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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."

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