A musician’s musician, trombonist Ed Neumeister has not only played with several of the great big bands in modern jazz—including those led by Ellington, Hampton, Mel Lewis, and Buddy Rich—but also has become a clear triple threat as player, composer, and arranger. During a five-decade career, he’s journeyed from the Bay Area to Europe to NYC and points between, but don’t call him a journeyman. As a bandleader and educator, the 68-year-old Neumeister may have gone under the jazz and mainstream press’ radar, but over the years he’s garnered the respect of his fellow players, including Joe Lovano, whose nonet Neumeister plays with. The trombonist’s latest album What Have I Done? features his compositions played by his regular quartet with Gary Versace, Drew Gress, and Tom Rainey. But the recording is just the latest in a long line of accomplishments that started in the 1960s.
Born and raised in northern California, Neumeister started playing trumpet when he was just five years old. Four years later, a band director changed his life with a suggestion that may well have been disingenuous. “I had a cracked tooth in the front,” Neumeister recalls. “The band director needed trombone players, because they had enough trumpet players, and he looked in my mouth and said, ‘Oh, you have a cracked tooth, a trumpet could damage the nerve. You should play trombone because it’s a bigger mouthpiece.’ Looking back, I think it was complete bullshit. I was like, ‘Yeah, okay. What’s a trombone?’”
The young Neumeister learned fast. He soon was playing with both the school band and a top-rate private marching band in Oakland, which he joined as 12th chair. “We marched in all the major parades in California: Disneyland, Chinese New Year, a big parade in Santa Cruz every year,” he says with pride. “We used to travel in these Greyhound buses. I thought the smell of diesel was really romantic, jumping on this bus traveling here and there.”
Road experience aside, Neumeister was also introduced to the fundamentals of playing. “We had private lessons and you worked your way up the ranks,” he explains. “It was really like the military, you had to do tests to move up. I ended up playing in what they called the ‘stage’ band. They never used the word ‘jazz,’ though we played music by Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, and Count Basie. When you played first trombone in the stage band, part of the gig was playing transcriptions of J.J. Johnson solos. I had no idea who he was but they just gave me the music and said, ‘Learn it.’ I couldn’t even find the recordings in those days. We used to play the Oakland Raiders halftime show every week. At the very first football game in the Oakland Coliseum, we marched out at halftime to the center of the field and I came to the front of the band with a tuba player and an accordion player and played J.J.’s solo on ‘Mack the Knife.’ That was my introduction to jazz.”
“I thought the smell of diesel was really romantic, jumping on this bus traveling here and there.”
Outside the band, Neumeister’s music education during his early years was mostly informal, although he did study at San Jose State with a classical trombone teacher and later studied classical composition with Lou Harrison. Hanging in the late-’60s/early-’70s Bay Area music scene, he naturally ended up playing in rock bands, in which he improvised a lot despite having little real jazz training. After dropping out of college, he decided to take a backpacking trip to Europe; included in the itinerary was the magical city of Amsterdam.
“I didn’t plan to stay, but it just happened,” he recalls. “I bought a Volkswagen van, which I lived in for a while, practicing in the back canals of Amsterdam with a bucket mute in the van. But the first night I was there, I was staying in a hostel with one room and 12 beds, and there was a Latin-jazz band playing downstairs. I asked them if I could sit in, they said, ‘Yeah,’ I played, and they offered me the gig. So I had a gig my first day in town. I ended up just staying there for a couple of years.”
Eventually, Neumeister realized that he was the best musician in the bands he was playing with; it was time to return to the States. He came back to San Francisco and took a variety of gigs, including classical, ballet, theater, and the house band at the Circle Star Theater in San Carlos, where he backed singers like Sinatra, Ella, and Sarah Vaughan for weeklong engagements. “That was a big part of my education—not only playing great charts with great players, but being able to do it for a whole week,” he explains. “Listening to Sarah Vaughan sing every night. Jimmy Cobb was her drummer and Walter Booker was her bass player. I was like, ‘Man, and they’re paying me to do this!’”
He was in his late twenties when he moved to NYC and quickly got a gig with the Lionel Hampton band. “Curtis Fuller was my section mate, Frankie Dunlap was playing drums, and Steve Slagle was playing lead alto. Great band. So now I’m on the road and I’m sitting next to one of my idols.” That was followed by stints with Rich, Lewis, the Ellington orchestra (led by Duke’s son Mercer), and Gerry Mulligan: “In those days, it was possible to be in a few different bands at the same time because few were on the road.”
Of all those bands, his hands-down favorite was Lewis’ orchestra, which was in residence on Monday nights at the Village Vanguard. “I joined around the same time as Lovano, Tom Harrell, and Kenny Garrett,” Neumeister says. “Man, this was heaven. The band around that period—the early-to-mid-’80s—was phenomenal. I’m sitting in the middle of it, playing Thad Jones and Bob Brookmeyer charts together with Mel Lewis. It was the hugest education for me, and I was just absorbing it as best I could and working on my [stuff] at the same time.”
After much pleading, he also got some unconventional lessons from Brookmeyer, not only a great trombonist but one of the music’s great arrangers, who’d come over to Neumeister’s 18th Street loft and play piano. Later he studied composition with Brookmeyer through the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop: “He took me more into the composer zone, studying with him. I’d go up to his house and spend a day talking about music, looking at scores. That was, let’s just say, instrumental in my growth.” Neumeister would go on to contribute tunes and charts to the Lewis band.
In the early ’90s, Neumeister got an invitation from a band director in Denmark to perform as a guest artist. “That was the beginning of me traveling as a soloist, composer, conductor: playing clubs and universities, doing workshops, hitting the big bands. I got connected with the Metropole Radio Orchestra on that first trip through a mutual friend, Bart van Lier, and that started bringing me to Europe more. Then I started to get commissions from European bands, so through the ’90s I was traveling there a lot.” This led to a teaching position in Graz, Austria, where he taught and lived for 17 years, beginning in 1999.
For the last four years, Neumeister has been back in the NYC area (in Newark); he teaches at several universities, including the New School, NYU, CCNY, and William Paterson—mostly composing and arranging, along with some trombone. He readily admits that trombonists have a unique camaraderie: “There’s still a competition in a way, but it’s friendly. A lot of the work we do is sitting with three other trombone players, so you get to be tight with each other, especially if you go on the road.” Over the years he’s played in various trombone ensembles from quartets to octets, and he has a whole book of music for six to eight trombones. He’s even recorded a solo trombone album.
For What Have I Done? he wanted to get away from large ensembles and classical works and instead concentrate on small-group jazz: “The pandemic gave me the opportunity to do a lot of composing, but just focusing this time on the quartet. January was a perfect time to record because nobody was working. I got to pick my favorite people, the people who I knew were right for this music, because I’d played together with them all a lot over the years.”
A humble and self-assured man, Neumeister acknowledges that he hasn’t received much acclaim in the media, but he’s not bitter about it. “I’ve just been working on my creative life all these years and it feels like sometimes I’m just being ignored,” he says with some resignation. The new album, with its tight arrangements and dynamic band interplay, should go a long way toward making more people aware of his prodigious talents.
Ed Neumeister Quartet: What Have I Done? (self-released, 2021)