Bill Perkins
Bill Watrous

A Les Tomkins Interview

Les Tomkins tallks to American jazz trombone player Bill Watrous about his first trip to Britain in 1982.

Interview: 1982

Source: Jazz Professional

Billy Cobham

Bill Watrous

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It really is my first time in Britain in fact, my third time in Europe in my entire life. In the early ‘sixties I went to Sweden and Czechoslovakia with, of all people, Paul Anka. And about two and a half years ago I went to Germany to do a series of concerts for MPS Records there. So this is really quite a treat for me; I love England—I truly do. It looks as though it will be the first of many visits, from the way the reception has been. As for Mike Smith, who is responsible for me being here —he’s been absolutely smashing through the entire thing.

I’ll tell you, he went to his bones to make this possible, I think he’s bloody well mortgaged just about everything he has to get me here—you know, just in case something should happen. He and his wife Anne have just been . . . above and beyond the call of duty, as it were.

Mike is a very, very good bass trombone player, too; he played excellently on the concert I did with his big band—I have a couple of pieces that my band plays, that expose the bass trombone all by himself in a rhythmical pattern, and he was right there with it.

In fact, the band was excellent all night long. It was one of the cleanest and most inspiring performances I’ve had by a big band anywhere outside of my own. Yes, their conceptions of my charts were absolutely right. As a matter of fact, I—in my, shall we say, on the spot state of mind—came running out and kicked off the first tune in a tempo much slower than what we had rehearsed, and the band just adapted. They just went in and played it right down at that tempo perfectly. I was giggling the whole time, because I knew that I’d messed up pretty badly—but we went straight down, and nobody listening knew any different. The nice thing is that nobody in the band said anything about it later either.

And gee, that trombone section—Pete Smith and Ray Wordsworth especially. Ray is a marvellous jazz player; I was knocked out with the way he improvised—it’s a pleasure to hear. Usually, when I go to play, I don’t hear but precious few trombone players who could possibly steal the show away a little bit. But Ray is one in that category—a very good player.

One of these nights I’m working with the alto player Pete King, with his trio; so that’s going to be exciting. I heard him when he was with Maynard Ferguson, and I was super impressed by him. Sure, I’ve often worked in a quintet situation, with a saxophone player and myself as the frontline. I’ve worked with Phil Woods a lot—also Buddy Tate, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Budd Johnson and those kind of players. I identify with what they do, because I hear their lines and things. I’ve always identified more with other instruments than the trombone. I think that’s probably the problem a certain British jazz writer who reviewed a recent album of mine is having with my playing: I don’t think like a ‘trombone’ per se .

I believe that jazz reviewers have a responsibility to present more than just their own personal opinion about what they like. To be a decent jazz reviewer, he has to be objective, and look at what a man is actually doing, where he is moving on his instrument. Let’s say a person is playing more than just uggamugga trombone—which is what the reviewer in question seems to like; from what he said in his review I got the impression that he likes a ‘gutbucket’ type of trombone. I did a tune on the album called “The Pig Farm,” which is just a very fast blues, and his comment there was: “I would have preferred to hear more pig–like sounds!” Which to me is some of the most unaware and smalltime jazz reviewing I’ve ever read anywhere. I think this man should do a little bit of his homework, and check up on what’s going around him, before he makes any more stupid comments like that.

The album he wrote so ineptly about is called “Coronary Trombossa,” and it’s the second of three I’ve made with just piano, bass and drums. The first one was “I’ll Play For You,” and then the last one in the series is called “La Zorra,” which should be hitting the market any time now. If he hates the other album he’ll really hate this one.

There are just as many bad reviewers in the United States. In general the critics have been very unkind to me in my career. Every time there’s a Critics’ Poll, my name is nowhere around. You’ll also notice that Oscar Peterson’s name is nowhere either. You see, I don’t play quite ugly enough for them. I don’t mean all critics; I mean the caustic ones—they’re caustic because they like music that is ugly and misshapen, and kind of growly.

