Monday, November 4, 2013

LAWRENCE BROWN




            While writing the post about "Tricky Sam" a few weeks ago, I was looking something up in "Duke's Bones", Kurt Dietrich's book about Ellington's trombonists, and got sidetracked rereading the section on Lawrence Brown. That made for a further sidetrack to listen to some recordings that reminded me of what an amazing player Lawrence Brown was.  
            One of the first CD's I remember buying was a trombone compilation that I'm too lazy to go and find the title of right now. Anyway, one of my favorite cuts was Lawrence Brown's "Blues for Duke" from his album, "Slide Trombone", which was out of print at the time. I played whatever it is you can play instead of grooves off that CD. Then I read an article about Steve TurrĂ© in which he talked about the importance of some of the swing era masters like Lawrence Brown and Vic Dickenson. When I discovered the album "Everybody Knows Johnny Hodges" had the entire contents of "Inspired Abandon", Lawrence Brown's only other album as a leader, I picked up a copy and played the shit out of that one, too.

            The more I learned about the great swing era trombonists, and the more I've learned about the instrument itself, I've sometimes wondered if Lawrence Brown shouldn't get more credit for bringing the trombone out of it's clunky, tailgate backseat. By all accounts, his addition to Duke Ellington's band in 1932 was a watershed event and the whole time he was there his principle role was as a featured soloist. Thanks to people like him, Jimmy Harrison and Jack Teagarden, and their mastery of the horn, the role of the trombone in jazz was changed forever.

            Before this, as every serious student of the instrument knows, if the trombone was featured at all, even in jazz, it was generally because the slide could be used for "comic effect."  This despite the fact that legitimate virtuosos like Arthur Pryor had long demonstrated what the trombone was capable of. To this day, in community bands and orchestras all over the United States, and some professional as well, the feature for trombones will often be the unfortunately still popular "Lassus Trombone". 

           "Lassus Trombone" was one of 15 tunes written before World War I by a guy named Henry Fillmore, who also wrote marches and circus music. They were packaged and marketed thusly, "The Trombone Family - A Collection of 15 Original & Humorous Trombone Novelties For Band." The cover featured one of those old cartoon figures that some white people still can't understand why it pisses black people off. I hate, I mean I fucking hate "Lassus Trombone" and every single one of those god-damned early 20th century trombone monstrosities. Not because they have an undercurrent of racism about them, which they certainly do (the substitle of "Lassus" is "The Cullud Valet to Miss Trombone"). No, while that might be reason enough to burn every last copy, my objection lies in the fact that for over a century, these things represent to a lot of people all a trombone is good for. If you've never heard them, their defining feature is what trombone players call a glissando and everyone else calls a smear. There is a melody but mainly they are just an excuse to make stupid noises. My reaction to being asked to play these was usually the above obscenities along with the opinion that I had practiced too long and too hard to keep my horn from sounding like that and I'd be damned if I was going to be reduced to minstrelcy. Thanks, I needed that.

            So to get back to Lawrence Brown and his under-appreciation. It's no secret that he never expressed a particularly high opinion of his boss. And his band mates, while praising his musicianship, also described him as serious and rarely smiling. He also suffered at the hands of some fairly influential music critics of the day so it occurs to me that his personality might have come into play, a subject I know a little about myself. And on top of everything else, he was plagued by stage fright his entire career. This is another subject I'm familiar with and it's sometimes comforting to know that it rains on the great and mediocre alike. But Lawrence Brown is that rare musician that can be identified the second he starts playing and I never get tired of listening to him.

           I'll finish with what no less an authority than Gunther Schuller had to say in his history, "The Swing Era". "I believe the impact that [Lawrence] Brown had on the so-called Ellington effect...has never been fully appreciated...Brown was the first trombonist of any major black orchestra to develop a full-blown ballad and lyric style. This was some years before the emergence of players like Tommy Dorsey and Jack Jenny, still a time when the trombone was associated almost exclusively with "hot" jazz and hadn't quite lost its New Orleans 'tailgate' ancestry."  He also thinks Lawrence Brown was Tommy Dorsey's lyric style equal but this is too long as it is. Read "The Swing Era."

            The first recording is "Down the Street, 'Round the Corner", from "Slide Trombone", his 1955 album which was rereleased on CD in 1999. It's not the best cut on the album but I picked it because it's got lyrics and is the only song I'm aware of about a guy playing the trombone. A bonus is something that Youtube is good for, vintage jazz performances - that and cat videos
                                                   

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