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Tom "Bones" Malone: Amazing Career That's One In A Million, Part 1

Tom "Bones" Malone: Amazing Career That's One In A Million, Part 1

Courtesy Chris Kurka


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The trombone is sort of like my voice. It represents a human voice to me. I think it's my self-expression.
—Tom Malone
Part 1 | Part 2

World-famous trombonist and multi-instrumentalist Tom "Bones" Malone talks about his incredible career spanning Saturday Night Live, The Blues Brothers, Gil Evans, Frank Zappa, Blood, Sweat, & Tears, The Brecker Brothers, David Sanborn, Late Show with David Letterman, and so much more with All About Jazz contributor and saxophonist Matthew Alec of Cleveland Time Records at Cleveland's Bop Stop jazz club back in January 2022.

All About Jazz: Mr. Tom "Bones" Malone, thank you so much for joining me at the lovely Bop Stop here in Cleveland. Honored to have you here.

Tom Malone: It's my pleasure.

AAJ: You play a ton of instruments.

TM: I play 14 instruments professionally.

AAJ: The entire brass family?

TM: Yes, and the saxophone family, and the flute family.

AAJ: You're known as a trombonist first and foremost. Why did you gravitate towards the instrument?

TM: Well, when I was in the sixth grade the marching band for the high school used to rehearse by the football field, it was right out the window of the sixth-grade class, and so I heard the band playing. One day the person on the public address system announced, "Anybody who wants to be in the band, come to the band hall Thursday night at seven o'clock and bring your parents." So I showed up there with my brother and my parents. The guy from the music store had all the instruments laid out and I picked up a trombone and I could almost play it! My dad said, "How much is it?" And he replied, "You can't afford it." So, we're walking out of the band hall and the band director grabs me and says, "You can play the school's tuba. You don't have to buy anything." So I started playing the tuba, and then my grandmother gave me $100 from her social security check to buy a trombone and I mowed lawns for the other hundred dollars and bought a $200 trombone. I was really motivated to play it for some reason, I'm not exactly sure, then I picked up the cornet, and then the saxophone. The trombone is sort of like my voice. It represents a human voice to me. I think it's my self-expression.

AAJ: That's a good point. So, you would say it most represents your sound. As far as the saxophone, that's a totally different animal and I can't play any brass at all. So, how did you pick up the saxophone as a brass player?

TM: Well, when I was 14, some guys came over to my house, a drummer, a couple of guitar players, and a saxophonist and they said, "We're starting a rock and roll band. You want to be in it?" I'm like, "Yeah." And I got out my trombone and they looked at me like I was crazy, and this is 1960. So, I said, "What's up?" And they said, "You don't have trombones in rock and roll bands." I said, "Well, what am I supposed to do? I want to be in the band, I want to hang with the guys, I want to meet girls." They said, "You got to play saxophone." So, my best friend in high school was a guy named Alan Sumrall and he had an alto and a tenor with him that night. So, he started teaching me how to play tenor sax right then and there and we worked out some songs at that rehearsal.

AAJ: So you picked it up pretty quick.

TM: Well, I was motivated! I wanted to be in the band with the guys so I was very motivated and I bought a tenor sax for $75 and I continued to play it.

AAJ: Yeah, prices have gone up a bit since then.

TM: Well, this is true. This was not a Mark VI saxophone, the one that I got for $75. Anyway, when I started in college, I bought a flute I saw on a bulletin board for $75 and I bought it, so I continued playing different musical instruments.

AAJ: This is a related question, but how do you have the time to keep up all of these instruments?

TM: Well, I have a way of maintaining my chops. These muscles in the corner of your embouchure, they play all the wind instruments. The flutes, saxophones, and all the brass. So, if I have a limited amount of time to practice, I will do what's called lip slur exercises on the brass instruments. If I have a limited amount of time to practice, I'll do lip slurs on the trumpet because the compression level is higher. It's sort of like a weightlifter doesn't just walk in and lift 500 pounds. He takes 25-pound hand weights and does repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition.

