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Steve Swell: Sound Miracles

Gordon Marshall By

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Trombonist Steve Swell captures the energy of a big band in the close quarters of a small group. An alumnus of Buddy Rich's and Lionel Hampton's bands on the one hand, and collaborator with Anthony Braxton on the other, he seems bound to have fixed upon such a hybrid configuration at some point. But how an artist could exhibit such stylistic range and adaptability to begin with, and on top of that reconcile them in a career that has already spanned three decades, is a question requiring some digging, representing as it does an achievement unique in any jazz era.

All About Jazz: Many people can't imagine a cooler, neater instrument than the trombone—with the slide, the range, the sheer size of it. What drew you to it when you were young?

Steve Swell: In public school, in New Jersey, there was a music teacher who would give demonstrations on the instruments, in the third and fourth grade, and on the basis of that you kind of picked it. The teacher played the trombone and he actually played the slide right down into my face as I remember, and thought that was kind of cool and kind of fun—I'm sitting in the front row.

I didn't really fall in love with it then, but when it came time for me to pick an instrument, I had a "kid" injury to my arm, my wrist. I had cut myself on some glass in a construction site; I fell and slipped on some glass and had some stitches. And really my first choice was trumpet but I couldn't move my fingers at the time. I could only play trombone, and that's really how I ended up with it.

I showed some early proficiency on it. I was kind of a shy kid, and the teacher was very good about giving me some attention with it, some instruction, and I enjoyed doing it to a certain degree. I didn't fall in love with it until I heard Roswell Rudd play the trombone on the radio—I was about 15.

AAJ: So that's when you started listening to jazz?

SS: Actually, a little before that. My father was into big bands...When The Beatles came on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, my father was—a lot of parents were afraid of The Beatles and the long hair—and my father didn't want me to see The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, so he took me in his room and played some Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller records for me, which is kind of weird—to keep me away from the rock and roll that was just starting to happen.

AAJ: Was it a blessing in disguise, diverting you into something that would be more...

SS: That's what he was trying to do and it piqued my interest a little bit, but of course I still was a kid in New Jersey, and I listened to the rock and roll that was coming up in the '60s and '70s, so it didn't stop me anyway.

I had some good teachers in school, some friends. The teachers turned us on to Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie— mostly bebop from that point on. And then I heard free music around 15, and that's when I really fell in love with the music.

AAJ: One of your first big gigs was with Buddy Rich. Was your father still around at that time to be pleased that you were working with one of the heroes of the big band era?

SS: He was, he was. I had played with Lionel Hampton the year before that. He's still alive, and he understands what I'm doing, but at that point I think he was still trying to discourage me from playing music.

AAJ: Buddy Rich is a larger-than-life figure, reputed to be a driving, ruthless leader. Is that accurate?

SS: His reputation is exactly as is known—He was pretty tough. And I think that was because he was already two or three generations older than most of the musicians he was working with—certainly at the time I was working with him in the early '80s—and he was a taskmaster, no question about it. He was very rough on his musicians, but it was only really because he wanted the best out of them more than anything.

AAJ: That discipline seems to have been instilled in you, that gives your music a driving quality; this no-holds barred ability to keep going and going in your solos and ensemble work, and one can't help thinking the Buddy Rich experience might have germinated that.

SS: I agree. I don't think it's just him, I think it's a combination of being out there with a lot of older musicians like that, who had a lot of drive. Lionel Hampton had the same kind of drive, in a different kind of way: he wasn't as verbally demonstrative, but we would always do two, two-and-a-half hour sets a night. And people like Makanda Ken McIntyre also had a very unforgiving standard that you really had to reach. I think the culmination of all those experiences had an effect on me.

AAJ: McIntyre was a devoted educator, though, and one would imagine his demands were more rooted in a desire to get the best out of his students than to be successful commercially.

SS: That goes to Buddy Rich and Lionel Hampton as well. It wasn't about being successful in terms of being a successful musician career-wise. With all these people, it was about the music and being the best you could possibly be.

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