Clifton Anderson: Leading The Way

Mikayla Gilbreath BY

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Not since the heyday of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey has the trombone enjoyed widespread acceptance as a band leader's instrument. With only a few exceptions, the last half century has seen trombonists slide from favor as leaders and become more commonly viewed as sidemen. Even genuinely notable artists like J.J. Johnson, Frank Rosolino, Bill Watrous and Slide Hampton never really gained the fame and notoriety afforded their predecessors of the 1930s and '40s. Some believe the trombone's fall from prominence can be attributed to the birth and popularity of bebop (from the mid '40s until the 1960s). During that period, some recording industry leaders apparently felt that instruments like the saxophone and trumpet were better suited to playing the faster tempos present in bebop.

Trombonist and composer Clifton Anderson is intimately familiar with this issue, having spent more than three decades as a consummate side man including twenty-seven years as trombonist for jazz great Sonny Rollins. But Anderson now believes that the time has come for the trombone to return to center stage and once again be viewed as a leader's instrument. "There was a period," says Anderson, "when prominent record company people were not really interested in the trombone as a lead instrument. So they didn't give a lot of recording contracts to trombonists. And as a result, the trombone just kind of slipped away out of the public eye.

"The industry doesn't really think of the trombone as a lead instrument, which is unfortunate because there are so many great trombonists playing at this time. But the industry is kind of biased and uneducated about the history and present potential of the trombone as a lead instrument. We can start to change this and get back on track with the trombone viewed like other lead instruments of small ensembles. Remember, trombonists have been leading bands all along but just haven't been given equal opportunity and representation. Changing that in the business and in the public eye is part of what I'm trying to accomplish."

In pursuit of this goal, Anderson has relinquished his highly enviable sideman gig with Sonny Rollins to assume full-time leadership of his own ensemble. "I don't plan to be working in Sonny's band anymore. Maybe for a special project, but not in any regular way."

If one were to consciously choose a trombonist to lead the instrument back to prominence, Clifton Anderson would be a logical front-runner for the position. His life thus far seems almost orchestrated to prepare him for such a task. "I was always musically inclined and, as you know, I come out of a family of musicians." Clifton's father was a church organist and his mother was a singer and accomplished pianist. And legendary saxophonist Sonny Rollins is Anderson's maternal uncle. "The level of musicianship in my family is generally pretty high. So I guess it was always expected that I was going to play music at some level."

As early as age four, Anderson's play-time antics often included pretending to be a band leader. "I would listen to the radio or television shows and I was always conducting when I would hear the Perry Mason show come on." As he grew, Anderson experimented with various musical instruments. "I tried to play drums, and I had a little practice drum set, which I broke up," Anderson said while chuckling. "I tried playing saxophone a little bit. But all of this was fooling around. I was trying to find myself and also trying to find an instrument."

At about age seven, Anderson's mother Gloria took him to see the movie The Music Man. "There was a scene with the seventy-six trombones, and it looked like a lot of fun to play. So my mother asked Sonny to get a trombone for me. With the trombone, I was able to immediately get a clear sound. It just felt like the right instrument to me so I stayed with it. I had little groups in my neighborhood and we would put on shows in junior high school, playing some of the pop tunes of the day. But I would always be in front of the band with my trombone.

"When I got into The [Fiorello H. LaGuardia] High School of Music and Art, I started taking music a little more seriously. I met a lot of kids that could really play at a high level for their age. A lot of them played better than I did, which up until that time that was not really my experience. It was inspiring for me."

After high school, Anderson spent a year at The State University of New York at Stony Book and then transferred to The Manhattan School of Music where he earned his Bachelor of Music degree. "The first musician that I worked with and would solo with on a fairly regular basis was Carlos Garnett. I think that was my first year at The Manhattan School of Music. We made a record called "Cosmos Nucleus" (Muse Records, 1976). The late, great Kenny Kirkland, Roy Campbell the trumpet player, Zane Massey, Angel Fernandez (a trumpet player that arranges for Mark Anthony), all these people were in that band. We were all very young and Carlos would give us a lot of opportunity to play."