AAJ: Sure, yeah.

TM: So, playing the trumpet compared to the trombone is like lifting a heavier weight. I do a lot of repetitions and then I put the horn down, and I do a lot of repetitions, because it keeps these muscles in shape. This gives you endurance and range.

AAJ: If you've played a ton of trumpet and you've warmed up really nicely on trumpet, the trombone then is like lifting a five-pound weight then at that point?

TM: It's about half the weight and the tuba isn't even half the weight of the trombone as far as the compression level is concerned. So, that's my way of using my time efficiently.

AAJ: Now that's very cool. How often do you practice and how much do you practice?

TM: Well, I don't practice as much as I should. When I was in junior high and high school I practiced four or five hours a day. One of the reasons was that I was living on a farm in Mississippi in the middle of nowhere and I didn't want to do that for the rest of my life. I didn't want to milk cows, pick corn, haul hay, or any of that sort of thing. I saw music as my way to get out of the farm and I envisioned myself moving to New York when I was in high school.

AAJ: Listening to you play the trombone and some of your classic recordings, you listen to Blues Brothers recordings, your trombone solos are very lyrical, you have a lyrical and melodious approach to playing. What do you think about when you're crafting a solo either in the studio or live or both? What crosses your mind?

TM: I don't really try to think, I try to let the other side of my brain work. I have a degree in psychology and your brain has a dominant side and a subdominant side. The dominant side of your brain, let's say you're right-handed, the left side of your brain is dominant. You have mathematical concepts and reasoning going on. On the other side of your brain, all the experiences and music that you've heard has been digested and it comes out. The subconscious is on the other side of your brain and when I hear a rhythm section playing, I hear a melody coming out of that side of my brain. I just try to turn it over to that side.

At this point in my career, the instrument plays itself. When I first started improvising, I'm thinking about what key or scale I should be playing or what sort of ii-V-I progression is going on here? I don't do that anymore. I just listen to that other side of my brain and I just play what comes out. The horn plays itself. When you walk, you don't think about walking. The walking works by itself, your moving center of your body walks, and you're thinking about everything else besides walking, you're just on autopilot. When you drive the car, your moving center is driving the car, you're thinking about everything else except driving the car while you're driving. So, playing any of the 14 instruments in my life today, they're all on autopilot. I just listen for that melody to come out of my head and then the instrument plays itself.

AAJ: Yeah, that, that makes total sense.

TM: That's why we need to practice, we want the instrument to play itself.

AAJ: Your analogy with walking, if you think about the fact that you're walking, you might actually mess up. You might cause yourself to. If you overthink the process of something that's automated, you might actually fall because you're, you know...

TM: Well, when you first started walking, you saw other people walking and you imitated their behavior and then when you took your first steps it was a little unsure, but, you know, after a while it becomes automatic and it happens at such a young age that you probably don't remember when we started walking, but we certainly remember when we started driving a car. When I first started, I was scared, but now, it's just, you know, the moving center of my body does it and I don't think about it.

AAJ: Sure. You were born in Honolulu in 1947. And your dad was a survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack. Tell me about your parents and how they molded your musical development.

TM: Well, my parents are both rednecks from south Mississippi and my dad got out of flight school in Pensacola, Florida, in August 1941.

They got married on August 29th. His first tour of duty was Pearl Harbor as a pilot. Now, they're living on the base, Pearl City naval housing, on the north end of the harbor and, that was the approach of the enemy aircraft on that day, December 7th, 1941. So, mother got up to go to the bathroom and she said to my dad, "Those planes that just went over they're not ours." He said, "How can you tell?' She said, "They have an orange circle under the wing." So, 10 seconds later, the bombs hit the harbor and my father got called in, now, he was stationed at Ford Island, if you've ever seen a map of Pearl Harbor, Ford Island is the airport and it's on an island in the middle of the harbor. There was no bridge, so he had to go across the harbor during the bombing in a small boat, he said they were following a destroyer and the destroyer was bombed and sank right in front of him. The small boat was not a military target, so they got to the airport. Got a couple of planes in the air and then they strafed the airport, and then they bombed the airport, and he said a lot of his friends died in front of him.