Too much of that kind of stuff around? There sure is. I liken that whole area to the old fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Nothing there at all. Actually, avant garde music has its place, I think, as theatre rather than music itself. The whole attitude towards playing that kind of music is sort of a series of maybe happy accidents at best. If something comes off sounding good, it’s usually an accident. Which is what it is; I would say, in all fairness, it is probably the ultimate improvisation head trip.

“All right, you play in Bb, you play in E, and you over here, you’ll play in A—that’ll make for three different tonalities going at once.” That’ll really be exciting, so they think, and who knows?—every so often, for a few bars, something magic may happen. For me, that’s not exactly a good enough percentage. I go for a little more craft, a little more thought and care, and when I play for people I want them to come away humming a melody or feeling as though they want to dance. I want them to be warmed by the experience—not having to sit in a classroom where somebody’s running their fingernails down a blackboard.

Oh, you have the album I made with Art Pepper? “Funk ‘n’ Fun”—that’s on a Japanese label; we did that a couple of years ago—I remember it very well. That was the first time I’d played with Art in a recording situation—in fact, only about the second time I’d ever played with him. Oh, he’s wonderful. You know, he’s had such a bad time in his life; it’s amazing that he’s still with us.

And he’s in about as good a shape as you can be, I would say, considering what he’s had to go through. He’s making a concerted effort to concentrate on the music—and boy, he’s doing a wonderful job of it. I love his playing. No, I don’t think he ever has sounded better; his playing has seemed to develop and grow and sort of fit into the times.

There was a sad period for Art a few years ago, when he was playing with the Don Ellis band. I don’t think he was very happy in that setting at all. How anybody could be is a wonder—because it certainly never swung. The band was exciting in its own right. Okay, objectively speaking, it was very exciting to hear; when you went and heard it in person, it just set up sheets of very well–organised sound, within those strange rhythms that they did. And I liked Don personally; whenever we saw each other, we were always quite close. I was very sad to see him pass away.

As for my beginnings: I was born in Middletown, Connecticut, and I lived in a town called Nyantick, that is outside of a bigger town called New London—and, believe it or not, it has a Thames river that goes right through the centre of town. And Yale and Harvard Universities have an annual boat race on the Thames. It’s only about seventy–five miles from New York; so every weekend I could get free I would jump on the train with one or two of my friends from high school and go down there. We’d spend a day—maybe part of an evening, if we got an adult to go with us and keep an eye on things—and hear some jazz.

This was 1950, and I got to hear Charlie Parker, playing with Monk down at Birdland, Charlie Mingus and a few folks; it was quite an experience.

I knew it was happening, because I’d been playing the trombone since I was about six years old. My dad was not a well–known but a well–respected player for many years before the Depression; he was in vaudeville, and he played with Paul Whiteman for a while. He had sort of made the rounds, and was a fine ballad trombone exponent—his melodic, warm sound was fantastic.

So he got me started, and saw to it always that I got to listen to music.

I’ll give him credit . . . for instance, one of the records he got me was an album by Frank Rosolino; he hated the way he played, but was wise enough to know that, in addition to all the pretty players, I should listen to somebody who. was really popping around the horn. The album, “Frankly Speaking,” is marvellous—I still have it. It was on the Capitol label, and on it he had Charlie Mariano, Walter Norris, and, I think, Monty Budwig and Stan Levey.

I’d never heard a trombone player handle the instrument in that manner; for a while I got kinda caught up in that approach to playing the trombone. After a time I began to moderate that a bit, because I realised that if you’re in the process of copying someone’s style, all you’re going to wind up as, at best, is sort of a bad caricature of that person, instead of being an individual.

So I started listening then, when I was around seventeen, to some other people, like Clifford Brown, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins—and Phil Woods. And through them I saw other ways of approaching jazz improvisation than just in a trombonistic way.

Which is part of the reason, I suppose, that I’ve run up against critics who don’t care for it too much. They want to hear a more jagged style—more splashing around going on. But I don’t get a typical trombone sound—I get a trombone sound sort of unlike most folks: Now, Don Lusher gets a nice trombone sound, and has kept up with the times—and has always managed to stay a couple of jumps ahead of everybody. Always, you know—because I can think back to the way Don played when he was with Ted Heath’s band; his vibrato was very fast, and he played his jazz somewhat like Bill Harris. But nowadays his vibrato is a little slower, warmer, lighter, mellower, and he plays, his jazz a little bit more like Carl Fontana. He’s smashing.

