A World of Trombone: Slide Hampton & Bob Brookmeyer
JJ Johnson, under the tutelage of Dizzy Gillespie, began to learn how to utilize the bop language on the trombone. In a very trombonistic manner, JJ organized the information and edited it to its very essence to make it playable. The "ungainly, awkward-looking, long, tubular" slide, as JJ once described it, is a physical obstacle that presents the trombonist with a severe technical handicap. With no keys, valves (other than of course the valve trombone), or buttons to press, there is a much smaller margin of error. In order to master the instrument, a trombonist must be totally secure in what they are about to play. They must prepare, practice and meditate on even the simplest of musical tasks. But JJ brought grace and sophistication, and was not the only one. "JJ showed us how, and Bennie Green...both ideals as trombonists, how to play the new music on the instrument," said Slide recently. "He [JJ] opened the window to playing the trombone to Charlie Parker's music and made it possible." Curtis Fuller, Frank Rosolino and Slide followed suit and continued to transfer Parker's new language. Slide took the language and began writing for his own octet, which featured Freddie Hubbard, Booker Little and George Coleman.
In the '70s, Hampton attempted to bring the trombone back to the fore by partnering with other trombonists, as only they could truly understand the plight of the player and realize the difficulty in being taken seriously on this most challenging of instruments. The fruit of that partnership was Slide Hampton's World of Trombones (Black Lion, 1979). It was, and is, a who's who of the NYC trombone scene: Curtis Fuller, Steve Turre, Clifford Adams, Papo Vasquez, Clarence Banks, Earl McIntyre, and Douglas Purviance. "The trombone in the '70s wasn't an instrument that people even knew...We started off with probably four, and we played around wherever we could, and then we added another, and another, until we had nine." It makes sense that trombonists would play well together - the timbre of the instrument is as agreeable as its players.
Brookmeyer seemed to take a slightly different path. "When I first heard Bill Harris, he was my original hero on the instrument. Then there were Dicky Wells, Trummy Young, etc." Brookmeyer became closely identified with the West Coast style, playing with Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker. In fact, he says Mulligan called the unaccompanied four-horn combination of Brookmeyer, Baker, Stan Getz, and himself as "one of the best bands ever" (though they never recorded as such). Baker wasn't the only trumpeter that Brookmeyer partnered with in the mid '60s. He and Clark Terry recorded the albums The Power of Positive Swinging and Gingerbread Men. "Terry should be everybody's hero, personally, musically," said Brookmeyer. "He's very depressing to work with because he plays good every night!" Brookmeyer's association with trumpeters continued with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band, for which his compositions have since become standard repertoire for big bands around the world, and benchmarks for would-be jazz composers.
Perhaps the continued efforts of Hampton, Brookmeyer and others are starting to get some attention. This year marked the first time in 16 years of the Thelonious Monk Competition that the Monk Institute saw fit to consider the trombone. In 2000, things looked grim for the instrument when they opted to feature "hand percussion" before ever addressing the trombone. But things are looking up for the horn that once occupied the marquis. Asked about trombonists of the future, Brookmeyer adds, "I think I'm one. Otherwise, I wouldn't play - I'd be a masochist otherwise!" And even as we mourn the loss of JJ Johnson, and most recently Jimmy Knepper, Slide's thoughts on the status of the instrument is that, "It's a very good future, and not only because of jazz; classical trombonists are great...The sound is often being heard by the public, and as an important instrument. I think it's in good hands...David Gibson, Isaac Smith, Steve Davis, there's so many good trombonists around today. You can't count them there's so many!"
The trombone may very well become the new ambassador of jazz, and it certainly can't hurt to have Hampton and Brookmeyer as its elder statesmen.