Jennifer Wharton: All About That Bass Trombone

The trombonist celebrates the underrated beauty of the instrument on her debut album

Trombonist Jennifer Wharton (photo by John Abbott)
Trombonist Jennifer Wharton (photo: John Abbott)

Jennifer Wharton lives and breathes trombone. She even admits to having a dress adorned with them (see the photo above for proof). The bass trombonist, born and raised in Northern California but a fixture on the NYC music scene, has been linked to the instrument since she was in middle school. Although she’s made her living performing in the pit bands of many of the most successful Broadway musicals, Wharton has always kept one foot in the jazz world. She’s been a secret weapon in various big bands, including the critically acclaimed Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society. After many years playing in the back row (literally), Wharton has finally moved forward and released her debut album as a leader, Bonegasm, on Sunnyside, produced by her husband and fellow trombonist John Fedchock. Rather than feature herself as the sole lead with a rhythm section, she opted to celebrate the instrument she loves by recording with—get ready—three other trombonists. The result is not at all what you might expect. It’s melodic, it’s fun, and it even has a vocal on “Big Long Slidin’ Thing,” a song with lyrics as suggestive as its title.

Wharton spoke with JazzTimes contributing editor Lee Mergner during the Jazz Cruise, on which she has performed for the last 10 years as a vital member of the house big band.

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JazzTimes: What was your first musical instrument? Let me guess, it begins with a “T,” right?

Jennifer Wharton: It was a trombone. My second year of playing trombone, they handed me a bass trombone because I missed the day they did auditions. And I liked it. I learned how to use one trigger at the time. I quit playing in high school … I was a cheerleader. I started playing again because I missed it so much and the band director was like, “Well, you’re going to play bass trombone and you’re going to play tuba and you’re going to play the euphonium.” Along the way, I had very good education experiences with music teachers that [said]: “This is what you need to do.” Because I had nothing better to do, I just did it. Certain things came easy to me and certain things didn’t, but learning the instruments came pretty easy to me, and I loved it.

You did all those other instruments?

Yes, and it’s helped out on Broadway a lot. I did the Carole King show [Beautiful] for four-and-a-half years, and that was tenor trombone and bass trombone. But now I’m doing King Kong and it’s bass trombone and tuba. But I’ve done shows where it’s all three, and I’ve subbed on shows, like Spider-Man [Turn Off the Dark], that had four instruments. I think there was a euphonium in the mix. But that’s very stressful. I don’t know how reed players do it.

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You went to college in California?

I did junior college first. If I hadn’t gone there, I would have been a marine biology major. But I didn’t go to a four-year school because we had no money, and we had no idea about financial aid, so I went to this junior college in my town [Los Medanos College in Pittsburg, Calif.] that had a really good music program. It took me three years to get out of a two-year program because [longtime Los Medanos band director] John Maltester kept making me take all these music classes. He, along with my high school band director, are basically the reasons why I’m still a musician. I was surrounded by people who were serious about studying music, which I had never been before. My family was not very supportive at the time. My musician family became my family.

I got serious about it and when I was auditioning for schools to transfer, I just said, “Well, let’s shoot for the moon!” I auditioned at Manhattan, I auditioned for Eastman, and I auditioned for New England Conservatory. Doug Yeo, the guy at New England Conservatory who was a bass trombone player in the Boston Symphony, loved me because I think he was missing his daughter, who also played bass trombone. We worked really well together and it was a great learning experience. But he didn’t want me to play in the big band—I don’t think he did. He had kind of a weird vibe when I said, “Oh yeah, I’m playing in all the big bands.”

Was he thinking you were on the classical track or …?

I was studying classical. I would always play tuba in the concert band when I was in junior college and then I played bass trombone in the big band. And then when I got into NEC, it was just playing bass trombone. I got my ass handed to me.

In the jazz world?

No, in the classical world! Because I wasn’t really studying jazz, but I was playing in all the big bands. I kept trying to fit myself into that classical world, because I thought that was what I had to do to make a living. I came to improvisation pretty late in life and it’s still a learning process.

What was your first actual paying gig as a musician?

