Ask any lay listener to list the most influential jazz saxophonists of the 20th Century and you're likely to come up with a short list including Coltrane, Bird and a few others. But, ask an educated musician the same question and that list would expand to dozens. Now ask that listener to name the most influential jazz trombonists and you'll be lucky to get three different responses. Even the educated musician will probably not have too many additional names to offer. To be sure, both would list Slide Hampton and Bob Brookmeyer, who have each established themselves as icons of the jazz trombone and of jazz composition.
Slide and Brookmeyer's paths to icon status started under similar circumstances - the former was cutting his teeth in Indianapolis; the latter was raised in Kansas City. Slide was playing with his family band and experiencing first-hand all that Indy natives Wes Montgomery, Freddie Hubbard and JJ Johnson had to offer. Brookmeyer was playing with veterans from Charlie Parker's bands and being schooled in the smooth Basie-style rhythm sections for which KC was famous. Both eventually left their Midwestern roots and continued their musical education by traveling with the big bands of the day.
Big bands proved to be an essential training ground for jazz players then. We know all the names of our favorite soloists who came through such bands - from Lester Young and Stan Getz, to Dizzy Gillespie and Lee Morgan - but for trombone players there was another kind of education going on. Before JJ Johnson began to articulate the bop language through the trombone, the life of a trombone player in the big band was different. Eager jazz musicians today often focus on reading and technique, but the focus in the big band era was listening. Players weren't only paying attention to recordings, but were listening to and playing with each other. They didn't need the music to tell them how to play a passage; they needed only to listen to the person next to them, or in front of them, and in many cases behind them. This was the advantage of the big band trombonist. He/she sat right in the middle of all the action and heard how the music was constructed. As a result, a great number of trombonists from the era became composers - from Brookmeyer and Hampton, to Melba Liston, JJ Johnson, Billy Byers, Don Sebesky and Sammy Nestico. When asked why so many trombone players went on to become great writers, Brookmeyer quipped, "Saxophonists get all the girls...trumpeters get all the money! We're in the middle of everything sonically....we understand how it sounds from the middle on out."
Hampton's take doesn't differ much, "In the circle that I was raised in, writing and orchestration was part of being a musician. And to be considered to be a good well-rounded musician, you learned every aspect...The attitude of the trombone is all about working together. The idea/concept of organization is very natural for trombonists." Just getting through the maze of musicians to your seat on a small stage would be a study in organization, or trying to figure out where to move your slide so you didn't decapitate the saxophonist in front of you was another obstacle to consider (although Brookmeyer removed that obstacle when he sold his slide for good in 1952 and became a full-time valve trombonist).
These men were reared at a time when the trombone was still enjoying a great deal of commercial success. Audiences had direct contact with these trombone-leaders, who instead of being camouflaged in the middle of the band, were right out front for people to see. "The trombone at one time was a very important instrument at the time of Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, and Trummy Young", says Hampton. Even the valve trombone, an instrument rarely seen now, was visible in Ellington's band as played by Juan Tizol (another trombonist/composer). The instrument was a viable part of the jazz landscape. So what happened? Well, the big band era ended. The economics of keeping a large ensemble working year round eluded most all but Ellington. The music changed and small ensembles were the new wave.