Anyway, I was a navy brat until I was 11, my dad retired in 1958, and bought a farm in south Mississippi and it was a totally foreign situation for me. Milking cows, hauling hay, picking corn, racism, you know, it was a whole new concept for me. It never made any sense to me and as I started playing pop music, I realized that all my favorite artists, jazz, rhythm and blues, blues, were all black artists so I knew that I had to get out of Mississippi in order to do what I wanted to do.

I had an unusual experience, too, that nobody else from Mississippi ever had... I went with my dad and a friend of his to a nightclub, we lived in a dry county, in Mississippi, but right over the county line there was this club and I wasn't old enough to drink, but I could go with my dad to this club and there was an all-black band, rhythm and blues band, playing at the club, and they blew my mind how good these guys were. Two weeks later I went to the music store in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and the new instrument repairman is the leader of the band...

AAJ: Oh, wow.

TM: Terry Leggett and the Jewels of Swing. So, we started talking about music and we liked the same music and I told him that I arranged music and he said, "Well, you know my band could learn these new songs that come out a lot faster if we had a chart. Why don't you write a chart for me." So I showed up at a rehearsal and hit it off with all these guys and I did a couple of arrangements like that for him again and then, Terry calls me up and he says, "My band's working every night between Christmas and New Year's. One of my horn players has to leave music for a church revival, he can't make any of the gigs. You want to play with my band for the week?" And I said, "Yes." And we didn't have any trouble. Everybody was nice to me and we didn't have any trouble because all the clubs we played at were so far into the ghetto that there were no white people to make any trouble.

AAJ: That's quite a fortuitous happening.

TM: Yeah, but it opened my eyes to a situation and nobody else ever did that.

AAJ: Yeah, that's quite an experience. It reminds me of the Charlie Parker story touring the Deep South, with the bebop band that had Red Rodney.

TM: Exactly, the same story because I realized that I wanted to play with James Brown and Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles. I knew it wasn't gonna happen down in Mississippi.

AAJ: No, probably not, but that's still a great experience and getting to play with a totally different... I mean that had to impact your music at a young age.

TM: Yes, yes.

AAJ: Yeah, just the feeling of the music if nothing else, it probably gave you a totally different perspective, especially versus playing in New York for instance.

TM: So, all I played with at that point professionally was these little high school white rhythm and blues bands and this band just blew them all out of the water and it was an experience that I'll never forget.

AAJ: That definitely helped shape you.

TM: Absolutely.

AAJ: You attended North Texas University, and you were in the One O'clock band there, which is...

TM: I played lead trombone in the One O'clock band and lead trumpet in the Three O'clock band. I auditioned on tenor saxophone and the saxophone instructor said, "Okay, get out of here!" And I said, "Hey, I played the part perfectly." He said, "I have 60 jazz saxophone majors here, we only have 30 chairs in the band, you're already playing two bands, and you're not even a music major, so get out of here."

AAJ: So you majored in psychology there.

TM: Yes.

AAJ: When you went to North Texas, did you get involved with music right off the bat, or was that something that happened over the course of time while you were there?

TM: Well, I put myself through college at North Texas by playing gigs and by contracting bands for band leaders from New York. They would call me up and they'd say, "We're going to be the Tommy Dorsey band in Houston 350 miles away." Get a 16-piece band together, show up and sight read music for four hours, and there were people in North Texas who could do that. I represented several of the big bands.

AAJ: How did you get that gig?

TM: I got hired to play with the Tommy Dorsey ghost band of a one-nighter in Biloxi, Mississippi when I was living in Hattiesburg going to college, and I showed up for this gig and it was Warren Covington, the big time New York trombone player. Warren Covington and the Tommy Dorsey band, and the contractor that hired me was an older trombone player in Jackson, Mississippi. So, when the gig was over, Warren came up to me and he said, "This guy can't play shit." He said, "I like the way you play kid, because next time I come down here I'll bet you could get me a band, couldn't you?" And I said, "Yes." Gave my business card and he hired me the next time he came down. He had a job in Louisiana and I got him a top-notch band.

