Tag Archives: Anthony Coleman

The Unknown History of Jazz Trombone, Part 2

This is the second part of my attempt to document the under-heard tradition of astounding jazz trombone work.  The first part of the series is here.

In Paris, 1937
Dicky Wells

This LP documents a record date that Dicky Wells lead in Paris while he was on a European tour with the Teddy Hill band.  A year or two later Wells would join the Count Basie Orchestra and participate in some of the great canonical jazz records with Lester Young, Buck Clayton, and Basie’s All-American rhythm section.  Small group dates led by trombone players are incredibly rare in the 30’s, especially if the trombonist isn’t named Jack Teagarden.  The entire record features jazz trombone playing of the absolute highest order.

My personal history with Dicky Wells goes back to high school, when I was first discovering jazz.  Among the first three jazz recordings I got from the local public library was a Count Basie record that had a few Wells solos (the other two were a Louis Armstrong greatest hits record and a CD of great Fats Waller cuts).  My local library also had a copy of Wells’ quasi-autobiography called “Night People” which he narrated to historian Stanley Dance.  The ladies that ran the check out counter at Baraboo Public Library certainly got to know me very well over four years of nightly visits to pick up countless held jazz CDs.  However, during my college years, I forgot about Wells and focused on more contemporary trombone styles.

Then in grad school, when I told my teacher Anthony Coleman about my frustrations over playing with incredible virtuosic saxophonists, he reminded me of the Herculean task that Dicky Wells faced every night on the bandstand with Count Basie.  Night after night, after amazing Lester Young solos, he managed to stand up to play something on the trombone that wasn’t totally forgettable.  Something that had integrity.  Something that swung.  Amazing!  Lester Young may have changed the vocabulary of jazz improvisation, but Dicky Wells showed that there was always room for another unique voice to be heard.

This record features a relatively young Dicky Wells totally playing his butt off.  I love the infectious enthusiasm of the two opening tracks “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” (when someone shouts “Yeah!” during the shout chorus, I practically can’t contain myself) and “Bugle Call Rag” (during which Django Reinhardt really lights a fire under the Wells’ solo).

They real centerpiece of the record, though, is “Dicky Wells Blues”, which has to be one of the longest recorded trombone solos before ~1946 (when J.J. Johnson started recording small group sides for Savoy).  It’s seven choruses of straight-ahead blues trombone playing, and the documentation of swing trombone style is totally priceless.  I’m working on memorizing it right now – I’ve made it through the first chorus, and the rest is a work-in-progress.  The experience of learning something off of an LP is particularly interesting – it makes you really respect the musicians that grew up in the LP era, who had to learn tunes off of their record player.  Believe me, it’s harder than using mp3s!

This record is pretty tough to find.  It’s usually up on Ebay, though if you go to your local record store, it might be under Django Reinhardt’s name (that’s where I found my copy, at Looney Tunes on Boylston Street in Boston).  Some tracks may also be available online – “Dicky Wells’ Blues” is available from Amazon, but I would strongly recommend getting the whole LP.  Like Ellington’s Unknown Sessions, this LP alone makes owning a record player worth the expense!
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Oh yeah, you can also hear it here:

(though you still really should check out the LP)

Postscript:  There is also a thing I hope every jazz trombonist is familiar with – Andre Hodeir’s assessment of Dicky Wells’ romantic imagination.  I leave it up to the reader to investigate further, but I’d recommend starting by reading Hodeir’s Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence, avaliable at your local library.

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The Unknown History of Jazz Trombone, Part 1

Recently I’ve been busy studying the amazing history of jazz trombone – diving into deep tradition while searching for hidden treasures.  What I’ve discovered is that much of the music made by great trombone masters has yet to make it into the digital era.  Over the next few weeks I’m going to be posting about some of my favorite trombone LPs in an effort to raise awareness of these unsung heroes of Jazz music.

Unknown Session
Duke Ellington (w/ Lawrence Brown)

This record was made on July 14th, 1960, soon after Lawrence Brown rejoined the Duke Ellington Orchestra after a 10 year hiatus.  It also features stellar performances from Ray Nance, Johnny Hodges, and Harry Carney.  Brown, perhaps because of his return to the organization, is featured extensively on the first side of the LP.  He plays with such incredible grace and confidence that I’ve come to hear this record as one of the greatest recorded jazz trombone performances in the history of the music.  It breaks my heart that it isn’t more well known.

Black Beauty and Mood Indigo are my two favorite tracks.  On Black Beauty you can hear Ellington quietly chortling his approval in the background during a particularly swinging ensemble section, and then Brown plays the melody in such an individualistic way that it seems more like recomposition than interpretation, even though he pretty much sticks to the script.  It has to be heard to be believed.  Mood Indigo is Brown’s real tour de force, though.  Starting with a few bars of melody and quickly evolving into embellishment and filigree, Brown shows his true mastery of the jazz trombone style over his chorus and a half of improvisation.

I first discovered this record when I was writing a paper on Mood Indigo for Anthony Coleman’s Duke Ellington class at NEC.  I headed down to Firestone Library and started getting as many LPs and CDs as I could, determined to listen to many many different versions of the composition.  The first recording I put on the turntable was LP 865 – the Unknown Session – an inconspicuous record if ever there was one, and imagine my surprise when Brown’s trombone playing leapt out of the headphones.  Needless to say, any research plans for the afternoon were derailed as I listened to Brown’s performance over and over. 

I’ve searched, and I’m pretty sure that the only way to hear this record is to buy it on LP.  I think, for a developing trombonist, that it might be worth it to buy a turntable solely to listen to this record.  Fortunately there are enough copies out there, that it’s almost always avaliable on Ebay.  It’s a masterpiece!
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I would also like to take this opportunity to remind folks that next week I am sharing a solo concert with alto saxophonist James Wylie.  I think it’s going to be a really fun time, and I’m excited to hear what James is going to bring to the table.  Please come out if you are free that night!

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Filed under Appreciations, Jazz