The trombone has been an important instrumental voice in jazz since jazz’s origins. Throughout its history many jazz trombonists have made contributions that have had an influence on other performers, including many non-trombonists. This article traces a timeline of stylistic influence from the early styles of jazz to the present day through the analyses of transcribed solos as played by some of jazz’s most influential trombonists.
Tracing these influences through transcribed solos can show a progression from one style to the next. It can be seen how the earlier players influence the later, after which those players develop their own new styles and in turn influence the musicians to follow. This timeline of influences can be a valuable resource for the jazz performer. A performer who knows how musicians from each style period performed and influenced later musicians will know how to perform within all style periods. Knowledge of the musical roots also allows the performer to build upon influences and create new ideas that break the traditional rules.
Before covering jazz trombone styles there are a couple of important points to consider. The first deals with the importance of the transcription process. Jazz musicians have always transcribed other performer’s solos. Up until around the 1970’s the only way to learn about jazz was through transcribing solos and imitating what was learned, since formal jazz education was virtually nonexistent. Even today, most jazz educators agree that there is no replacement for transcribing solos. The transcribing process not only teaches about the melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic style of a performer, but also trains the ear to hear these devices quicker and easier. Musical expressions such as swing feel, jazz articulations, and timbrel characteristics can only be learned through extensive listening and imitation, since the written word and notated music can only approximate these concepts. As such, all jazz students should be encouraged to take the following transcriptions and analyses as a method to begin their own exploration into this music through transcribing, and not as an end in itself.
Secondly, while there has been made an attempt to classify trombonists as belonging to one particular style and to typify their solo characteristics, it is extremely difficult to pin down any musician’s style. Many trombonists adapted their approach and performed in more than one style. Many trombonists have styles that are difficult to summarize. Please take these classifications of the following trombonists as a guide to understanding their music, and not as historical truth.
The earliest historically recognized form of jazz began in New Orleans during the early 1900s. This style, today commonly referred to as Dixieland, was usually performed by smaller bands consisting of a trumpet or cornet, trombone, clarinet, and rhythm section. Dixieland jazz was collectively improvised music, but each instrument improvised in a particular way. The cornet was responsible for playing the melody while the clarinet would improvise an obbligato line above the cornet melody. The rhythm section provided a march-like accompaniment.
The trombonist’s role in this style was to play a counter melody that was melodically simple and reinforced the chord progression. Trombonists from this style period favored the use of lots of glissandi and growls. This style of trombone playing became known as “tailgate” due to the need for the trombonist to sit at the back of the wagon in order to have enough room to maneuver the slide.
Listen for these style characteristics in this recording of “Dipper Mouth Blues” by King Oliver and Louis Armstrong (shown here), featuring trombonist Honore Dutrey.
Trombonist Kid Ory (1886-1973) was one of the most well known Dixieland trombonists. He is known for his performances with Louis Armstrong, as well as Dave Peyton, Jelly Roll Morton, and Ma Rainey. Ory also led many successful groups of his own.
Ory’s improvisations on the composition “When the Saints Go Marching In” shows some typical stylistic traits of Dixieland trombone. He employs a fast vibrato over the entire length of the note and uses lots of glissandi and growls. Harmonically and melodically the solo is very simple, the second choruses of each of his improvisations are virtual repeats of the first choruses. His blues influence is reflected by the blues scale sound he uses throughout.
There are many other important trombonists from this style period who deserve mention, such as Miff Mole, J.C. Higginbothan, and Vic Dickenson. Some important Dixieland trombonists, like Freddie Assunto of the Dukes of Dixieland, got their start during the 1940s Dixieland revival.
In the 1930s and 1940s a new style of jazz developed which has become known as Swing Jazz. This style was different from Dixieland in a number of respects. Where Dixieland bands were small combos, Swing Era bands usually consisted of around 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, 5 saxophones, piano, bass, drums, and sometimes a guitar. Because of the larger size of the group, the bulk of the music was pre-composed, rather than improvised. The march-like beat of Dixieland was replaced by a swing feel.
Jack Teagarden was an important early swing trombonist. Born in 1905, he got his start performing in the Dixieland ensembles led by Wingy Malone, Willard Robinson, Elizabeth Brice, Billy Lustig, and Tommy Gott. He was the featured trombonist and singer with the popular Paul Whiteman Orchestra. He is perhaps most well known through his many performances with Louis Armstrong.
Teagarden’s style was different from the Dixieland trombonists in that he moved away from the tailgate approach to a more trumpet-like style. He played with a lighter tone and smoother attacks. His technique was noted for its flexibility and range. Like most swing musicians, Teagarden employed a vibrato over almost the entire length of the note. Look for these devices on Teagarden’s solo on “Basin Street Blues.”
Bill Harris, born in 1916, is noted as a transitional figure between the swing style and bebop. He was best known for his work with the Woody Herman Orchestra, although he was in demand as a sideman and also worked successfully as leader.
Harris’ style is hard to generalize as he often played even the same piece quite differently, depending on the style of the music and how he was feeling at that time. He had an irrepressible sense of humor that occasionally crept into his music through both musical and visual jokes. He was also known for his technical command of the trombone. He had great endurance and range and was able to handle fast tempos very cleanly.
