Chris Washburne: Instrumental Activist
AAJ: The trombone has always struck me as an instrument with no mediocre players. There are either great trombone players or really bad trombone players. As a very talented trombonist, do you find it easier to get work than if you played a more common instrument such as the saxophone?
CW: It's hard to get good work on any instrument. It doesn't matter. In New York City, the problem is that there are so many great trombone players here. It's a real inspiration, but the competition is really stiff as well. It makes you grow. I remember I was living on 8th Avenue for a while, and my practice room window overlooked the street. Slide Hampton lived right down the street, Benny Powell lived right around the corner, and all the Broadway cats would walk byJim Pugh and these great trombone players. I'd see them go by and then end up practicing for another hour, just knowing the level that's required to play in this city. That said, what's hard is to create a situation where you can be musically fulfilled on your instrument and not be on an instrument that easily plays a lead role. Often trombones are the instrument that's cut when a big band is cut down or a jazz group is cut down. There are many more opportunities for trumpets and saxophones. Of course there are more numbers there, too. You have to carve out your own space and gravitate to those places where you naturally excel.
AAJ: You've been leading SYOTOS for 18 years. The name is an acronym for See You On The Other Side. For folks who don't know, will you talk about the story behind the name?
CW: That was a moment of inspiration in a very difficult time that I was going through personally. I was diagnosed with a very deadly form of nerve cancer, and unfortunately the tumor was right on my face. I had to have it removed very fast in hopes of surviving. This was about 15 years ago. When the surgeon said we have to operate tomorrow, I said "Look, I'm a trombone player." And he said, "I have to remove all the muscles and nerves from one side of your face. You're never going to play trombone again."
It was just before Bastille Day, and I had a gig at a French restaurant with the band that's now known as SYOTOS. So I said, "Can we delay the surgery for a few days so I can play this one last gig?" He agreed, and I played the gig, but of course it was one of the most difficult gigs that I played in my life, because I assumed it was the last time I'd ever be playing the trombone. I was 28 years old, and it was integral to my personal identity. The thought of being something other than a trombone player was so daunting. Not only that, but [there was] the fear of not making it through and not surviving this battle that I was about to embark upon.
So in the middle of that set, this phrase "see you on the other side" just occurred to me. I remember writing it down, and I started introducing the band as the "SYOTOS" band. The guys were looking at me like "What the hell does that mean?" At the end of the night I said, "Guys, I'll see you on the other side. Whatever other side it's going to be. Whether it's me not being a trombone player or the other side of life, I look forward to jamming with you wherever that is." So that's where the name came from.
After the surgery, I had a lot of reconstructive surgery on my face to put the skin back together, but I didn't have any feeling, and a lot less muscles. The surgeon tried to cut out as little as possible in order to preserve something. Luckily, the surgery was successful and I beat the cancer. It didn't come back. About three months after the surgery, I was looking at my trombone sitting in a case in the corner, and I said, "You know what? I'm going to play again." I picked it up, and I could play for about 30 seconds and then it was painful. I figured if I can play 30 seconds today, and I played five notes, I'll play six notes tomorrow and 45 seconds. That's what I did. I did that for three months and did my first gig about six months after that surgery. I had to relearn how to play just on one side of my face, but within a year I was about ninety percent back and I started to gig with SYOTOS again. I kept the name as a tribute to that experience and as a reminder that every gig is a precious one. It keeps me humble and keeps me in line.
AAJ: After the surgery, did your trombone playing sound different?
CW: It did at first. It took me two years to get back the sound that I was hearing in my head. It actually was a great rebirth. I was able to relearn and correct some of the bad habits that I picked up as a kid, so it was actually a wonderful experience in the end, even though it was very frustrating because for two years I couldn't play the way I had played before. But then I surpassed what I could do technically before, and the sound was enriched by that experience. I can listen to recordings of me before and afterward, and you can hear a depth that wasn't there. That's an experiential depth that comes with life experience.