Monday, August 31, 2015

My Tribe

This blog’s been neglected for months now, mainly because there wasn’t much I felt like writing about and coincided with an acute case of who-gives-a-shit-what-I-think-anyway. Last month, I hauled my wife and trombone to Valencia, Spain, to hang with my sister and brother trombone players at the International Trombone Festival, put on every year by, not coincidentally, the International Trombone Association, of which I’m a member and a part of the staff of it’s quarterly Journal. (That could be the longest sentence I’ve ever written.) This festival has been held every summer since 1971 and I’ve been to three of them. The first was in New Orleans in 2005, which was particularly special, coming right before Katrina and I made it to Austin in 2010. For four days it’s all trombones, all the time and now I’ve got something to write about (though the jury’s still out on the gives-a-shit part)

For me, one of the perks, come to think of it the only perk, of being able to write for the Journal it’s that I get to freely associate, even if only by email or telephone, with some of the finest, most well-known trombone players in the world. At the festival this year I got to do that in person and (allow me to name-drop) my hang-mates included Abbie Conant, Branimir Slokar, Andrea Conti and Bart van Lier. If these names are unfamiliar, all I can say is that these folks are on bass clef Mt. Olympus.

Surrounded by people of all ages and levels of talent from all over the world, bound by the struggle with “the great humility machine” (as Phil Wilson calls it),this festival reinforced that I missed my calling. As I’ve mentioned, ad nauseam, I didn’t find my career satisfying for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was that I’d always felt out of place. I worked for the FBI, a fact that must have tarnished its image for a lot of people. There was a saying batted around the place, usually while railing against some internal outrage that, “You can love the Bureau, but it’ll never love you back.” And for me it wasn’t that I was disgruntled, to steal from Wodehouse, I’d never been fully gruntled in the first place.

Music, however, has loved me back, despite the countless times my horn has come close to being bent over my knee. Ironically, the very place I cursed for nearly 27 years allowed me to retire at an early enough age that I could find out what I’d been missing. Being at music school in my 50s gave me enough perspective to discover that all my life I’ve been just a kid sitting in the back of the band with the trombone players. 

Jiggs Whigham (another ‘bone god) believes that you don’t choose the trombone, it chooses you. In my case, like a lot of others, it was chosen for me. Band started in 4th grade and I told my parents I wanted to play the trumpet. My father,however, knew he could get my cousin’s old trombone for free so that was that. As it turns out, the whole culture of the trombone fits my personality completely so maybe Jiggs has something. Most trombone players have the tendency not to take themselves too seriously, possibly because nobody else does either. We’re rarely the stars, especially in classical music, and most jokes involving trombone players are running gags about not having gigs, as this video illustrates.               
The aforementioned struggle with the instrument is another bonding factor. Among all the trombonists I’ve interviewed for the Journal, one or two actually told me it came relatively easy to them and I had to suppress an impulse to blurt out, “What? How the hell does that work?” Even J.J. Johnson called the thing “beastly” so suffice to say having to work your ass off to play well on an instrument played mostly in support of others keeps you, if anything, humble. For people like me there’s the added benefit of helping to feed a nice, healthy dose of resentment.

The end result is that trombone players tend to be the most grounded, well-adjusted and normal people in the music world - I know I am.  Well, maybe not all of them but I’ve never met another trombone player I couldn’t stand.  Well, there might have been a couple but none of them were complete shitheads. Come to think of it that’s not completely true, either. But the point is most of us are really cool, good enough, smart enough and goddamit people like us.

Something on which trombonists all agree is that there is no other instrument that come close to matching the sound.  It in fact earns the overused descriptor awesome and it’s awesomeness is even awesomer in groups. The wall of sound a trombone choir can put out can’t be matched by any other instrument. But don’t take my word for it. This is the Florida State University Trombone Choir playing “Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral” from Lohengrin. I picked this over Youtubes of  my alma mater USF’s choir (which you can listen to here, recorded while they must have been rehearsing for a hockey game) because it’s Wagner so it’s got some cojones plus it shows off the full range of the trombone sound. If you don’t have the patience or good taste to listen to the whole thing, skip ahead to about the 5 minute mark where you’ll get a nice contrast leading into the wall of sound I’m talking about.

     This is from the Holy Grail of trombone albums, Urbie Green and 21 Trombones, from 1967. Urbie put himself on the map in the early ‘50s with a solo on Woody Herman’s theme song, Blue Flame.  Here's Blue Flame from 21 Trombones.

If anyone thinks you can’t rock on a trombone, New Orleans’ Bonerama ought to change your mind. This is Led Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks from their album (Bonerama’s not Led Zeppellin’s ) Hard Times. The opening solo is not a guitar. Mark Mullins, via a wireless chingadera (a technical term) feeds his horn through a stomp box (another technical term) and amp to get this sound. I heard this live a few years ago at the Festival International de Louisiane in Lafayette, not long after Katrina.

I can’t understand why more 'bone players aren’t into salsa since much of Afro-cuban music is so brass heavy, particularly trombones. Plus, as I found out rehearsing with a couple of salsa groups in Tampa, it’s almost always played at full volume, which makes it a bit of a chop buster but, hey, this is what we live for. As an added bonus, you might get to make videos like this:

         Once upon a time, after reading a history of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, I was struck by the hardships endured by the old Mounties of the Northwest Territories. It was a source of pride for me that I had a connection, however tenuous, to those people. My connection to the trombone world is more secure - everything I’ve gone through with this instrument, good and bad, we’ve all gone through. Well, most of us anyway but we’re all members of the same tribe.


  1. Loved this Bruce! Thanks for expanding my world...Angie

    1. Thank you for reading, Angie. I'm glad you liked it.