THE YEAR OF THE TROMBONE

A feature article in the Winter edition of the fancy, bi-lingual, Parisian fashion magazine ‘Paradis.’

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Any musical instrument nicknamed “slush pump" which is played by a “boneman" cannot be considered sexy.

The master bebop trombonist J.J. Johnson described the instrument as “ungainly, awkward, beastly."
Practicing it for hours every day takes dedication, and a well-developed sense of irony. It is hard work to make the listener ignore how hard the trombone is to play.

The sound is made by blowing air through a tube unimpeded by man-made devices, and it has also been described as the closest instrumental sound to the human voice.

When I passed the audition to enter the High School of Music and Art, in New York, playing the accordion -popularly known as a “squeeze-box" - I was given a trombone as my required second instrument basically because I was a tall 14-year old who could reach the seventh position. So instead of squeezing, I was now pumping. Go figure. Bonemen tend to be tall, and attract willowy groupies with well-developed senses of irony.

What do you call a woman who is on the arm of a trombone player?
A tattoo.

Chorales of its ancestor the sackbut played religious music on 16th century German church towers.
Hector Berlioz said it had “nobility and grandeur." Johannes Brahms called the trombone: “The Voice of God." Monteverdi wrote for five trombones in his opera “Orfeo." There is a famous trombone solo in Mozart’s “Requiem." Felix Mendelssohn cautioned that it was “too sacred for frequent use."

A trombone can be dangerous as well as sacred – slides have been known to kill other instrumentalists standing too close in front of them in marching bands. You need plenty of elbow-room for the required awkward arm movements. Spit accumulates in the tubes, front and back, and the efficient emptying of spit is a prime skill on the instrument. Ironic trombonists enjoy blowing spit balls at their band mates through their unimpeded tubes.

What is the height of optimism?
A trombone player with a beeper

The only safe place for an unimpeded tube in turn-of-the-century New Orleans jazz parades was on the end of the wagon – the style became known as “tailgate." Also known as a “trambone," it grew as a solo instrument in the dance bands of Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller. Jack Teagarden, Dickie Wells, and Trummie Young increased its range of expression in the front lines of swing combos. J.J. Johnson added speed and elegance. The two-trombone quintet “Jay and Kai" (J.J. and Kai Winding) was a rare combination of quality and commercial success in the 1960s.

Jimmy Knepper, a kind of bebop Teagarden, was as essential to the sound of Charles Mingus as Johnny Hodges was to Duke Ellington. When, in the 1980s, I sat in the trombone section next to Knepper during a tour of Switzerland and Germany with the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band, I kept peeking over to see how he did the amazing stuff I was hearing. He seemed to be re-inventing the overtone series with his creative false-positioning, and his sound was close to the God of your choice.

When we had a night off in Zurich, and I asked him to join me for dinner, he replied: “No thanks, I think I’ll go up to my room and mope." Knepper had the sort of eccentric, moping creativity you might expect from someone whose name begins with a silent letter, and who could play such a clumsy device with so much grace and beauty.

What’s the difference between a frog and a trombone player crossing the street?
The frog is going to a gig.

Hush now, don’t laugh. Thanks to a large degree to the innovations of the jazz players, and to the African tradition of polyrhythmic grooves finally being taught in serious conservatories, symphonic trombonists have been getting much more sophisticated lately.

Breaking news. There will be four-count-em-four major orchestral trombone concertos in the United States this season - with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and the Harrisburg and Hartford symphony orchestras. This is no joke. The New York Times has called 2007 “the year of the trombone."

A trombone player’s car is stolen, his horn was in it. When the police call to say they found it, he rushes down to the station. He opens the trunk with trepidation, and he sees – two trombones.