I started doing Chinese funerals in San Francisco, and I met the contractor for all the Broadway shows and he hired me for a Bernadette Peters one-off. And I started working for him. Then I tried out graduate school for a year in Manhattan School of Music, which didn’t take. I came back and did the pre-Broadway run of Wicked, and I decided I wasn’t going back to school after that because I was like, “I like making money better.” I had kind of a bad experience at grad school with the teachers.

Talk to me a bit about the bass trombone. If you had to explain it to someone who doesn’t know the difference, what would you say?

We have an extended range below the tenor trombone—[the tenor] is what most people play. The function of a bass trombone has always historically been a workhorse. Most of my parts are roots and fifths; we don’t get melody a lot. Stylistically I’ve been trying to combat shortcomings in my own playing because I don’t do a lot of melodic playing. This project was a chance to bring the bass trombone out of that role of being a workhorse and showing off what it can do, given the right circumstances.

Is that your role with Darcy’s band as well?

Yes, I play bass trombone and tuba in that band too. Darcy’s band, Alan Ferber’s band, I’m on Ken Peplowski’s record. I actually have a beef with bands that don’t have a bass trombone. I’m really upset by that! I do have a trombone dress, by the way.

One perhaps surprising thing about the record is that it is very melodic. You have all these clever ways of introducing the trombones. People will make assumptions when they hear there are four trombones on the album.

I think a lot of people look at it that way, like, “Ugh, four trombones, who wants to listen to that?” But I don’t know, it feels like a fun record. I know I’m biased, but it just feels joyful.

What guided your selection of the tunes?

Edward Perez wrote the first tune on there [“The Year of Two Summers”]. I play in a band that he co-leads in Queens. He’s a bass player and plays with the Silk Road Ensemble. I’m sure I’m forgetting many things that he does because he’s very versatile. He wrote an arrangement of this tune for his small group, but he [also] had an arrangement with a big band, and I loved it so much that he wrote this one for my birthday. I love this arrangement so much that it is now hard for me to play the big-band arrangement, but it’s so much fun. I grew up surrounded by a lot of Latin music in the Bay Area, so I have a big love for it. I wanted to open up the CD with something super-fun so the choice for “The Year of Two Summers” was a no brainer.

The trombonist Nate Mayland wrote one of the songs and plays on the album.

He went to Indiana University, and he’s one of those guys that can do everything but, like my husband, he doesn’t toot his own horn. I can’t even remember how I met him. He lives in Queens not far from where we live, and I’ve done a lot of Broadway shows with him. In fact, he’s on the show I’m doing right now. But he sounds good on anything he plays, and he has really high chops and is a great writer. That tune “Stellar” is named for his daughter, Stella, that he and his wife just had.

The great composer and pianist Jim McNeely not only contributed a tune but also wrote very witty and entertaining liner notes.

I met Jim doing the BMI Jazz Workshop. I would play in the band that plays everybody’s stuff. I always felt like he was a linebacker who missed the football field and fell into the piano. He’s just a big teddy bear and I just want to hug him. I wrote him, and he was recovering from knee surgery or something, so he had some time to write it. And he called it “Low Ball” because he knows my favorite word is balls. But it’s super-fun—the melodies and the bass trombone in the second half, and John sounds so gorgeous on it. Jim was my biggest ask on the album.

The other person who you may not know is Sara Jacovino, who plays with Diva and who wrote “Other Angles.” She also did the BMI Jazz Composer’s Workshop and she won the prize one year. She came out of North Texas. I thought it was important to put my money where my mouth is and support a fellow female artist that deserved more recognition.

John’s arrangement for “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” was for a different trombone quartet I played in with him. That’s the one that opens with a big cadenza from me. “North Rampart,” written by Alan Ferber, is a street in New Orleans, my favorite town. It’s a beautiful ballad that I fell in love with. Actually, it’s the reason why I started this band, because I wanted to play it.

Trombonist Jennifer Wharton (photo by John Abbott)
Trombonist Jennifer Wharton (photo by John Abbott)

This is your first record. When did you go, “I need to do this”? Or did you start the band first and then decide to make a record?

I’ve wanted to do a trombone quartet forever, but I really thought, “No one’s going to want to play with me.”

You were clearly wrong about that. What led you to do the suggestive song “Big Long Slidin’ Thing” that ends the album?

