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.


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