Jay Armstrong is a kind and generous gentleman who performed on an Earl Williams 9 as the Principal Trombonist for the Nashville Symphony. A student of Emory Remington while at Eastman, Jay entered into the Williams Legacy and expanded it by re-tooling and moving the production to Donelson, TN. Earl Williams’ custom trombones are legendary, and have retained their exalted status even amid the rich new tradition of modern custom trombone craftsmen-many of whom still admire and imitate them. photos courtesy of THE HORN DOCTOR BACmusic.com
When did you first play on an Earl Williams Trombone?
Probably 1962 or ’63. I took a few lesson with Donald S. Reinhardt (Philadelphia – – – 1720 Chestnut Street, as I recall) and during one lesson he had a Williams Model 6 in his studio. He raved about the wonders of the horn, and that was certainly when the ‘seeds’ of desire were implanted in my head. (I played the horn and loved it.)
What is it about them that makes them so desirable?
For me, the beautiful sound. Big, warm sound from what would seemingly be a ‘small’ horn. A Model Six (.500″ bore) sounds like a much ‘larger’ horn. The Model Four, for example, doesn’t have the ‘brittleness’ that one normally associates with a .490″ horn. The Eight/Nine models sound like .542″ bore horns, though they have a .520″ bore. The Ten has an incredibly large, dark, refined sound.
Did you have knowledge of any special alloy used by Earl?
Earl, to our knowledge, had no ‘special alloys’. He just used “cartridge brass”. A ‘special alloy’ would only be possible in a ‘large’ order of product. Quantity of product was beyond the scope of the relatively small operation of Williams Trombones. (Both for Earl and for us.)
When did you begin the Donelson Earl Williams Brand?
Probably late 70’s. The ‘bell stamp’ used to say “Burbank, California”, and we had a new stamp made saying “Donelson, TN”. As I recall, our ‘bell stamp’ (information) went through four changes, although I don’t recall when the changes were made. We used ‘three lines of information’ for a while, then changed to ‘four lines’, and then changed to ‘four lines’ including the model of the instrument.
Did you seek to imbue the Donelson horns with aspects of both the Williams Wallace and the Burbank horns, or only the Burbank ones?
We built instruments based on the Burbank instruments.
Which Williams model did you perform on the most? Have you found any other horns to compare to it?
I spent ten years as Principal with the Nashville Symphony, and during that time I only played my Williams Model Nine. (I did build for myself a Model Eight bell [without F-attachment] which I used on my existing slide section, but the bell was “raw” and sort of corroded but sounded good.) I was always satisfied with my Nine, and I’ve never been one ‘on-the-search’ for something better. Whatever different horn I might play, I never found another that I felt as comfortable playing as my Nine.
Were there any historic deficiencies in the Williams you sought to overcome?
The Williams curved water key was always a problem. It was a manufacturing hassle, and an operational hassle. Many of Earl’s mandrels and draw rings were worn (and abused), and tolerances were difficult to maintain, so we replaced many of the drawing mandrels and bending fixtures to have a better ‘fitting’ final product.
The Earl Williams trombone bells are special. Can you comment on any aspects that make them unique? Is the thickness a factor?
We always manufactured the bells to the same ‘thickness’ as Earl did, and we never experimented with “heavier” or “lighter” bells, or bells made of different materials or alloys. Whether ‘thickness’ of bell material is a MAJOR determining factor, I don’t know.
I think the most ‘unique’ factor of the Williams bells are the tapers of the bells, which allow the ‘throat’ to be relatively enlarged. For example, if an EIGHT bell is placed next to a Conn 8 bell, or a Bach 42, the difference of ‘throat size’ (the ‘enlarged’ taper) can easily be seen. Same for all the Williams bells. Each respective model seems ‘larger’ (in the bell) than a competitors instrument. We used a small family-owned company in Elkhart, IN for our bell manufacturing and specified the thickness of the brass to be used. They cut the ‘neck’ patterns using our patterns and their stock. Our bells were difficult for them to ‘work’ because of the thickness. But, we were following the specifications that Earl had made.
The bell spinners were true craftsmen. They had a thriving business supplying bells from MANY manufacturers. From the bell spinners, I would return to Nashville with a small quantity of flat ‘neck patterns’, then manually stamp the ‘information’ on the neck, and UPS them back to Elkhart where they were brazed and shaped into rough cones. Several months later I would return to Elkhart with our flare mandrels and ‘final spin’ mandrels, and, within a couple days, I would leave with a couple dozen new bells. Our bell manufacturing process was labor intensive and inefficient. We were a long way from the efficiency one experiences when visiting, for example, Steve Shires’ shop.
I think another important factor in the construction of Williams bells is the use of a ‘bead wire’ and having that wire soldered in place. A soldered wire seems to add a solidity to the overall sound of the bell . . . and from the bell. We built all the Donelson bells with a ‘soldered bead wire’. The ‘bead options’ are (1) no wire, or (2) wire with no solder (risky because one might experience a ‘bell rattle’ on certain notes / harmonics), and (3) bead wire with solder. Option 3 is best (I think); however it takes more ‘labor time’ and adds more ‘complication’ to the finished bell.Our bells always had a nice ‘ring’ to them, and I think part of the reason was because of the soldered bead wire.
Were any bells spun in Tennessee?
All the bells we used in completed instruments were spun by the ‘bell spinner’ in Elkhart. We did spin some bells in TN, but none were of the quality to satisfy us. They were never used and ended up in the trash bin.
Which famous trombonists do you consider most closely associated with Earl Williams trombones?
Milt Bernhart is the first to come to mind. Dick Nash, of course. I recall being surprised by the trombonist with Herb Albert as he played a Model 7. (I forget his name. I can picture his persona, because he had that ‘south-of-the-border’ thing going on.)
Which players are associated with the Donelson Earl Williams?
I recall that Dick Nash used one of our horns, and Sam Burtis visited us one time and used one of our horns. When Doug Elliott was playing with the Airmen of Note, the Air Force bought two of our horns and they were used by Doug Elliot and the lead player with incredible high chops whose name escapes me.
[Editor’s note: Doug Elliot writes, “Rick Lillard and I visited Jay’s place when we were in Nashville with the (Airmen of)Note taping a show for ‘Nashville Now’, and ordered our Model 4’s.”]
Did Eastman’s Legendary Trombone Professor Emory Remington, ‘The Chief’, ever comment on the Earl Williams trombones?
No. Two reasons. First, the Williams were mainly ‘West Coast’ horns being used in the recording studios. The instruments were not well know East of the Mississippi. Second, The Chief was big into Conn 88H’s . . . and the Remington mouthpiece usually supplied with that horn. It was VERY rare at Eastman (at least through the 60’s) for there to be any other brand of tenor used other than Conn. I seem to recall some Holton or Bach basses, but tenors were almost always Conns. (The Choir had a ‘unity’ of sound partly because everyone played the same horn.)
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