Harris’ solo on “Your Father’s Mustache” includes some important features. During this solo Harris utilizes a technique sometimes referred to as “against the grain” technique. Through the use of alternate positions a trombonist can change notes very quickly by breaking across the harmonic partials without needed to tongue notes. This motive by Harris utilizes this principle.
Also note the increased endurance and range needed to play this solo. There is a strong blues influence throughout, notably during the last three measures.
Many other swing trombonists deserve mention for their contributions. Tommy Dorsey was a popular trombonist and band leader. One trombone section from the Duke Ellington Orchestra is particularly noted for their influence, containing Lawrence Brown, Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton (famous for his use of a common toilet plunger as a mute), and Juan Tizol. Jimmy Harrison, Benny Morton, and Trummy Young were also highly regarded trombone soloists from this style period.
The next major stylistic movement in jazz is commonly referred to as Bebop. Bebop had it’s origins in the 1940s, particularly with the work of alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, pictured here, and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. This style of jazz is important in part because where before jazz was music performed primarily for dancing, with bebop the focus of the music became strictly for listeners, not dancers. The typical size of the group went back to the small combo, which allowed more freedom in solo improvising.
Trombonist Bennie Green was perhaps the first bebop trombonist. Green, who was born in 1923 and died in 1977, got his start in the swing era big bands, including the Earl Hines Orchestra during the same time as Parker and Gillespie were both in the ensemble. Green’s soloing retained the swing style phrasing, but he incorporated the bebop harmonic and rhythmic language.
Parker’s influence on Green can be shown by noting the similarities in Green’s use of the flat nine over the dominant 7 chords. This was a device popularized by bebop players, such as Parker. These and other bebop characteristics are evident on “Glidin’ Along” as performed by Bennie Green.
Arguably, the most important figure in modern jazz trombone is J. J. Johnson. Johnson, who was born in 1924 and died in 2001, also got his start playing in swing bands, notably the Count Basie Orchestra. Like Green, Johnson was highly influenced by Parker’s and Gillespie’s playing.
Johnson’s style was revolutionary for its time. Johnson almost completely avoided the glissandi and growls associated with the swing and dixieland styles and also played with little or no vibrato. His melodic concept was highly developed and he was also noted for having flawless technical command of the trombone.
Johnson’s solo on the blues “Stratusphunk” shows some of his typical style characteristics. Note the double time chorus where he exploits his technical mastery of the trombone. Like Green, Johnson also utilized the dominant 7 flat 9 chords. Look for his quote of “Rhapsody in Blue” and his use of against the grain technique.
Frank Rosolino (1926-1978) was another highly regarded bebop trombonists. Rosolino’s best known job as a sideman was as the featured trombonist with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, but he was also a successful band leader. He possessed an extremely strong upper register and had great lip flexibility. In addition to his trombone playing Rosolino was also well known as a singer, comedian, and practical joker.
Rosolino’s solo on the Parker composition “Now’s the Time” shows many typical features of his playing. He uses the extreme upper register throughout the solo and makes frequent use of against the grain playing, as in this excerpt.
Many other trombonists deserve mention for their important contributions to bebop. Kai Winding was stylistically very similar to Johnson; in fact they co-led some very successful trombone combos known as “Jay and Kai.” Al Grey is noted for his work with both Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie and is famous for his playing with a plunger mute, a mute favored by swing era trombonists. Willie Dennis recorded some promising solos but died young and his work has not received as much attention today as it deserves.
During the 1950s a growing group of musicians began reacting to the bebop style and experimenting with playing differently. Taking their cue from the 1949 Miles Davis recording, “Birth of the Cool,” these musicians began playing with lighter timbres and at more moderate tempos than was common in bebop. More emphasis was placed on a melodic approach to soloing, rather than the harmonic approach of outlining the chord progressions also associated with bebop.
Carl Fontana is noted as one of the most important trombonists of this style. Born in 1928, Fontana got his start with the Woody Herman Orchestra and later also performed in groups led by Stan Kenton and Kai Winding. Fontana passed away on October 9, 2003.
When soloing Fontana played fairly softly into a microphone, which gave him a smooth tone and easy sounding speed. He was a pioneer of a technique of double tonguing known as “doodle tonguing.” A brass musician typically double tongues by pronouncing the syllables “ta-ka, ta-ka” while playing. Doodle tonguing is a similar technique, however the difference is in that the syllables pronounced are closer to “doo-dull, doo-dull.” The resulting attack sounds smoother than a normal double tongue, better suited for the legato approach common to jazz playing.
Fontana’s doodle tonguing technique was extremely clear and well pronounced. Listen to this excerpt from Fontana soloing on “I Thought About You.” In addition to noticing Fontana’s double time passages, which are produced mostly by doodle tonguing, listen for his relaxed swing feel and tasteful phrasing.
Fontana’s solo on “A Beautiful Friendship” is a favorite among many his fans. This solo is a good example of how he develops motivic ideas as well as his melodic approach to improvisation. Also of note are his extreme upper register use and his fast passages played through both doodle tonguing and against the grain technique.