When I went to New York, Urbie Green was the first trombone player I’d heard who really impressed me with his ballad style. I’ll tell you where I’d heard Urbie for the first time: I was in the Navy, and I was sitting in a bar in Japan, drunk out of my blooming mind—really smashed, and there was one of those little bar girls who kept coming over, bringing me drinks. It was a jazz bar; they had a really good stereo record player system in there—they’ve always been somewhat ahead of everybody in that regard.

There was a whole pack of albums, and she says: “Ah—you musician? What you play?” I told her I played the trombone. She leafs through these albums, and says: “Here’s a trombone. Urbie Green—he’s a smoothie.” I said: “Yeah, okay—put it on.” So they put this record on—and I came unglued. I stayed in the bar, and I made them play this album over and over. It was called “Let’s Face The Music And Dance”—for me, the finest album that Urbie ever made; he was in absolute control. He dismisses the album now as just dance music, but, believe me, it was not just that. It was on RCA, and it wasn’t even out in stereo; it was a mono record, and Urbie played some great tunes on there. He had Al Cohn and Irwin Kostal arranging these charts—they were out of this world. I mean, the band was New York’s finest; they were crisp and clean, the recording was great, and Urbie was beyond belief the whole way.

I must say, I went through a stage from 1957 to 1961 where I was trying to get my Urbie Green chops, as it were. He was loose and relaxed, and that, to me, was an attitude that I had not yet accomplished in playing the trombone; I was a hard, raucous kind of a player—the kind that British reviewer would have liked. I mean, I was loud, boisterous and really unmusical, to my way of thinking. But that’s my own personal assessment: I am my worst critic—so I don’t need to hear anybody else shoot me down. I can do it myself.

Then I got to New York, and I got to meet the man; I found him to be very quiet, polite and super–competent all the time. And then I started hearing people say back in the early ‘sixties—‘ 60 through 1963—that I was getting into Urbie’s bag, more or less, and playing that way. Now, this is what the guy got into in the review—throughout, he said that I was copying Urbie Green. And one of the most irresponsible things anybody can do is not to be informed. I’m not a kid; I’m forty–three years of age, and I’ve gone beyond the point of copying or aping anyone. I have arrived at my own, personal style, as a result of all the influences. But the vibrato is totally different from Urbie’s; the way of controlling and dealing with the harmonic structures is totally different. You can’t compare the two, and Urbie would admit it too—we’re different people. You can’t put a person in a mould, especially once he’s relatively established as a jazz artist.

People are so anxious to find a slot for somebody to fit into and if you don’t fit into that slot, they’ll jam you and twist you and push you in there, whether you want to go or not.

That’s irresponsible.

Urbie doesn’t even play the same way, anyhow. Urbie’s changed over the years. He plays much harder, much more forceful now—almost Teagardenish. Like, I’ve heard him lately when he was sounded even a little bit like George Chisholm, as a matter of fact—really hard, in that style. So you never know where a player is going to go with his music.

Carl Fontana is another wonderful trombone player, who I think has a remarkable way around the instrument; he has a unique way of dealing with the harmonic structure.

He’s never won a jazz poll in his whole life—I’ll never understand why: That whole business is pretty much of a popularity contest; I began hitting the polls when I got on Columbia Records with my big band—all of sudden, there it was.

And I’m no better trombone player than anyone else—I’m just different.

If I’m becoming more highly–rated now it’s probably because I’m being almost jammed down everybody’s throats. I was on a Freddie Hubbard album just recently on the Elektra label, and I just did one with Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea.

Bunny Brunel was the leader on this, by the way; he’s a Frenchman who played with Herbie, Tony Williams, Tom Brechtlein and Joe Farrell.

