The regular posting of the “Farewells” included in JazzTimes’ March 2019 print edition will continue through the end of this month on JazzTimes.com. Each piece features a prominent jazz figure offering his or her recollections of a member of the jazz community who left us during 2018. This online exclusive tribute to Urbie Green by Michael Dease is being presented for the first time here.
Ask any experienced jazz or commercial brass player which faces should appear on the Mount Rushmore of trombonists, and you’ll hear the name Urbie Green more often than most. Believe the hype; Urbie could do it all. His melodic playing and improvising made him a hero to legendary trombonists like Bill Watrous and Tom Malone, and his recordings as a leader further elevated the popularity of the trombone as established by Tommy Dorsey, who’d been such a key influence on Frank Sinatra’s phrasing. Indeed, Urbie’s trombone style was so effortless, fluid, and natural-feeling that he was frequently given the moniker a “trombonist’s trombonist,” meaning that any trombonist would play like that if he or she could.
My earliest awareness of Urbie stems from Billie Holiday’s 1958 recording for Columbia, Lady in Satin, on which he shared solo duties with J.J. Johnson against the backdrop of Ray Ellis’ orchestra and Claus Ogerman’s arrangements. The very first cut on the album, “I’m A Fool to Want You,” has Urbie’s trombone interjecting golden improvisations between Billie’s heart-wrenching phrases, before taking off with the orchestra in a dramatic, intensifying solo leading up to the climactic grand pause. His lyrical style feels easy, and has an approachable air around it—until you attempt to play like him. It is this very quality that has inspired legions of trombonists to imitate his instrumental wizardry, while producing just a select few comparable artists.
Urbie’s mastery of styles within jazz, commercial, and popular music was seemingly complete. He could tailor the elements of his playing—vibrato, timbre, rhythm, improvisational approach—to perfectly suit New Orleans jazz, big band, bebop, Brazilian, rock, and anything between or beyond, making him a central figure in the NYC studio scene. He told journalist Herb Nolan, “I enjoy different kinds of settings instead of just one thing; I like tunes with good chord progressions to them and I also like just plain old basic blues. I think variety is nice…” His versatility allowed him to reach the apex of instrumental success in very different musical settings, from Antonio Carlos Jobim to Gil Evans, Chico O’Farrill to Quincy Jones. My impression is that his mind functioned as a sponge toward the ingredients of music, but rather than letting those ingredients diffuse into one another, it allowed them to serve as context to each sonic environment, ultimately making them stronger.
Prodigiously talented and successful as Urbie was, he astounded his colleagues and fans equally with his modesty and disdain for the spotlight. However, this didn’t stop him from making an impact on the trombone world through his line of trombones, mouthpieces, and educational videos (now available online). The International Trombone Association honored Urbie at their 2017 festival in New York City; among those celebrating his long career was the principal trombonist of the New York Philharmonic, Joseph Alessi. Although we have lost Urbie’s physical presence after 92 years, we are beyond fortunate to have had his signature, gorgeous trombone sound recorded hundreds of times, at once accessible, inspiring, and beyond belief. Simply put, he made beautiful music, and he improved everything he played on. I’ll be thinking about Urbie for as long as I keep sliding.