Josh Brown: The Education Of A Jazz Trombonist

Trish Richardson BY

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I've always thought of the trombone, or any brass instrument for that matter, as a high maintenance girlfriend. If you ignore her, even for one day, you're gonna pay the price.
For many school children, education begins by learning the "three R's": Reading, 'Riting, and 'Rithmatic. For young Canadian (now New York—based) trombone player Josh Brown, his music education (some of it within school walls—most of it outside of them) began by learning—and living—the "three P's": Practice, Pride and Passion. Brown has a lot to say on these topics.


The accomplishments listed in the bio section of Brown's website are ample testimony as to what practice means to him. "I've always thought of the trombone, or any brass instrument for that matter, as a high maintenance girlfriend. If you ignore her, even for one day, you're gonna pay the price," Brown says.

Brown explained the importance of practicing even while on tour with Michael Buble. "It's one of those things. If you miss one day, you notice and if you miss two days, other people notice. It is the one instrument where I feel that you can't get away without doing some sort of maintenance every day on the horn, even if it's just technical stuff and you don't get to music stuff. I think piano players, saxophone players and string players definitely have a wider gray area of time they can go through without practicing before it gets painfully embarrassing."

So regardless of time zone or continent, Brown and his other band members still have to find the time, and a place, to practice. "Every guy in the band, especially the brass players, practices every day—unfortunately for the other people in the hotel with us! You can always hear someone even if they're just doing long tones or lip slurs, the basic technical stuff. It's hard being a brass player because when you are in hotels, especially nice hotels, people have paid good money to be there. A lot of us have practice mutes that we'll just stick in or we'll try to play a bit in the afternoon when we don't think we have neighbors or something like that. It's just something that has to be done. It's part of the daily routine that you have to get into."

Does he run into people who think that, at his level of success, he shouldn't need to practice? "Oh, yeah, absolutely. We're good enough to realize and we're passionate enough about music to realize that even for our own personal thing, we don't want to suck! I know for a fact that I can speak for everyone in the band when I say that everyone is always trying to be at his peak performance."

He continues, "One of my heroes is (bebop trombonist) J.J. Johnson. I remember a quote from him when he retired: 'I'm so happy no longer to have to be a slave to the instrument.'" After asking Brown if he connected with what Johnson was saying, he replied, "I totally knew—it was just like 'Yep, enjoy!'"


One of the most important characteristics of pride is knowing when not to have too much of it. Brown is one of those people who lets you know that he is confident in his abilities without being arrogant about it all. When discussing the recording of his CD, The Feeling of Jazz (Self-Produced, 2006), Brown said he had been careful to let the music, and not his ego, be center stage. "There would be certain places in the songs where maybe someone's solo on this song was better than that [take], but you have to put the pride part aside and think of the whole song instead of just your part in it. So some of the songs were maybe not the performance that was my greatest, but they were the performance where the band as a whole sounded the best. You really just have to push your ego aside and say 'OK, this song as a whole is the best regardless of my role in it.' That's what is important."

He was also quick to share the credit for his efforts on the CD with the other members of his band, especially guitarist Randy Napoleon. Brown credits Napoleon for Brown's (and others') favorite track on the album, "You Don't Know What Love Is."

"We recorded the album all in one day and it was a very long session. All the guys were tired. At the end of the day the guys were packing up and Randy said 'Let's play a duo, a ballad,' so I said OK. We played "You Don't Know What Love Is." It was one take, just Randy and me playing. It is actually my favorite track on the whole CD, because it's something we hadn't done before. One take, really fresh, and it sounds completely spontaneous—because it is. No arrangement—it was just 'Let's play this tune, OK, let's do it in one take—great.' I've heard from a lot of people that it was their favorite tune on the album and it is mine as well, so that's nice. It was the one thing that we didn't rehearse."


There's no denying Brown's passion for music. However, his other passion while growing up, theater, almost led him to a career as an actor. "I had a pretty good respect for both things. Music and theater were the things that I was really passionate about. I have always been the personality that is either totally into something or I have absolutely no interest in it at all. In school, I had no interest in anything outside drama or music. So when it came to deciding—I was thinking about actually becoming an actor or something like that—I had to do some real soul searching and some people said to me 'Well, why don't you do both?' I think I was smart enough when I was that age (17 or 18) to know that they were both things that would take up as much time as I could give them. I knew that whatever decision I was going to make I was going to have to pour myself into it because, given the amount of musicians or actors out there, I didn't want to be a bad one."

So why music? "It was never something where I said 'OK, I am going to be a musician.' It was more 'I can't do anything else so I'd better be really good at this.'" He explains further, "Music was just something I always did and I couldn't really picture myself doing anything else. It was what I got and still do get most excited about."

Brown's passion for music is evident as soon as you get him talking about the subject, whether it is about his own playing or listening to others play. When asked to participate in AAJ's "Desert Island Picks" feature (if you were stranded on a desert island, which three CD's would you choose to bring with you?) it was clearly the question that Brown found most difficult to answer. So what did Brown choose out of his vast, beloved collection? "I would probably pick Sonny Side Up (Verve, 1957) which is under Dizzy Gillespie's name, but it's Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins. That's definitely one of the more joyful albums I've ever heard. I can't put that on and not be happy, it's pretty great."

"[Next] I'd have to pick something by J.J. Johnson just because he's my favorite trombone player. My parents had an album of his and I think I would still pick it. It's just a great quartet album called First Place (Columbia, 1957). My parents had it on vinyl and were like 'OK, if you are going to play the trombone, then you are going to want to listen to this guy.'"

And his final choice? "I'm looking at my huge collection and I am thinking if I can only have three things, what would it be? I guess that they are going to be all jazz but I'd miss some other stuff as well. I think I know—for now just because you're putting me on the spot—Duke Ellington's Such Sweet Thunder (Columbia/Legacy, 1957).

So what's next for Brown? "It's always good to have a lot of things on your plate. "Randy Napoleon and I are working on some stuff now. We want to try and put another album out in the next year. I've always loved the sound of a sextet—trumpet, trombone, and saxophone together. That's something I really want to delve into in at some point in the near future because I really like that front-line sound. There's a lot more I want to do ... I'm hardly finished!"

And so, after being "schooled" by the talented Canadian, it was clear to see that, at least in Brown's case, jazz education begins by learning that P+P+P=P: that is, Practice plus Pride plus Passion means that Josh Brown definitely knows how to Perform.

Photo Credit: Sarah Sloboda

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