And it is a monster album; it’s a fusion thing—not a straight–ahead album at all. For me, this constitutes a departure from my normal run of playing. I noticed that with fusion music, or the type of music that we did on there, it’s another whole ballgame with regard to time. The time is implied—it is not actually given to you, and the bass player and the drummer will be playing all kinds of involved rhythm, instead of just keeping time. The whole result of it all is a kind of an energy—if done correctly. I emphasise the word correctly, because there’s a lot of people that are going out playing what they think is fusion music, and in essence it’s a bunch of cacophony which doesn’t go anywhere. But when you’re talking about people like Herbie Hancock, Bunny Brunel anü Tom Brechtlein, you’re talking about some players who are masters at the art of playing anything they want to. As a consequence, going and playing with these people was just as natural as my going and playing with my own rhythm section. I had a marvellous time—specially with Al Vizzuti and I playing.

Bunny wrote some brass licks for Al and myself, which we tracked on about three or four times, that I don’t believe a half–dozen people in the world could have pulled off. I think Bunny knew that when he wrote all that stuff too.

Now Al was one of the guys in my Los Angeles–based band—which is called Refuge West. We did an album, that I believe will be out on Columbia. We have two one–hour live programmes, that we did at Concerts By The Sea; down at Redondo Beach in California; we did digital sound and videotape at the same time. So they’ll be out on a video disc; and all the major suppliers will be putting out stereo video cassettes. Evidently, all of the technology is going to be changing this year. Every video machine that everybody’s gotten up to now will be obsolete—you may as well throw ‘em out the window, because all these machines will be standardised to one system. In fact, they’re starting to advertise televisions that will broadcast in stereo now. You watch what’s going to happen: we’ll finally get some decent TV sound.

Anyway, those two programmes of ours are quite good—and the band is so far ahead of my New York band. The reason being that we’ve played longer—we’ve been together for five years now; and our library has grown immensely, to about two hundred pieces of music. And we’re constantly getting new stuff; the guys in the band all do their own writing.

They really can play too—it’s an exciting thing to hear. When I got all these young people, they had just gotten out of college—some of ‘em had just gotten out of high school, as a matter of fact. Chad Wackerman, this superb young drummer; was only seventeen when he joined the band; so he’s twenty–one—and now his younger brother, John Wackerman, who is seventeen, is just about ready to assume his position on the band. Because people are finding out how wonderful Chad plays, and he’s starting to get very busy. Chad is out doing stuff with Frank Zappa from time to time. He is just out of this world.

It has developed into a real fine, close–knit organisation. We played some tapes over at Mike Smith’s house the other night, and they heard how impressive it is.

When we go out and play; I feel very smug when they start up, because I know it’s the best damn band that I ever heard, let alone worked with: As for bringing it over here—with Mike’s help, we’re sure gonna try. I’m thoroughly impressed with the way Mike has handled everything here. I’ve tried to get to Europe on about a dozen occasions in the last six years; when I said to the agency: ‘‘ Hey; book me a tour to Europe”, they told me: “Wait a minute—they got to know you first, before we can book you over there.” Well, Mike didn’t care about any of that—he just rang me up, and when I said I’d come, he put the ball in operation to get me over. Between Mike, his wife Anne and Dennis Hinds—man, we’ve had a very good time. They’ve made it easy, they’ve made it fun, they’ve set me up in a nice place to stay—you couldn’t ask for any better. We have a good working relationship—specially due to the fact that we’re friends. I’m sure looking forward to coming back: Yes, it’s true that I worked in Kai Winding’s trombone group—from about 1960 through 1964 or ‘65, during which time I suddenly got into the studios, and started doing a lot of that kind of work.

Then I left the road, which I was on with Kai, to try and concentrate on studio work. I’d gotten married—to a rather disagreeable woman, but nonetheless I had kids, and I had to take care of business, as it were. So I had to tell Kai I didn’t want to go out. Fortunately for both of us; he was being named director of the Playboy club—as musical director too—so that took him off the road a little. And we’ve maintained our friendship and camaraderie through the years; we have immense respect for each other.

