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Trumpeter John Swana

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: I think it is interesting how musicians choose their instrument or have it chosen for them. I was surprised to learn, for example, from the recent book, The Musical World of J.J. Johnson , that J.J., the later-to-become legendary trombonist who seemed made for that instrument, was initially going to take up baritone sax in high school. As fate would have it, he attended a black school in a poor neighborhood, with a paucity of equipment, and the only useable instrument available for him was a trombone! We're all grateful for that happenstance! But in your case, your first choice was the trumpet?

JS: Oh yeah, the beautiful stuff by this Docshizer guy, and of course the Al Hirt records. He'd play certain things with the plunger mute, and made it sound like the human voice. It's funny, I don't even use the plunger, but I always thought it was really some great stuff. And in Copland's Rodeo and Billy the Kid, there are beautiful solo trumpet parts, and I chose trumpet without a second thought. And once, I went to a Mummers Day parade, but you know, those horns they give you, they're long and plastic and you just blow? I got one of those, and was blasting it around the house thinking it was the greatest thing.

AAJ: Your public relations bio states that you were born in Norristown, PA, took up the trumpet at the age of 11, and that you were drawn to jazz at the age of 17 after hearing Dizzy Gillespie. Then, the interest in jazz developed into a passion while you were in college. However, it's my impression that your style of playing is virtually the opposite of Dizzy's. His sound is frenetic and strained, deliberately so, as if to convey a tension, an electricity. Your playing on the other hand is very clear, natural, well-considered, even reserved. You seem always to be "on top of" the music, not straining, knowing just where you are at every moment. Of course, so many musicians feel tremendously indebted to Dizzy. What did you derive from Diz?

JS: Well, I got the whole bebop concept from him, his whole bebop feel. And the reason I didn't play like Dizzy was because I couldn't play like Dizzy: when he was at his top form, his trumpet playing was amazing. I love the album, Diz and Roy. I had the original vinyl, with Diz, Roy Eldridge, and Harry "Sweets" Edison. Diz just destroyed everyone-unbelievable! Like after playing screamingly high, he'd come down and play some really humorous stuff. I loved hearing him. I saw him live at Ambler when I was a teenager.

AAJ: I understand that Diz came to the Philadelphia area often. We know, for example, that in June, 1945, he and Charlie Parker played at the Academy of Music. Benny Golson and John Coltrane (and coincidentally Jimmy Heath) went to hear them and were, of course, floored. [Lewis Porter provides this information in John Coltrane: His Life and Music.] Later, of course, they were very moved to be able to perform with Diz.

Your bio says that you started to transcribe the solos of Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Tom Harrell. A propos of Miles, again you seem to have evolved your own style, very different from Miles. So what do you find valuable in his work?

JS: Well, it depends on the context. Actually, if I hear that kind of style with a group, I tend to move towards Davis' kind of texture. In my early twenties, Miles left Columbia Records, and they sold all his recordings at an incredibly low price! I just went nuts and bought all the sixties Miles. Every night, I'd go off by myself and put on a Miles record. I love Miles. If I'm in a certain texture, especially with the mute, I start to hear more of the Miles thing. I really come out of Freddie Hubbard more, and the stronger I'm playing, I sound more like Freddie.

AAJ: You definitely play more towards Freddie than Miles, I mean as far as your sound and your musical intention.

JS: I think that might also have to do with my classical background.

AAJ: Your sound is so clear and your articulation so fine, that I have wondered if you had had any aspirations to be a classical musician.

JS: When I went to West Chester University, I was slightly aimless. I knew I wanted to play trumpet, but I had no plan of action. I studied with Ken Loudermilk. He took students he thought had potential and would really get them ready for auditions for the masters programs at New England Conservatory and Julliard, etc. I was one of those guys- he was going to do that for me I was one of his protégés and did move in a classical vein for a while.

But even in the first year there, I started getting into jazz. I listened to Miles Davis' album, 'Round Midnight, where they do "Tad's Delight." And also the Miles Davis album, Bags' Groove, with "Oleo," "But Not For Me," and "Airegin." Sonny Rollins is on it and sounds great. But when I first heard Miles, I didn't like his tone- now I actually love it. And I think a different horn might give me a different texture. He played a Martin, and a different mouthpiece than I use. In fact, in terms of their sound, I like to listen to certain trombone players and consider how that would translate into trumpet. When I hear a really good trombone player, they have a resonant, open sound.

AAJ: Like Steve Davis, with whom you've recorded.

JS: Yeah, he was just at Ortlieb's [jazz club in Philadelphia]. And of course, J.J. Johnson has a beautiful tone. Have you ever heard the Billie Holiday record, Lady in Satin?

AAJ: One of her last recordings.

JS: Its a great record. J.J.s on it, and Urbie Green. When Holiday sings, it's really soulful and dirty, and then the trombone players, like J.J., come in and he's right there, and Urbie. The perfect notes.

AAJ: Urbie introduced J.J. to studio recording, and they hung out together after recording dates. J.J. tells some very light hearted stories of their drinking escapades!

Since you've alluded to your equipment, I wanted to say that Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, which the Philadelphia Orchestra performed recently, has a bass trumpet part. It's close to the trombone register.

JS: I used to have a bass trumpet.

AAJ: Do you play the flugelhorn? The cornet?

JS: The flugelhorn, yes. I don't play the cornet, however- I feel as if it's cheating. Its darker than the trumpet, but if you can't get that dark sound on the trumpet, then its cheating to use the cornet. That's just me- no criticism of others who play the cornet.

AAJ: Do you have trumpets of different registers?

JS: No, because I don't do the classical thing any more. I do have a pocket trumpet, which I've used to warm up on the highway before gigs, while keeping my car on cruise control!

AAJ: What's your basic equipment?

JS: A Bach medium large 72 bell, lacquered trumpet with a one and a quarter C Bach mouthpiece. I don't change equipment often- I'm conservative in that way.

AAJ: What mutes do you use?

JS: The Harmon. On "older style" type gigs, I'll use a cup mute. On that Dizzy and Roy album, Roy is using a straight mute and a Harmon, and Dizzy uses a cup.
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