When Anderson graduated from college, he was already being recognized as a talented young musician and had little difficulty finding gigs in the New York area. One of his more notable early gigs teamed Anderson with several other talented trombonists, as part of Slide Hampton's original World of Trombones ensemble. "Slide's band, which was nine trombones all together, had a unique element to it—Slide's arranging. Not only were the arrangements very musical, but they really challenged the limits of the instrument in a lot of ways. We were playing a lot of very fast things, almost like you would hear a saxophone section playing. Yeah, Clifford Adams and Steve Turre were in there, Papo Vazquez, Doug Purviance, Earl McIntyre. Conrad Herwig was in there, Frank Lacy. Robin Eubanks came along a little later. The original group World of Trombones was together for about two years, and then everybody kind of fractured off. It was very difficult to keep the band together and keep it working. We did a few tours and that was a great experience."

Though he considers himself primarily a jazz musician, Anderson has always been open to other musical styles. "I played with a whole variety of musicians: pop groups, calypso bands, all kinds of things. Even now I still try to get involved in all forms of music, and touch bases with everything. There's always something that you can draw from those experiences as a musician."

One of those experiences included recording "Do I Do" with Stevie Wonder for the highly acclaimed album "Original Musiquarium" (Tamla Records, 1982). Stevie Wonder, known for his own extraordinary talent, obviously chose his sidemen carefully. For example, "Do I Do" also included a trumpet solo by Dizzy Gillespie. Reflecting on his work with Stevie Wonder, Anderson commented "I can only say great things about that experience. Stevie Wonder is just great. I mean he's a master musician. He's got tremendous ears. He's got a great sensibility for melody and harmony. He's a beautiful guy to play with and he's respectful of the musicians who work with him."

The year after his stint with Stevie Wonder, Anderson got the call to join the band supporting Sonny Rollins, a job he would retain for nearly three decades. It was also a position from which he would gain much of the knowledge he now brings to the table as a band leader. "With every situation that I've been in, I've always tried to be as observant as possible and tried to absorb as much as I can, not only with the blatant 'in your face' things, but also a lot of subtleties. And you only get those kinds of things from veteran musicians like Sonny Rollins.

"Of course when I got with Sonny, people who knew I was his nephew were expecting to hear J.J. Johnson right off the bat," Anderson chuckled. "Everybody feels that if Sonny was a prodigy, then I guess Clifton should be a prodigy. Musicians like myself, like Ravi Coltrane and T.S. Monk, musicians that are closely related to some of the master musicians, we've all had to struggle with this perception. So it's been a very challenging thing.

"During the first ten years of playing with Sonny I really had to focus. His approach to music was more demanding in a sense. He does a lot of things very intuitively, and he wants the musicians around him to be that way—to make music intuitively. When we're in performance, the music just goes where it goes and everybody has to be able to go that way. I realized later that this is how music at its highest level is performed."

One of Anderson's most pointed lessons in playing intuitively came during his very first performance with Sonny Rollins at a festival in Toronto, Ontario. "It was a really harrowing experience for me because I didn't really know what to expect. Sonny told me to just learn the material, which I did. And I thought I was well prepared. The stage was 'in the round' and it revolved very slowly. It was outdoors, in the summer time." Everything seemed to go well for Anderson until the time came for him to play his first solo. "When I'd rehearsed with Sonny, he would let me blow some choruses and then he would just come in on top of me and continue to blow. So I thought that was what he was going to do. Well I was playing and playing, waiting for him to come in. I'm going around and around on this revolving stage and I've seen the same people come around more than once," Anderson said while laughing. "And it was hot! I was sweating so much that the horn started slipping off my mouth! Then the guys in the rhythm section started dropping out one by one underneath me, until it was just the drummer (Ronnie Burrage) and I who were playing. Then I just ran out of steam. I played a note that sounded like a 'blat' or something and people thought that it was an effect, like that was what I wanted to do. They all started clapping," he chuckled.