In fact, the trip to Germany for MPS Records in May 1980 was sort of a reunion album for Kai and myself. We made an album with two other trombone players, Albert Mangelsdorff and Jiggs Whigham, plus Horace Parlan on piano, Mads Vinding on bass and Allan Ganley on drums—I believe he’s from England. It was a concert in a hall in Villingen, West Germany, which was well–received and very well recorded. The album is around now—it’s called “Trombone Summit”. I don’t remember much about it; because I had ghastly jetlag the entire time—I didn’t know where the hell I was. But there’s some quite good things on there. As a matter of fact, Albert Mangelsdorff and I played a multiphonics duet, where we both played two or three tones at once—that kind of got interesting. It was a different experience; like I say, this last couple of years has found me thrust into a variety of different situations; that have been advantageous musically as well as personally.

It was 1969 that I started up my first big band. It was sort of a gradual process; because I had no arrangements. Most of the charts I had when I started I had to borrow from Bobby Rosengarden; we were both doing the Dick Cavett show at the time. Bob was kind enough to let me have about a half a dozen arrangements; then some other people contributed a few things—so we more or less put together a mishmash, to start with.

As I recall, that was my first brush with the critics. John S. Wilson of the New York Times came and reviewed my band at the Overseas Press Club in New York, and by God, the snake left me out of the review—and it was my band! Later on; we went and played again—he did the same thing. He named everybody in the band, credited them with alt their solos, but left me out.

So I finally got him, down at the Riverboat Room one time; I said: “John—we’re playing at Columbia University on Friday. If you come to review it, would you be kind enough to remember that, number one, it is my band, and that I’m playing too?” He said: “Oh, yes, yes.” He came and reviewed us, and he went all the way down, with no mention of me —and in the last sentence he wrote: “Oh—and Mr Watrous had his shots on trombone also.” That was the end of it. I could have killed him. So then I went on a rampage; somebody did an interview with me, and man, I took him right over the coals. I vowed that if he turned up and reviewed me again I was going to rearrange his face for him. Whenever I go to play now, he stays away from me—and it’s just as well.

But really, I’m a nice person—and I’m a fair person. I don’t go out of my way to take potshots at anyone unless they’ve been particularly unkind. How in the world can you deliberately put down an artist like that? You’re dealing with someone who’s spent his entire life trying to perfect his craft, and trying to do something. Why not just be objective, and say what it is—instead of injecting your own personal opinion? I’ve always had a principle: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. I try not to do a number on anybody personally; I might take an overall view of a certain kind of music; but I’ll never take an artist and say: “This guy can’t play” or whatever. I don’t know whether he can play or not; it’s not my business to say that.

You know, jazz is a much–maligned art form anyway. It’s gotten a lot of strange innuendoes about it, and as a result it has struggled—through generations and generations of adversity, but yet, it has remained, hasn’t it? It’s stayed, while we’ve been through all of the different stages—Elvis Presley, Lonnie Donegan, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, the Beatles. Now we have punk junk—and this is the final nail to the coffin of rock ‘n’ roll. It is the one that’s going to nail down the lid.

Punk junk is nothing but recycled ‘fifties rock ‘n’ roll; it’s just given a more sinister face, and played with hiccups.

To get back to the big band: had I remained in New York, and had we still been together, it would have probably been the equal of this band that I have in California. But the band out there right now is so absolutely stunning; there’s only about one other band around that I think deserves to be on the stand with us—and that’s Rob McConnell’s Boss Brass. That I have heard—there are probably a lot of other bands around. Well, in fact—the Mike Smith Big Band, that played our music on the concert here, acquitted itself more than fantastically, I would say. My wife and I are pretty severe critics of people who play my music, and I could not think of one thing that I would have changed in that performance. It was quite impressive.

The kids in my band have been very cooperative. A lot of times we’ve gone and played jobs where the club–owner has not drawn any people, and just withheld the money.

We go to the union there in Los Angeles—they don’t care; they give you the right to work, but they certainly don’t protect you. They’re looking at jazz as just the bad little kid on the block anyway; they’re not concerned with that at all. I’m very proud and pleased to be working with these blokes; there’s never been anybody take me to task for any of the stupid mistakes I’ve made—I really applaud that, because I have made way more than my share of blunders. But when the albums come out, I expect that there’ll be a sudden resurgence of interest in myself and my orchestra. And I’ve got stuff that we haven’t recorded yet, that is even hotter than the stuff that we’ve recorded.

