Monday, February 18, 2013

Trombone 102, Are You Man Enough?

Melba Liston

            My last post was about the trombone studio recital at the Conservatoire in Bordeaux and some of the difficulties these young kids were going to face in wrestling with their new horn. The group included a number of girls and this post is for them.
            Not surprisingly, the trombone was not the first choice for most people who end up playing it. I'm not sure I even knew what it was when one was handed to me in fourth grade. And my bet is that even in France, kids showing up for band without an instrument are steered to a trombone. But for a boy it is at least not a girly horn. How they get little girls to play it is beyond me.
            Some years back, a co-worker commiserated with me over the difficulty of convincing his daughters to be in the school band. Like me, his fondest school memories were musical ones and he could not understand why his kids weren't as enthusiastic. Their resistance was based mainly on their feelings that band kids weren't particularly popular and, as you might recall, this is a pretty high priority for the pre-teen female. Finally they relented with"The Princess" settling on the flute, which she viewed as sufficiently feminine. The other deigned to accept a clarinet with the stipulation that it not come in a "geeky" case. In furtherance of this he solicited my help, not because I had daughters myself but was the only other guy in the office who might have had an idea what a clarinet even looked liked. When I asked if either had considered something like the trombone his response was something along the lines of, "You're kiddin' me, right?" So for at least two hours, two 40 year old men stood in a New Jersey music store agonizing and debating what constituted clarinet case geekiness to a 12-year old girl. I wonder what the fathers of female trombonists deal with? I digress.
            Judging by the age of the girls at the recital, the feeling could be that you have to start them before gender prejudices are fully formed. Then again, kids attitudes here might be different but I wouldn't bet on it. In any case, when I was learning to play and looking for role models every famous player that I was exposed to was a man. So where does a young girl go for inspiration?
             If I could talk to them I'd tell them that, starting with Judy Hogan in fourth grade, almost every female trombone player I ever knew played better than I could. However, that might not be the boost they're looking for. So then I'd tell them that if they looked at old photographs from the 1950's, at the high point of modern jazz, other than singers, they won't see many women. Any they see is most likely going to be one of two people - either Mary Lou Williams, a pianist, or Melba Liston, a trombone player like them.
            Melba Liston had so many things going against her that, even if you're not learning to play the trombone, you ought to know her story. That she was a black woman playing jazz on the trombone in the 1950's should have pretty much guaranteed her a place in obscurity. But because of the kind of person she was (faced with an incompetent first teacher, she taught herself to play) and her talent as a musician, she gained the respect of men who weren't all that inclined to give it. She was featured a few years ago in a documentary "The Girl's In The Band."For a link to Melba's story, click here.
             NPR's series Jazz Profiles did a feature on her in 2008 that talks not only about what a great trombonist she was but also her importance as an arranger. She had a debilitating stroke in 1985 that forced her to quit playing and if you listen long enough (I mean, you don't really have anything better to do or you wouldn't be reading this), at around the 45 minute mark, you'll hear Randy Weston talk of her overcoming the paralysis from this stroke.
Abbie Conant

            Abbie Conant is the only trombonist I know of who was handed a flute in grade school but actually chose the trombone years later. In 1980, after graduating from Juilliard, she auditioned for the position of Solo Trombone with the Munich Philharmonic. The auditions were held with the musicians behind a screen so they couldn't be seen and Abbie competed against 32 others, all men. When it was decided she had won, the Director and others were astonished to discover the Herr was a her. Although hired, she was demoted a year later because the General Director of the Munich orchestra didn't believe a woman could handle the rigors of a trombone soloist. She sued the orchestra and for the next several years had to prove over and over that she was as good as a man.  An article written by her husband, William Osborne, details this ordeal. For instance, "In response to the accusations of inadequate physical strength it was necessary for Ms. Conant to receive testing at the Gautinger Lung Clinic. She had to breathe inside a sealed cabin and have blood taken from her ear to see how efficiently her body absorbed oxygen.  She had to blow through numerous machines to measure the capacity of her lungs, and the speed at which she could inhale and exhale air.  She had to disrobe and let a doctor examine her rib cage and chest.  Afterwards a nurse asked her if she were an athlete.  The results were far above average." 
            Despite all this, Abbie Conant persevered for 13 years in the Munich Orchestra and is now a world-renowned trombonist, actor and performance artist and teacher. I myself could understand sticking around a job just because it pissed people off, in fact now I think of it this might have been what got me through my career, but I doubt it was Abbie's motivation.
             So, if those two stories inspire you, go work on your scales.

            From time to time, I'm going to be posting more about some of my favorite musicians in general and trombonists in particular. So here are recordings by Melba Liston and Abbie Conant.


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