After the concert, Anderson left the bandstand angry, thinking that he had been subjected to a hazing by Sonny and the rest of the band. "I thought it was like an initiation that these guys were putting me through. I came into the dressing room and I was really mad!" Clifton aired his complaint to the band and was met with denials. "They were all laughing and saying 'What are you talking about? You sounded good, man! It just sounded interesting to lay out one by one.'" Then Sonny's wife Lucille entered and said 'Oh Clifton, Sonny would like to see you in his dressing room.'" Anderson's immediate thoughts were "Oh boy! Here we go!" But Sonny's comments were not what Clifton expected. "Sonny said 'Well I think you'll be okay. You'll just have to watch how long you play.'" Anderson, of course, had been desperate for Sonny to come in and take over long before the solo had finally ended. "That's part of the intuitive thing that I guess we developed as time went by.

"That's what took place in Sonny's band with me and the other musicians—the music would evolve as we played. The more we played the more we could solidify where we were going, under Sonny's direction. But it took a while to get to that. I don't think that people always understand how music evolves and how musicians evolve. Ultimately it turned out to be a really unique thing. Especially over the last seven years, we developed a real sound with the two horns, something that was special.

"The time I spent with Sonny has been very beneficial to nurturing me as a leader. I think when people listen to me now they hear somebody that's well-schooled and rounded, very able to do what I'm doing now, a leader that's ready to make a statement and to be able to contribute to what has already been put down."

Anderson continues to rely upon intuitiveness in his music, but believes that another quality is equally important. "The whole point of being a leader is that you have something that's unique, that is clearly defined as you and nobody else. Like Miles Davis, you hear him play a couple of notes and you know it's Miles Davis, and you say 'Wow.' So that's what you reach for, and that's what you try to develop in leadership. In this business there are so many great musicians and there's so much great music that's already out here. And part of the tradition of jazz is to continue that unique individuality in the music. So it's important to me that I'm bringing something unique to the table, something that can add to the wealth of great material that's already out here.

"There is a legacy of the music that you want to try to uphold as you're coming out here to perform it. It is very important that you understand the tradition and that you are able to have that lineage of the music in your music. And then you have to really work on yourself so that you bring something unique to the art form. Or else everybody is out here doing the same thing, sounding the same, and it doesn't really help to advance the music or the listenership.

"My idol, J.J. Johnson, and people like Slide Hampton, Curtis Fuller and Frank Rosolino have all had very unique styles and voices on their instruments. I don't want to be out here as a leader unless I can say the same about my music. When you have something that establishes you as a unique commodity, then people will want to come to see you because they can't get it anywhere else."

"Critics have said that I'm out of the J.J. Johnson school, and I don't mind that. Most trombone players playing this music after J. J. Johnson have come through him, and I'm no exception. But my voice I think is singular. I don't think I sound like any other trombone players playing out here. And my writing is focused more on melody and lyricism." Both of these attributes are clearly demonstrated in Anderson's most recent album Decade (Doxy Records, 2009). The distinctive mellow voice of Anderson's trombone fills the album with upbeat and thoroughly memorable melodies.

"I seem to have an ability to write melodies, and I think that's something that helps me particularly as a trombonist. I hear melody first and foremost. I've always gravitated to music that lingers in your mind, that you might hear one day and then all of a sudden three days later it pops up in your head out of nowhere. All of the masters of this music wrote such great melodies. That's something that is lacking in the writing right now in jazz music. We have to get back to that to help elevate the music and to reach a broader group of people.

"I try to follow the example of Duke Ellington who wrote specifically for the guys in his band. He knew each of them well, he knew their sounds well and what they could do. And so he wrote his music tailored to the group. That's what I'm trying to do as well. I'm trying to bring my style of small ensemble writing and tailor it to the guys that play with me. I really like the sound of the small ensembles and it gives me a chance to push my own sound as a trombonist. So I'd really like to pursue that—small ensemble, quartet, quintet situations, maybe some sextet things. That's kind of my forte.'

