A Short History of Trombone and Saxophone

So I have this gig coming up with my killin’ bari-sax-playing sweetie, Kathy Olson, which was partially inspired by the legendary Gerry Mulligan/Bob Brookmeyer quartet.  And it got me thinking about the history of great trombone-saxophone pairings throughout jazz.

Let me first say that playing with a saxophone player poses unique aesthetic questions to the trombone player, and it’s something that I’ve had to think a lot about in the past few years.  Think about it this way: imagine you are the trombonist Dickey Wells, in Count Basie’s big band in the 1930’s.  Herschal Evans and Lester Young are dueling every night, re-inventing the jazz vocabulary on the band stand right before your eyes.  When it’s time for the trombone solo after choruses of brilliant saxophonics what can you play that won’t be instantly forgettable?  What can you play that will convince an audience that you have something valuable to add to the conversation?  It’s a musical mindbender that persists to this day – when I’m on a jazz gig, and there is a tenor saxist who shreds right before my solo, I think to myself as I step up to the mic: “whelp, here’s old Dickey Wells standing up to take his little solo”.  Dickey Wells’ victory is that he managed to find his own vocabulary amid all the saxophone posturing, and he was able to play solos that weren’t instantly forgettable.

So there’s the rub.  How can saxophonists and trombonists ever get along?  Well, fortunately there are a couple of examples in the history that lead the way.  The ones that pop out immediately to my mind (one for each voice in the saxophone family):

Curtis Fuller & Benny Golson
Bob Brookmeyer & Gerry Mulligan
Roswell Rudd & Steve Lacy
George Lewis & Anthony Braxton*

Each pair dealt with the issues in their own ways: Curtis Fuller played it cool against Benny Golson’s heat.  Brookmeyer and Mulligan shared vocabulary and a similar sensibility about timbre, and they embraced counterpoint.  Lacy’s clever terseness matched well with Rudd’s humorous generosity.  And Braxton and Lewis were such monsters that they could make anything work.

Anyways, that is what’s been on my mind recently.  It’s a pleasure to work with Kathy on it, and you should check out the gig we are playing at La Luna Cafe in Cambridge, MA on August 21st at 10 PM.  I will, as always, put recordings on this site as soon as they’re available.


*And there are also a few pairs in newer music.  Like:

Wolter Weirbos & Frank Gratkowski
Nils Wogram & Hayden Chisholm

Can you come up with any other examples?  I’m having trouble thinking of current long-standing pairs in more conventional genres, but I’m sure that they’re around.



Filed under Appreciations, Jazz

4 responses to “A Short History of Trombone and Saxophone

  1. Pingback: New Tracks from the Kathy Olson Quartet « Randy Pingrey: trombonist-at-large

  2. Shires Edwards

    Steve Swell and Ellery Eskelin in Joey Baron’s group Barondown.

    Jeb Bishop and Ken Vandermark

    While it’s not really a bone-tenor pair since no one can match him on any instrument, Sonny Rollins has used Clifton Anderson on trombone for many years. The fact that Anderson is Rollins’ nephew hasn’t worked in his favor in the respect department but he is a fine player.

    JJ made a great album with Getz called “At the Opera House” and also had a long association with Illinois Jacquet.

  3. Randy


    Bishop/Vandermark – how could I forget them? I’ve always wanted to check out more of the Chicago scene stuff out – can you reccomend a recording that features the two of them in a promenint way? I never know which Vandermark 5 record to buy.

    Rollins/Anderson – I remember hearing them play about five years ago in Madison, Wisconsin. Anderson sounded great.

    As far as J.J./Getz goes, the reason I didn’t include them on the list is because they didn’t really develop a language together. It’s not that At the Opera House isn’t a totally killing record – it was one of the first records that really turned my ears around to jazz. At the Opera house is really a documentation of two masters, who – individually – already have a really clear language developed, getting together to tear it up.

    As far as J.J. goes, I would say his collaboration with Bobby Jaspar in the 60’s for Columbia records is more in the spirit of what I’m thinking of. They recorded a bunch of small group stuff, which is really beautiful – very meticulous arrangements, classic soloing, interesting tune selection, killing rhythm section (like with Elvin Jones, Tommy Flannigan, and that ilk). It’s bebop at its most sophisticated.


  4. Jackie McLean & Grachan Moncur III recorded together a few times – “Destination Out” & “One Step Beyond” come to mind.

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