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Interview Two: Fletcher Henderson
Second of three interviews with American, New York born jazz trombonist Benny Morton in 1975. Morton was talking to Les Tomkins.
Source: Jazz Professional
In the Fletcher Henderson band, playing in the supposedly uncomfortable keys that we did, the emphasis was not so much on jazz as on musicianship. Jazz was only part of the repertoire; your solos were very short—sometimes you had four bars, or eight bars. Of course, Coleman Hawkins was the star; then “Clarinet Marmalade” was Buster Bailey’s. This book was established.
Naturally, I gave my jazz playing a lot more attention in that band than some others; so that way you develop it.
When Jimmy Harrisson came in, that was the first time Fletcher had two trombones. Jimmy was from the school of learning as you go; he had been working in Small’s Paradise before it was a big club, in another location, until six in the morning with no music at all. So Jimmy, after a lot of difficulty with Fletcher’s book, went out, and Charlie Green, who had preceded me, came back, and the two of us worked together. But Jimmy was an intelligent man . . . when he came back the next time, he was reading, and also writing duets for himself and me. He’d got himself together—so that shows it can be done. Musically, he’d had it in his head; but he learned how to put it on paper.
Jimmy must have been seven years older than me. And a bigger man; so he was a big boy early, and I imagine that when he was fifteen he was probably out working like a man, being accepted that way. Years before I ever knew Jimmy, he had worked with Sam Wooding in Atlantic City; and when you work in a club where you’ve got four or five girl singers, each one singing her own song, going from table to table—she might sing that song for half–an–hour—you can learn it in any key. You can get straightened out. Which is quite an advantage for a man who’s going into jazz, and Jimmy had that over us; everybody else had worked part–time jazz and part–time paper. He had this talent; so he didn’t have to divide his mind, to match a section. All of this is a double–take, an adjustment, but he had it—and he was sure of himself.
He was the only trombone player who, when you turned him loose, could play solos as long as we do today, and keep you interested. You hear Cassius Clay talk about: “I’m the greatest”; Jimmy was saying that then—and he would prove it. Half the night he’d loaf, maybe—but when he turned it on, the whole band moved. And there’s only one other trombone player I know whose solo work could affect a body of people like that—Bill Harris, when he was with Woody Herman. A lot of other people play well, and the fellows in the band might applaud; but to make the others feel like: “I want to do what he’s done”—this is real leadership.
He would knock himself out with what he played; he’d stop in the middle ,of it and laugh, because he was so happy with it.
He’d say to Fletcher: “Hey, Smack—I’m sick. I don’t want to play no more”, and we used to laugh at him, because he was such a comedian. But this man wasn’t kidding. As I realise now—this guy passed away when he was only about thirty–three years of age. And we’re still talking about him. He packed it all into that time; he had the strength to hold the horn up that long, and play it with such drive and impact. Such development was very out of the ordinary.
Although by then I already had the idea of how I wanted to play trombone, my mind was open to everybody; if there was something there that matched what I had, then I could use it. And surely I must have picked up something from a great man like Jimmy Harrisson. Yes, maybe I went that way for a while, before I got my whole thing together. But it was all happening so quickly. Also there was the fact that I had a sound, and could play a bit legato; so I played that type of trombone as well.
With the variety of jobs I had, I learned to be an all–round trombone player. Besides the Broadway shows, I also worked Radio City Music Hall—and they don’t rehearse you when you come in. I went in to play two shows, and stayed about six weeks.
That was a big stage show before they showed a movie. I had been in that theatre many times, just to see the shows, never realising that for forty–five minutes it was continuous music.
You play behind every act: you’re turning pages and pages, working with fifty or sixty pieces up to a hundred and some. That was another challenge, and that came as late as 1956. It came about because they wanted to integrate it, but the guy didn’t know any Negro musicians that he could place there. So a Union official suggested me. I went in and broke the ice.
Experiences like this mould you, as long as you just face it and don’t give up. Desire is the ingredient. The hardest obstacle to keeping up the standard one can set oneself is travelling as we do. There’s no time really to do your homework, in preparation for the job. In fact, it’s possible for me to go on without warming up, and not give away the fact that I didn’t have time to prepare for it.
It’s a physical thing. Every day you wake up: and your body has changed from yesterday. The way I played last night, that’s finished—every day’s a new world. I see some fellows who never have to give any time to practice at all, seemingly. Well, it can be done that way, too—but it’s a gamble. You set your own standard. But I don’t want to go through half the night before I feel relaxed.
As regards being able to lay off for a while, then play as if you hadn’t—there are some people that way. Now, the story I got behind Tommy Dorsey—his father was a bandmaster, and he made Tommy and Jimmy do so many hours a day; they also got help from all the bandsmen around them. When your foundation is so drilled into you, you won’t lose that background. All the faults are washed out.