Other trombonists who deserve mention for performing in the Cool Jazz style include some who have already been mentioned, such as J. J. Johnson. Kai Winding, pictured here with Kenny Durham and Miles Davis, played on the “Birth of the Cool” session as well as other important cool jazz projects. Others, such as valve trombonists Bob Brookmeyer and Bob Enevoldsen and slide trombonist Milt Bernhart were also very influential within this style of jazz.
In the late 1950s and 1960s a number of musicians began reacting against some of the stylistic traits of Cool Jazz, just as Cool Jazz had reacted to Bebop. These musicians played with darker tones and articulated their lines much harder. They placed the emphasis on hard driving grooves, rather than complex melodies and harmonies. Trumpeter Clifford Brown, drummer Art Blakey (pictured here), and pianist Horace Silver are three pioneers of the hard bop style.
Born Locksely Wellington Hampton in 1932, Slide Hampton began his professional career working for Buddy Johnson and then later Lionel Hampton in the middle 1950s. Hampton’s first major recognition came when he was hired by Maynard Ferguson in 1957. Hampton remains active today as a trombonist, bandleader, and arranger.
Preferring a larger sound, Hampton plays a trombone with a larger bore than the average jazz trombonist does. This helps give him a warm and dark tone favored by many Hard Bop stylists. He is fond of developing short melodic or rhythmic motives, as shown in this excerpt from his solo on “Solar.”
Hampton also possesses excellent endurance, upper register, and the ability to play cleanly at fast tempos.
There are many more trombonists who have influenced others through their work in the hard bop style, such as J. J. Johnson, Curtis Fuller, Jimmy Knepper, Jimmy Cleveland, and Frank Rehak.
In the 1960s a movement occurred in jazz led in part by alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman. This style, which became known as Free Jazz, rejected traditional harmony, melody, and rhythm, and instead went back to the idea of group improvisation where anything could become appropriate. Free Jazz musicians explored new ways of producing sounds, resulting in many unusual effects.
Some important free trombonists are Albert Mangelsdorff and Frank Ku-Umba Lacy. Listen to this excerpt from Mangelsdorff’s solo from”The Horn Is a Lady” and listen in particular to his ability to play multiphonics. This technique involves playing one pitch and then humming a pitch, usually above note played, which can result in three or more pitches sounding.
In the 1970s another movement in jazz occurred which was influenced by rock ‘n’ roll and funk. Led in part by the Miles Davis 1969 recording, “Bitches Brew,” fusion musicians used rock or funk grooves with electronic instruments being very prominent. Melodies and harmonized tended to be simple.
While primarily a style for electronic instruments, many trombonists have made important contributions to the Jazz/Rock style. Wayne Henderson is noted for his work with the group “The Crusaders.” Jimmy Pankow is the trombonist with the jazz/rock group “Chicago.” Dave Bargeron, Bruce Fowler, Tom “Bones” Malone, and Fred Wesley are also recognized as important players in the jazz/rock style. Listen to this excerpt of Wayne Henderson, pictured here, soloing on “1990 BC, The Grand Dance” for some of the typical style characteristics of jazz/rock.
It is difficult to classify the main style of jazz being performed today. Led by such artists as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, one common approach is sometimes called “Neo-Bop.” This stylistic approach draws quite a bit from earlier bop styles, while selectively drawing from some of the innovations of Free Jazz. Many musicians are influenced by a great variety of music, however, which makes contemporary jazz very diverse and hard to pin down. As the technical demands of jazz have increased, contemporary jazz trombonists make use of techniques pioneered by earlier trombonists, such as doodle tonguing and against the grain playing.
Conrad Herwig is a well known jazz trombonist today. Born in 1959, his first major jobs included playing with Clark Terry and Toshiko Akiyoshi. Herwig is noted for his extraordinary technique, particularly a strong high register coupled with great endurance.
Herwig’s solo on his composition “Code Blue” demonstrates many of his stylistic traits. During this solo Herwig plays in the physically demanding upper register for long periods of time. He bases many of his melodies from pentatonic, whole tone, and diminished scales, such as this whole tone scale passage. Herwig’s soloing is always highly energetic.
There are many trombonists performing today who deserve mention. Steve Turre and Robin Eubanks are noted “Neo-Bop” style players. Bill Watrous is known for having unsurpassed technical command of the trombone. Hal Crook, shown here, and Mark Nightingale are also noted contemporary jazz trombone performers.
Some Final Thoughts
The trombonists discussed in this article are only some of a huge number of musicians who have left a strong influence on other trombonists and jazz. Many important players have been left out. In a large part the trombonists listed in this article are musicians who are favored by the author, but other trombonists may have left a more noticeable mark on other performers and writers.
Ultimately the goal of every jazz musician is to develop his or her own style. Transcribing, learning, and assimilating the solos of other musicians is considered one of the most important steps to reaching that goal. Without a strong understanding of the vocabulary of the past the aspiring jazz trombonist will be struggle to perform stylistically correct when needed, but also unable to find a personal voice that evolves beyond imitation and becomes a unique form of musical expression.