Tom Everett: Jazz at Harvard
Getting the Bass Trombone Heard
AAJ: Your own belief in the bass trombone has led to your premiering over thirty works for the instrument in a non-jazz context (while also founding the International Trombone Association). How did those commissions develop?
TE: While still teaching high school, I would schedule solo recitals for myself to keep my chops up, to challenge myself musically and for my students to see someone passionate about music performing. I performed everything I could find for bass trombone but had to fill those recitals in with a Baroque piece originally written for bassoon, a tuba piece or a trombone piece transposed down an octave. I thought these pieces didn't sound the way they were intended, or weren't completely successful on bass trombone. So I did some research and found some original pieces that no one knew or cared about, or were no longer available.
It wasn't a solo instrument, it had very little literature; who would write for it? Bass trombone? Well, that was the guy who played the lowest chair in the orchestra. Yet I thought the bass trombone had a unique sound on its own, and wanted composers to discover and explore its distinct possibilities.
I finally started commissioning works. Commissions for new music were still relatively unusual, especially from individual soloists. Following World War II, every college had a composer on their faculty. Now, where are all these composers going to get their music played? Their performances were usually by faculty in their department, if they got any performances at all, and publication was very seldom. Someone [would approach them and say] "I'd like to play your music, I have a recital planned nine months away at this place, and if I could play it and you deem my performance acceptable, I would like to schedule that piece for this concert." That was the commission.
Often money wasn't even mentioned. Composers were thirsty, just like I was thirsty for literature written for the instrument I loved. They were interested in people who wanted them to write. They were composers, that's what they wanted to do.
Many Roles, One Responsibility
AAJ: Does that experience as a bass trombonist outside of jazz dovetail with your experience as a jazz educator?
TE: Absolutely. One of the things that may explain my unusual outlook is that (maybe not as much today but in the past), more often than not, you were a [emphasizes] jazz trombonist, that's what you did, or you were an [emphasizes] orchestral player, or you were a studio player [doing] commercial work, or a concert recitalist, or an avant-garde "happening."
[Points to himself] You're a jazz educator, you're a jazz historian and a great fan. You're into contemporary music, you're commissioning new music, and you're researching old music.
My job at Harvard was conducting a concert band and a wind ensemble, yet I was also involved in many other activities, all of which informed one another. That is a bit unusual for most performers and educators. For example, it's interesting that at the College Band Directors National Association [conference], I don't think ninety-nine percent of those people had any idea I was involved in jazz or playing the trombone.
It was a crusade for the bass trombone, for jazz trombonists and for important music that people should know about...for Bill Evans, Gil Evans, [pauses and begins to look around the room at posters of past concerts featuring visiting artists] Zoot Sims, Randy Weston, Steve Swallow, Benny Golson, Clark Terry, J.J. Johnson, Illinois Jacquet, Max Roach. Some of them didn't need a lot more exposure, but in the jazz world, to have someone like Max Roach here, jazz people were flipping out. For other people [from outside the jazz community] that did come to the concerts, they sensed there was something special about Max's playing and influence, and that was really important to me.
AAJ: So as a crusader who founded and supervised forty years of jazz at one of the most renowned universities in the world, do you feel like you have a special responsibility as a caretaker of jazz at that institution?
TE: Harvard has a responsibility to educate, propagate, support, preserve, and document this music and all aspects of it. I am not qualified to go into all of the historical, social, racial, political and economic details of this music, but the university has a responsibility to do that. Having the opportunity to be here, for whatever fortunate and unlikely reasons, I felt I was in a position to do something about it. I just saw myself as being a catalyst to bring jazz to the fore. If you have passion and insight into the significance of an art form, but don't choose to illuminate that significance, who will?
For instance, the "Forty Years of Jazz at Harvard" celebration has been unbelievable and magnificent, especially with the music department embracing it. The music is now a larger part of the university fabric, and that's extremely rewarding. The fact that the music department library is going to take manuscripts, correspondence, and concert tapes of Max Roach and others into the library is a very strong statement. Gregorian chant is great, but when you've got eight shelves, of a two and a half month period of Gregorian chant, from an obscure area of Southern Italy, in the fall of that particular year, during the grape growing season...[laughs].