The first teacher I had was a piano player, and when I got with Fletcher, I looked for the best trombone teacher I could find, to help me adjust to the skills I needed. Since then I have endured, and this is my fiftieth year as a professional trombone player.
You go through many changes, and I’m still going through changes with the instrument. You can do more with less effort, if you’ve got a whole lot of things clicking at the right time.
It’s like your motor in your car; if everything clicks as it should, that car can go many, many miles with ease, without any vibration. If something is missing, you’re going to get a little jerk. You see a little man lift a whole lot of weights—he’s lifting ‘em the right way. So it is in playing. Unfortunately, few of us get all of these things working at the same time. But if you can get ‘em working—range is no problem, and endurance is unlimited. I’ve learned that, and I say: the trombone’ll put any man in his place, because he’s really got to work with it, if he wants to be consistent and last a long time.
On the question of lubrication, I’ve found nothing uncommon. At first we were always using oil; now some fellows use a little grease or cold cream, and a spray of water. I tell you—sometimes we pay too much attention to that slide. If the articulation is going right, and the lips are free enough, the horn will play easier—and you forget the slide. We can blame everything but ourselves! That instrument is a lifetime thing.
I tell young fellows: “A trombone is a way of making a living, but if you want to play it well, then you just might be a slave to it—to be consistent.” But there’s a lot of talent in the world, and now the imagination is being expanded. This is the let age; they’re playing trombone like a flute now.
The valve trombone? That’s a cheat, a cop–out, because the first thing is: you cannot project as far with a valve. I know why they went that way; they want to play like the trumpet is playing. But an average trumpet player, in his low register, will project further in a hall or room than the very best trombone. The better the trombone player, he’s got to come down on volume to articulate smoothly and say what he has to say. In competition with the reeds and the trumpets, you can only go so far.
There’s another way of saying what you say, and getting attention. What comes through in one’s music is the voice which a man produces with his horn—the result of his taste, his personality. He might have more ego, or there might be a little reserve.
Then again, you might get in a fiery band. and have a solo after a wild trumpet—now what are you gonna do? I’ll tell you about a situation which was a real test. In 1944 I recorded with three other trombone players—Vic Dickenson, Bill Harris and Claude Tones. And that was some company for that time. We walked in, and they had some arrangements for us to play, but there were no other instruments to support us except the rhythm section. So when A trombone was playing. B C and D were backing him up. Then, as soon as he finished his chorus or more, he had to be one of the three behind, and so on. This was a long–playing record. It took some doing, but it turned out very well.
The thing is: you might have in mind how you would like to play this number, but the fellow before you might have used up part of your thought in his choruses. That’s when you’ve got to think on the spot, and go in another direction. Which is what makes it so interesting. Now, if you’ve just got one bag of tricks, that doesn’t match up with every number.
You can’t interpret numbers like “Liza” and “Where Or When” with the same little passages you’ve worked out; in one case you’ve got to sing a little bit, in the other you’ve got to move. And whatever the tune, don’t step on the other guy’s feet. It really makes you think.
With section work, the test is adapting your technique to match. Of the bands I’ve played with, I’d say the most effective trombone section I remember was the one with Don Redman. That is, as a group, rather than as individuals. I was there with Claude Jones and Quentin Jackson; then Gene Simon replaced Claude, which lasted almost the whole of the six years.
Don Redman’s writing was an important factor. Of all the arrangers, he was one of the most understanding of the nature of the instrument; he wrote where it was comfortable, but very effective. He didn’t double the trombone parts with the trumpets all the time; when you do that, you’re just making the trumpets stronger, and they never hear the trombones.
But if you’re writing for a choir of many people, the baritone line is different from the tenor, and you’re getting all these movements going on at the same time. That’s what we had—plus we had a few tricks of our own.
At that time, we played a lot of stage shows. Some of the acts that came in only had stock arrangements. The way we managed that: I’d give Gene and Quentin the two trombone parts, and I took the violin sheet, which had three parts on it. We’d go through it once or twice, and every time I doubled a note with them, I’d cross that note out in my mind. And I found the other part; if necessary, I played the melody. Then we had a section that was moving.
In that section, Gene was the quick man, what we call in our football a quarterback—he had imagination when we were faking. He had little effects, of starting to say something, and Quentin and I would apply the notes of the harmony that should go with it. The people began to notice it; we were sitting in the second row, but we just worked ourselves right up and said: “Move over, saxophones.” So they did their thing, and we did ours. In towns where we played return engagements, we found we had a trombone audience. It was give and take.
Yes, those were head arrangements right there. We used to do that for the acts, and after they’d worked a week or two with us, somebody else would make money off it. Because whoever was arranging, he’d put down as much of it as he could, and then they had that effect when they went to the next place. So what we’d played went elsewhere. But it was just that when anyone came in, we didn’t want to sit around holding our horns, making the act look bad through not getting enough music.
So we enjoyed working; we were effective, and we knew it.
Copyright ©1975, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.