So, when I moved to North Texas I called him up, "Warren, I'm living in Texas." He said, "You'll be my contractor." And he gave my name to other band leaders in New York that did ghost band jobs like the Glenn Miller, and Ray McKinley, and so, I was able to send myself to college by doing that kind of work. One memorable one was, I hired a horn section for a three-night tour with Martha and the Vandellas, The Supremes, and The Temptations. 1969. The original Temptations, the original Supremes and that blew my mind. They brought a rhythm section from Detroit down, and then that led to a job with Marvin Gaye, led to a job with little Stevie Wonder when he was 16. Yeah, just opened a lot of doors. I was still in college.

AAJ: Yeah, much of this spawned from your experience at North Texas and one door simply led from another to another to another.

TM: The reason I went to North Texas is that when I was going to school in Hattiesburg my first two years, we played at the Mobile Jazz Festival the spring of 1967. Lou Marini showed up with the North Texas band, he wrote some charts and played some solos, we met, and he said, "Man... " He said, "You should really transfer to North Texas next year." So, I did and Lou and I have been playing together ever since.

AAJ: Yeah, so that's when you met with Lou Marini.

TM: Yes and he's turned me onto gigs in my career and I've turned him onto gigs in my career.

AAJ: Are you guys still close friends?

TM: Absolutely. 55 years later.

AAJ: So, why didn't you major in music, just out of curiosity?

TM: Well, I started off as a music major but I actually started teaching myself about music when I was about 13. I heard a record on the radio and I wanted to know how the notes fit together to make that sound? So I bought this single and listened to it carefully, and I would pick out the notes, and I wrote an arrangement. I didn't know whether it was right or not, but I was rummaging around in the back part of the music store one day and I found the published arrangement. I made about a 96 on my arrangement. So, I continued to arrange music and I took a course called music theory 101 my first year in college. I answered all the questions for the first two weeks and then the teacher took me out in the hall and said, "You don't have to come to class, you get an A." He wanted the rest of the class to participate, you know, he said, "You already know all this stuff." So, I was sort of self-taught. I changed changed my major to psychology and I found that fascinating, and I also found it to come in very handy when dealing with musicians.

AAJ: Oh, that's certainly true. So, in regards to your psychology background, how has that helped you in life? Just out of curiosity.

TM: Well, just making a good impression on people is important. Being nice to people is very important.

AAJ: Yeah, I've heard you say that before, you said, "You're always nice to everyone."

TM: If somebody wants to hire you or wants to hire another saxophonist of equal ability, who are they going to call? They're going to call the nicest guy. The guy who gets along with everybody.

AAJ: That's certainly true.

TM: So, I always tell that to kids when I lecture at the colleges.

AAJ: Yeah. Fast forward a few years. New York, you moved to New York City in...

TM: 1970. January 1970.

AAJ: I've been focused very, just in the last couple weeks, reading the new Michael Brecker biography which we spoke about recently and the loft scene that was happening during that time in New York City I found to be absolutely fascinating.

TM: Yes.

AAJ: Tell me about that.

TM: Well, anybody that had a loft, and it would have, you know, a set of drums and amplifiers, and stuff like that, and they'd have jam sessions, and anybody that wanted to play would show up. I got my own loft in 1975 and I had it for 20 years down on Houston Street. We had jam sessions in my house, too, but, when I was living on West 92nd Street, ({m: David Sanborn = 4040}} used to come by twice a week and we would jam. There was a drummer next door with amps set up at his apartment and we would jam up there. Randy Brecker would come up along with Mike Brecker. People would just call up and say, "Hey, we're going to jam at Sue Evans' loft." We would just show up and call tunes. We were refining our craft. The more you play, the better.

AAJ: At that point in your life how much were you playing?