"Because of the nature of the business right now, I have a nucleus of guys who work with me (Steve Williams, Eric Wyatt, Benito Gonzalez and Russel Blake). But everybody is out here working. You can't keep all the same band members together for every job, all the time. So different musicians come into the unit and they bring a different sensibility, their own style of playing or presence. And that's always a good thing because it helps me to hear some different things and opens up some new avenues in the music."

Anderson's long association with Sonny Rollins also provided him with other experiences which helped prepare him for his new position in leadership. "I helped Sonny with his merchandising and production company Oleo, and with his record label Doxy Records. I've had the opportunity to see how the business is done on an international scale, and also to deal with a lot of the details. Most musicians don't really deal with those things hands-on. And I've also met people who operate on a high level in the business. I definitely feel like I have an advantage in terms of understanding the 'business' of the music business.

"The industry, however, is changing. The move from LPs to CDs was a dramatic change, and digital format has changed the industry drastically again. Record sales are now primarily from downloads. Musicians don't make any money on recordings any more. Recordings are really promotional tools now. Even though the royalties for musicians were never adequate or fair with the record labels, you still had sales. Now when somebody downloads a music file, they share it with their friends and that's it! So it's a very different business. It's changing and musicians have to stay on top, be very aware.

"With this situation we're in now, we have to get people more involved in coming out to live shows. Live music is really where it's at, and it's the greatest experience you have, particularly with jazz music. That experience has been lost in a lot of ways. And of course musicians are selling their product at the shows. So this seems to be the way right now that we're able to make some money back from investing in ourselves."

The Internet has forced many changes on the music industry with some distinctly negative effects, such as facilitating the pirating of artists' creations. But some of those changes may actually benefit the industry, its artists, and ultimately the music itself. As the industry necessarily focuses upon attracting audiences to live performances, jazz artists may once again embrace and thrive upon the intuitive style of playing that has long characterized jazz performed at its highest level. And some, whose careers have faced limits arising from the marketing decisions of a few large record companies, are now realizing greater freedom in pursuing their own creative visions. Private record labels can now produce and promote music to much the same audiences as the big labels, essentially freeing the hands and creativity of those whose artistry was once relegated to a supporting role.

Big record companies can no longer nullify an artist's ambitions by simply denying them a recording contract. So now, after some fifty years spent primarily supporting other musicians, trombonists are genuinely free to focus upon maximizing their own careers while they demonstrate their instrument's true potential. And with his talent for composing, his experience managing an internationally successful record label, and three decades spent skillfully supporting the industry's top artists, Clifton Anderson seems uniquely qualified to stand center stage and lead the way in this challenging but unfettered new world of jazz.

Selected Discography:

Clifton Anderson, Decade (Doxy, 2009)
Sonny Rollins, Live in Vienne (Doxy, 2008)
Sonny Rollins, Road Shows Vol. 1 (Doxy, 2008)
Sonny Rollins, Sonny, Please (Doxy, 2006)
Sonny Rollins, Without A Song: The 9/11 Concert (Milestone, 2005)
Sonny Rollins, This Is What I Do (Milestone, 2000)
Paul Simon, Greatest Hits—Shining Like a National Guitar (Warner Bros., 2000)
Sonny Rollins, Global Warming (Milestone, 1998)
Clifton Anderson, Landmarks (Milestone, 1996)
Steve Turre, Sanctified Shells (Antilles, 1993)
Sonny Rollins, Old Flames (Milestone, 1993)
Sonny Rollins, Falling in Love With Jazz (Milestone, 1991)
Sonny Rollins, Dancing in the Dark (Milestone, 1987)
Sonny Rollins, G-Man (Milestone, 1986)
Sonny Rollins, Sunny Days, Starry Nights (Milestone, 1984)
Stevie Wonder, Original Musiquarium (Tamla, 1982)
T.S. Monk, More of the Good Life (Mirage, 1981)
T.S. Monk, House of Music (Mirage, 1980)
Carlos Garnett, Cosmos Nucleus (Muse Records, 1976)

Photo Credits

Photo placement #1: John Abbott
Photo placement #2: John Abbott
Photo placement #3: John Abbott

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