I use the trombone like a vocal tool, I more or less—my attitude towards playing the instrument is pretty much like that of a good vocalist.

In other words, I believe in the open throat and a full column of air at all times—and control over it.

In fact, one of the things that I ask people in clinic situations is: “How long can you hold your breath? For instance, are you one of those people who, when you dive underwater, can only be under a few minutes before you have to come up for air, or can you swim the whole length of the pool underwater?” Some panic when they’re underwater, and some don’t.

Some panic when they’re playing a long phrase, the same way, and as a result they’re playing in short, choppy bursts. And I have tried not to do that; I’ve tried to play in longer, more mellifluous phrases—sort of like a guitar player, (like Jim Hall or Joe Pass, for example).

Being such an open instrument—I mean, the trombone is the infinite tube—you will fall through the damn thing if you’re not careful.

What I try to do is utilise the resistance in the instrument, you see, to enable me to just get a comfortable .

. . sort of a meeting of the ear versus the resistance. And I go there —as long as I can keep it there and it’s in balance, I can go forever. I can play a hundred hours in a row, and my body’ll wear out and fall down before my mouth will. Basically, that’s my playing attitude.

I don’t play with what they call ‘a heavy tone’. Some people use a real heavy stroke; I don’t—I try to play in such a way that I can manage an awful lot of light articulations over a given space, shall we say.

Which is more or less what I talk about in my clinics.

Also, I use circular breathing—which is where I’m breathing through my nose and replenishing the air in my lungs after puffing my cheeks out for just a second. It’s a timing kind of thing; the air is constantly rotated—yes, sort of stored.

In a way, it can be a Catch 22 thing.

The late Raphael Mendez, one of the great trumpet virtuosos of all time, used to play a piece called “Perpetual Motion”, in which he would just start playing and he would never stop—it’s all thirty–second notes, the entire piece. And he used to circular breathe all the time; he used to smoke a lot too. One of the things that happens if you use this all the time is: you wind up with trapped air, that you haven’t used. If you’re in a polluted circumstance, and bad air gets stuck in your lungs, it can foul up the chambers and cause emphysema, which is what he died of.

The trick is not to let anything be the tail wagging the dog. I will use the circular breathing here and there; normally, I will take the normal breaths and make the attacks, as it were.

As far as the multiphonics go—I use them very sparingly too.

This is where I’m playing a bottom note and singing harmony a tenth above—which gives you an overtone of the fifth. Then there’s another one where I play the root and sing a fifth, and you get an overtone of a tenth. Either one—in turns around; it’s like a flip–flop situation, you see.

On slide technique—I keep a relaxed grip on the slide. That’s another thing that we get into; I’ve seen so many jerky slide movements—and there’s no question that that is going to jerk the horn around and affect the embouchure. That’s why I used to hate parades; when I’d go and play parades, I’d put the mouthpiece up, I’d keep it inches from my face, and I’d move the slide. Nobody would know, because nobody listens to you on a damn parade anyway. I’d let the other guys do it, who loved to blast and bleat.

Unless it was a hot part I really wanted to play. The silliest parade I ever played in my life was when I was in the Navy; we were in the Navy band, stationed in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and we’d get these silly duty jobs, like playing outside of a new restaurant that was opening.

One time we had to play for the New Jersey Farm and Home Commission—this was a parade through the cornfields. Here’s all these farmers with the manure spreaders, the haybalers, and pitchforks over their shoulders, all in a row, and they wanted to have a parade. We were dodging cowpats all the time, and we even had to have somebody go and hold the barbed wire down on a fence while we marched over it. It was the most absolutely bizarre parade I’ve ever been on in my life! I’m saying to my friends: “I don’t believe we ‘re really here! Who is the idiot that booked us here? If this is the Navy, I’d rather be out at sea!” Anyway, these are things that work very much for me, and I’ve found that they work for other players as well. Such as: instead of the trombone being seven positions, 1 think of it as seven overtone series.

