Submitted on behalf of Jonathan Davidson
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.
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.