Well, it’s a dirty song. It’s a double entendre with the trombone. It was two weeks before our first gig, and someone at my Broadway show, a great bass player named Zev Katz, asked, “Have you ever heard this tune?” And I hadn’t. He played it for me, and I’m like, “I’m singing this tune! I’m going to sing this tune!”

Had you sung in the past?

No! I took several voice lessons and my teacher was very impressed with—I don’t know, was it my air? Well, she did think that my voice sounded pretty good for not ever having studied. I was like, “You should tell that to my mother,” because my mother hated the way I sang. Anyway, I just did it as kind of a joke. It’s actually a very adorable arrangement—John with all the trombones. I’ve never heard an arrangement of this tune with trombones, and I’ve listened to a lot of them. It’s always a singer and a rhythm section, that’s it.

It’s often the last tune on the record that’s a hidden gem, so it’s funny that you did that tune as the last one on your record.

Well, the joke’s on them! It is pretty funny, though. I didn’t really want the album to be about my playing, I wanted to feature just the beauty of the instrument. I feel like most albums are that way—you’ve got the leader and the backing group. But with an ensemble, especially with all the stuff that I do, like a jazz big band, it’s a cohesive, living, breathing thing, and you want to hear it do the thing that it’s supposed to do.

What have been the pros and cons of your work on Broadway?

Show chops. Meaning if you don’t do a lot of outside stuff, you can only do the show. You get diminishing returns the more you do the show. I try to take off as much as I can to do other stuff to keep my playing fresh, to keep meeting people, because—let’s face it—I’m a bass trombone player, I’m not ever going to be famous. I have to keep being out there and doing my thing, otherwise you can disappear on Broadway. You have to keep doing it, and there’s no upward mobility.

Speaking of Broadway, have you fallen in love with music from any of the shows that you wouldn’t have expected?

No, because I don’t feel like the human body was made to do the same thing every single day. It’s like repetitive motion, except for your musical muscle. I met Carole [King] and she was cool as shit. I told her I was the only woman in our band, and she said, “I know how that feels!” Her story and music are incredible, and all of the people I met during that production, that was a very amazing experience. But I’m very happy to not be doing it and doing something else. Someone told me, “It’s good to be wanted.” If you’re wanted elsewhere, sometimes you have to make that leap, even though it might mean I’m going to be unemployed sometime soon.

I gave a couple of CDs to [trombonists] I hold dear and two of them said to me, “Oh, I wish I had done something like this.” I started to feel bad. I was like, “I’m sorry, I’ll take it back!” It was kind of a feeling that we all get where we’re used to being used in a certain way, where we’re like, “Oh, I’m never going to be a Dave Taylor or Bill Reichenbach or George Roberts.” It’s changing, it’s slowly changing. There are bass trombone players coming up that are really amazing soloists, and one of them in fact just moved to New York and he put out a CD recently. His name is Reginald Chapman. Super-nice and awesome player. He’s a multi-instrumentalist and he inspired me, in a way. He’s younger than me, but just to see all these bass trombone players that have moved to New York has been inspiring me in different ways because I’m questioning my own life. I’m just sitting here living a comfortable life, I’m not pushing myself, I need to push myself. It’s partially their fault too that I wanted to do this.

I wanted to see what I could do outside of my comfort zone. John Clayton kept doing that bottom-feeders thing [on the Jazz Cruise] and he brought up Tom Kennedy to do a solo in front of the band, he brought out [baritone saxophonist] Gary Smulyan to do a solo with him in front of the band. And I was like, “That would be interesting.” Just the role of bass instruments as melodic instruments. That would be interesting.

Are you doing gigs to promote the album?

Our next big gig is at Birdland on June 30th where we will play all the music from the album and a couple new commissions. We did a CD release show in March at a tiny hole in the wall in Harlem called Silvana. It’s adorable and free so a lot of people came. We are also performing at Penn State for a trombone symposium. To be honest, a lot of schools are interested in having female artists represented … when I was coming up, I had no females to look up to. I remember I was going through a situation, and I called up Ingrid Jensen because I was like, “You’re the only person I know that might be able to tell me if I handled it right or wrong.” That is changing and I’m glad to contribute in any way I can.

You know, I can remember very clearly making the choice when I didn’t want to improvise so changing my beliefs about myself and about my abilities has been very painful to do. But I figure, if you’re not doing something that challenges you, then why do it at all? Why try?