The overtone series is all the notes that are sounded when you strike a note on the piano. They’re colour tones—harmonics is another word for them—that go into making a piano sound like a piano. There are certain strong overtones typical to it that make it sound the way it does.

That’s why a synthesiser can sound pretty much like anything it wants to, because by pulling these drawbars and these stops what you’re doing is simply adding and subtracting overtones. It’s the whole crux of how we sound; that’s why certain players, for instance, sound brighter or darker than others—because they have a different set of overtones. They might have the overtones necessary to sound like the instrument, but they might be arranged just a little differently.

So the overtone series is a column. A Bb overtone series is: Bb, Bb an octave up, F a fifth away, Bb again a fourth away, then D a major third, F a minor third, and you have Ab, which is a major second. The intervals start to get closer as you go up—then Bb, C, D, Eb, E natural, F, G, A, Bb, all the way up to the top.

Which gives you a span of five B flats, starting from the bottom, and within the middle there the overtones get closer as you get higher.

Now, with each one of the positions in A, which is a transposition down from Bb, you have the same relation, on up to the high A. And Ab, the same thing. You have these seven columns, and if a player is industrious enough, he (or she) will sit down and write down the overtone series in Bb. I mean, if you can’t write it down, get a harmony book and find it there—it’s written out—and just transpose it: A, Ab, G, Gb, F and E.

Write it all down, to its extremities, and you will have a very, very productive chart of where the positions are. Even if you’re not a trombone player, you can sit and figure out enough to be able to see exactly what the working of the instrument is. It’s a very remarkable thi ng, when you think about it.

The other night, on Handel’s “Messiah” from the Academy of Ancient Music, there was a trumpet player who was playing a long instrument, like a posthorn—it was an overtone series trumpet. During the Baroque period, all Handel and Bach had was overtone series instruments; you didn’t have any valves or pistons to push. In fact, the only instrument that was anywhere near where it was supposed to be was the trombone, of the brass family. To this day, it still basically takes the same form—the slide, the moving air column. The moving overtone series columns, you see. I wouldn’t have liked to have been a player in those days, although I think if I had been, with my understanding of the overtone series, I probably would have been able to manage somehow—yes, on a sackbut. I imagine that the overtone series on a sackbut is pretty much the same as it is on a regular trombone. Not much has changed in music, if you want to know. Oh, we’ve had a few refinements and additions, but essentially it’s all the same stuff—it’s just how you use it.

We’d like to think of purity of tone as an ideal, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If everybody played with an absolutely pure tone, this would be a boring place. 1 think you have to have a little bit of contrast, to make things interesting in this business. You must have some adversity to go with the good things; it probably makes us appreciate a lot more the finer aspects of music.

On the question of finely made instruments—an instrument maker in Los Angeles named Earl Williams made some really superb instruments; when he was alive, they were comparable to the Vincent Bach, as a matter of fact. Very much so—I’d say that you should probably play either one or the other if you’re a serious trombone player. Actually, though, you can play anything—I know some people who play well enough, they could blow on a bloody garden hose and still sound good. We’re talking about personal choice—what you like as opposed to what you might not like. Your ears will tell you what is good or what isn’t. And if you are dippy enough not to know what’s good, then you are in trouble. I know of people who wouldn’t know a good instrument if it was stuck up their nose! These are the people who are always changing from horn to horn; they ask: “What’s the best one to play?” I couldn’t tell anybody what the best horn for them to play was. The best horn for me, okay, is my Bach—because I’m used to it, and I’ve played it for years, and it does what I want it to do without biting me back—that’s a very important consideration there.

But that doesn’t mean that if I look at this guy over here I’m going to take him and say: “Listen—you’ve got to play a Bach or else!” That’s not the way, because it doesn’t work out that way. Some other guy might play a Bach and be totally grossed out with it. You know, not every Bach is a great instrument. You have to hunt through ‘em—just like searching out a good woman. It’s the same way—you look around until you find one that grooves you, and smells just right, and looks good, and does the right kind of stuff, and that’s what you pick. A horn is very much like a woman. If you handle it correctly, it’ll sound and feel great!  

Copyright © 1982, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.