sing to the stands. But Mr. Thorley told me that my lips were too fat and the set of my teeth unaccommodating -- my embouchure, as he put it, had several characteristics that were more suited to the larger cup of a trombone mouthpiece. I think the real reason was that he needed more trombone players.
Nevertheless, I gamely talked my parents into getting me a trombone and I spent the next eight years or so exercising my chubby chops in the lower brass section. The favor Mr. Thorley did for me, however, was that I began to listen to records of accomplished musicians playing an instrument about which I had known virtually nothing, other than it looked odd and took a lot of room to play.
Naturally, as my musical tastes matured, I listened for the 'bones' creamy sounds in orchestras, jazz combos, marching bands. And I discovered a fondness for the range of the instrument, as it flirted with the territory of the french horn and the cello, then descended into the baleful depths of the tubas, string basses and even the higher notes of the tympani.
There was a time, beginning in the 1920s, when the trombone was transplanted from its major role in parade bands and New Orleans-style combos to ever increasing prominence in popular orchestras. This was accomplished by such bandleaders as Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington. The roster of early trombonists -- such as George Lewis, Jim Robinson and Kid Ory -- built the pediment of the supportive lower-register sounds for the growing genre of jazz.
Glenn Miller, Jack Teagarden, Tommy Dorsey, Juan Tizol and Sam Nanton, among others, brought their chops to the big band and swing eras, and even Trummy Young and Dicky Wells found a place for humor in the ungainly look and the ornery glissandos of the sliphorn.
The bop era brought us a wealth of trombone talent in the persons of Kai Winding, J.J. Johnson, Frank Rosolino, Curtis Fuller, Bill Watrous (who later got into fusion, as did his contemporary, Wayne Henderson). Launching from a bop platform, Bob Brookmeyer took his valve trombone into the very interesting arrondissements of Third Stream flirtation in his work with reed man Jimmy Giuffre.
Slide Hampton delivered technique in a package labeled "circular breathing" and Jimmy Knepper did what only Jimmy Knepper could do by mind-melding with the great, angry eccentric, Charles Mingus, and helping to take Mingus' most adventurous compositions beyond the perimeters of the mundane, putting an extra heart to work in experimental jazz.
Speaking of experimentation, the free jazz movement provided the backdrop for such as Grachan Moncour III, Roswell Rudd and Julian Priester. From there, it was a short hop into jazz rock with Chicago, Tower of Power and Blood, Sweat and Tears.
There is a notion abroad, mostly among trombone enthusiasts, that the instrument as a jazz vehicle underwent a period of dormancy after the bop era, but that isn't precisely true. Though trombonists did fade from whatever screens monitor the ever-shortening attention span of the popular music lover, a great many composers and arrangers knew the value of the lower brass sound and the versatility of range a 'bone can bring to jazz.
Gil Evans is the most obvious example, but the Mel Lewis-Thad Jones unit proves the trombone's honored seat in modern big band jazz. Other composing and arranging patrons of the instrument are Lew Tabackin and Toshiko Akiyoshi and Maynard Ferguson.
Visitors to the SkyJazz website can click on the "Interactive" link and find a list of schools submitted by students who are studying music. There are colleges, universities, high schools and prep schools, all training our future class of musicians, some of whom will find their ways into the jazz world and, perhaps, someday be featured here on SkyJazz.
And I'll bet a year's supply of slide oil that on that list is a cohort of trombonists,
ready to slide into fame.