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The Trombone: The Most Promising Instrument on the Bandstand?

Historically overshadowed, it's back in the game

Glenn Miller
Glenn Miller
Tommy Dorsey
Conrad Herwig at the Blue Note, NYC, Aug. 2014
Robin Eubanks, center on trombone, with the SFJAZZ Collective
Steve Turre
Jacob Garchik
Samuel Blaser
Luis Bonilla
Wycliffe Gordon
Ryan Keberle
Josh Roseman

It’s Monday night in Washington, D.C., and the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra is holding court. The rainy and near-freezing December weather and light turnout have led the 16-piece big band, named for the venerable club at which it’s based, to scale back to a single set. The band has a guest trumpeter, Toronto’s rising star Tara Kannangara. Given the truncated program, one might expect her features to dominate the set.

One would be wrong. The opening number, “Just Friends,” is a feature for the four-piece trombone section. They carry the melody while the trumpets and reeds ornament it with obbligatos. Then, each of the trombonists-Steve “Nature Boy” Shaw, Ben Ford, Shannon Gunn and bass trombonist Chris Buckley-takes a full 32-bar solo, all of them lively and swinging in milk-chocolate and sepia hues.

Even in a contemporary big band, this kind of showcase is unusual. It hardly sets the pace for the rest of the evening, which includes just one more trombone solo. But if it stands out for its rarity, it’s also noteworthy because of the future it portends for the jazz trombone.

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Buddy Bolden stands next to a slide trombonist in the only known photograph of the legendary cornetist’s band. Edwin “Daddy” Edwards played it on the Original Dixieland Jass Band’s 1917 “Livery Stable Blues,” regarded as the first jazz recording. Kid Ory was an indispensable member of bands led by Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. Jack Teagarden, like Ory an Armstrong alum, used the instrument to set standards of virtuosity during the 1920s and ’30s. The trombone, in short, has been integral to jazz from the beginning. But since bebop arrived in the 1940s, the horn has been overshadowed by the trumpet and saxophone-to say the least. Often it’s neglected altogether. Except for big bands, where they’re needed to occupy the brass section’s tenor register, trombones aren’t considered a staple on jazz bandstands.

“I think in small-group settings it was never accepted as a frontline instrument,” says Robin Eubanks, a longtime member of the SFJAZZ Collective who’s one of the most prominent jazz trombonists working today. “The joke with trombonists is that a band that has five horns will swear that ‘If we had a sixth, it would definitely be a trombone.'”

“The history of the music we love is not kind to trombonists,” agrees Reginald Cyntje, an up-and-coming trombone player based in D.C. “I was told you have to be better than [most] to just be noticed. … If great players like Steve Turre or Kuumba Frank Lacy played saxophone they would receive wider recognition.

Bits of rueful conventional wisdom-say, that the trombonist is the “last hired, first fired”-abound. So do jokes, no less rueful. “How can you tell the trombonist’s kid on the playground?” cracks Conrad Herwig, a top-tier trombonist who also teaches at Rutgers University. “He can’t swing, and he’s afraid of the slide.” It adds up to a kind of self-deprecating acceptance from trombonists of their diminished role in jazz.

***

In the late 1930s and ’40s, the trombone gave jazz some of its biggest stars. Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller were both trombonists and bandleaders-two that stand as emblems of the swing era. Sidemen such as Trummy Young, “Tricky Sam” Nanton and Dicky Wells illuminated the ensembles of Jimmie Lunceford, Duke Ellington and Count Basie, respectively.

Uptempo swing tunes were still deliberately paced not to outrun human feet. Then came bebop, which was interested in fast tempos and complex harmonies rather than danceable rhythms. Even the best slide trombonists couldn’t make the transition; the instrument’s technical demands, unlike those of the trumpet and saxophone, were unsuited to the new high-speed music. “For instance,” Eubanks explains, “if you go from F to G below middle C on the trumpet, sax, piano or guitar, you move your fingers maybe an inch. But to play that same interval on the slide, you have to move about 12 inches.” At tempos around 300 beats per minute, the difficulty is tremendous.

Technique wasn’t the only obstacle between the trombone and bebop; politics were involved too. “Part of the reason why the trombone was popular [in early jazz] was because of the link to minstrelsy,” says Alex W. Rodriguez, a trombonist and jazz historian and a doctoral student at UCLA. “Smearing and sliding was a way of ‘blacking up,’ imitating the ‘primitive Negroes.’ Those were the kinds of things that beboppers were distancing themselves from. If Louis Armstrong was a subject of their critiques, then someone who was sliding around and mugging wasn’t going to jibe with their aesthetic either.”

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