TM: Well, I was either practicing or playing. I spent quite a few years playing Saturday Night Live on the weekends and doing recording sessions during the week. I would do anywhere from five to 12 recording sessions during the week before Saturday Night Live would come in and I was the arranger for Saturday Night Live so it kept me pretty busy.

AAJ: I would say so.

TM: I was also starting a family, having kids, and so it was nice to be off the road and at home with the kids because they'd see me every day.

AAJ: How many children do you have?

TM: I have two daughters and a granddaughter.

AAJ: How's having children changed your life?

TM: They gave me a purpose. I bought a house, I wanted to send them to college, and I wanted to do all the right things for them.

Can I tell you a story about The Blues Brothers?

AAJ: Absolutely!

TM: The Blues Brothers almost never got started. Danny and John got this idea about The Blues Brothers and I was called in for the first meeting. I was the arranger for the show. This is March, 1978. John and Danny started talking about these guys that wear sunglasses day and night, and they were both orphans, and they had very little emotional response to anything, you know, developing the characters. So, I wrote an arrangement of a song called "Rocket 88" by James Cotton, and we rehearsed the Saturday Night Live Band backing up The Blues Brothers. We did it for Lorne Michaels, the producer. [Thumbs down gesture] It didn't make the show.

AAJ: [Laughs] What did he know?

TM: John and Danny were still hot on the idea in the next week, so I wrote an arrangement of a song called "Hey Bartender" and we rehearsed the band we did it for Lorne Michaels. [Thumbs down gesture] Week number two.

AAJ: Yeah.

TM: Lorne said, "Frankly, I don't see anything funny about The Blues Brothers." So, okay, the third week, John, Danny, they said, "Look, if Lorne doesn't like it, if we're not getting on, we're wasting our time. We got to move on." I'm like, "Okay." So, Lorne comes out to read through Wednesday about 3:15 and we have to do a live show on Saturday and Lorne says, "The show is three minutes short! What the hell are we going to do?" And John and Danny jumped on, "Lorne! The Blues Brothers!" So, Lorne says, "Well, we have nothing worthwhile to put in those three minutes. You guys might as well make fools of yourselves." [Laughs]

He put us on. So, now this is way before the internet and cell phones, stuff like that. The switchboard lit up with phone calls Monday morning and letters and cards started pouring in. The viewing audience obviously liked The Blues Brothers. So, we ended up doing a couple more Blues Brothers songs with the Saturday Night Live Band and then John and Danny decided they wanted to make a separate band. They wanted to have their own band called The Blues Brothers Band and they took four of us from Saturday Night Live, Lou Marini, myself, Steve Jordan, and Paul Shaffer, and I was going to be the horn arranger and they said, "If you need another horn it's your decision." So, I hired Alan Rubin to be the trumpet player and, I also recommended, Steve Cropper and "Duck" Dunn. I had played in a band with them called, Levon Helm & The RCO All-Stars. I knew they'd be perfect for the band and so, on my recommendation John and Danny hired them. and we had a meeting at John's house one time, and he said, "Well, now we have a Matt "Guitar" Murphy in the band, and we have a Donald 'Duck' Dunn in the band, so everybody has to have a middle name, and if you can't make up a middle name for yourself, we'll make one up for you." And I immediately said, "How about Tom 'Bones' Malone?" A nickname I got in high school. They said, "That's it." And Lou Marini is standing next to me, he says, "How about 'Blue' Lou Marini." So, bang, that was his nickname and they and John made up Alan "Mr. Fabulous" Rubin for him, and they made up Steve "The Colonel" Cropper for him, and so, everybody got a middle name.

AAJ: Oh, that's funny, that was a later question in the interview! So, you actually got the nickname in high school at some point.

TM: Yes and it didn't really stick, but it stuck in my mind. Everybody usually says, "Well, how'd you get the name 'Bones'?" You know, it must be from the trombone. Well, it was actually because I was tall and thin. I was six two-and-a-half and weighed about 145, so I was skin and bones.

AAJ: I just assumed it came from the trombone.

TM: Everybody does. And that's fine if people want to think that, too.

Continued to part 2

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