Expressive outlets in jazz for the bass trombone are seemingly rare, especially in an age where the measure of one’s worth as a jazz musician is often boiled down to the ability to improvise over multiple choruses of jazz. Ironically, the adoption of this criteria seems to exclude the many contributions of jazz artists who are sidemen, arrangers, leaders, “compers”, high note players, readers, section players, low note players, or melodic interpreters to such a degree that ( were it applied to the past) would have excluded Billie Holiday, Tommy Dorsey, Gil Evans, Freddie Green and numerous others. When evaluated by the constraints of this narrow definition, the bass trombone often does not even merit inclusion as a jazz instrument. In fact, many jazz music appreciation texts omit mention of the instrument completely while recognizing the contributions of more obscure instruments in jazz such as the bassoon and bass clarinet.
Perhaps the first and foremost outlet of solo expression for the bass trombone has come in the genre of the big band. Of the major American instrumental ensembles in which the bass trombone is included: the orchestra, the symphonic band (or wind ensemble), and the big band; the big band is arguably the most welcoming to the solo bass trombone and it’s native habitat. Early big band pioneers include Bart Varsalona and George Roberts of the Stan Kenton Band; arrangers Sauter and Finnegan, Bill Holman, and Nelson Riddle. The pinnacle of the soloistic use of the bass trombone in terms of popularity and creativity resides at the intersection of George Roberts, Nelson Riddle, Frank Sinatra and Capitol Records.
The bass function of the tenor trombone was important in early jazz where THE first band so named as ‘jazz’ (or jass) contained only trumpet, trombone, clarinet and drums and was led by a trombonist-Tom Brown. As jazz progressed, the bass function was later adopted as an aspect of trombone section work, particularly in the unison passages of the Glen Miller Orchestra, until the need for the bass trombone seemed evident.
Other jazz ensembles which have proven hospitable to the soloistic expression of the bass trombone include: Trombone Ensemble; Bass & Tenor Trombone with Small Group; Bass Trombone Soloist with a Small Group; Bass Trombone with Jazz Keyboard-duo; Bass Trombone and Jazz Guitar-duo
“The Jazz Bass Trombone” seeks to explore the expression of the bass trombone in jazz and it’s unique voice and capabilities, to recognize it’s accomplishments and ponder it’s possibilities.
We have decided to launch our series focusing on the big band with soloistic excerpts from the same, as this is the typical start for most bass trombone soloists. Accepting the premise that the big band is where the solo iteration of the instrument is most native, it is ironic that the bass trombonist often encounters an indifferent welcome as a soloist even in a jazz band-putting the bass trombonist in the awkward position of feeling uninvited even at home.
The counterbalance of this unfortunate situation is the unbelievable accomplishment of George Roberts who was close enough to the beginning of the instrument (his work with Krupa nearly parallels that of Varsalona with Kenton), that he can be considered one of it’s true pioneers. Certainly his efforts with Nelson Riddle qualify him as a great popularizer of the instrument, and his near universal acclaim as the ideal to emulate for the instrument (having earned him the title. “Mr. Bass Trombone”), makes him its perfecter. It is rare in music, or any other art form, to have one individual who is at once it’s pioneer, poularizer, and perfecter-but this is precisely what we have in the person of George Roberts. Add to these accomplishments his tremendous humanity, and the bass trombone has in Roberts a reservoir of considerable vitality.
I have asked Major Bailey to serve as curator and contributor of the first five installments of “The Jazz Bass Trombone”.
You’re My Everything
by Major Bailey with David William Brubeck
The music to “You’re My Everything” was written in 1931 by Harry Warren and Joseph Young for the Broadway show, The Laugh Parade. Lyrics were added by Mort Dixon almost simultaneously, and the musical ran for more than 200 performances. The Laugh Parade starred Ed Wynn, as well as Lawrence Gray and Jeanne Aubert. Aubert and Gray performed “You’re My Everything” and it was the only one of the show’s two dozen musical numbers to become an instant hit with the American public. “You’re My Everything” became firmly ensconced in the American Songbook with covers by vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Nat “King” Cole and Frank Sinatra.
Miles Davis produced a huge hit, and demonstrated the song’s value to instrumental jazz community, when he recorded it with his quintet on the album Relaxin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet. Freddie Hubbard recorded his version on his classic album, Hub-Tones and both recordings are considered “staples” in the jazz industry2. One of our personal favorites is the version found on the 1957 Urbie Green big band album, Let’s Face The Music And Dance. This album featured a young “Doc” Severinsen on lead trumpet along with Urbie’s effortless mastery of the trombone which has inspired generations of trombonists-including Roberts.
The Tom Matta arrangement we have selected was written in 1995 and features solo bass trombone and big band. This is one of the newest versions of this classic tune available today and was written to feature Charlie Vernon for a DePaul University album entitled Night School.
Set in a medium swing style, Matta uses the solo bass trombone both as a solo bass voice as well as demonstrating the unique attributes of the instrument’s bottom register. The solo part spans nearly three octaves and includes numerous linear passages including a beautiful unison duet with the bass after an improvised alto solo.
This duet ‘soli’ passage requires time and effort in lining up the intonation between the two bass instruments. By marking it at a light volume, Matta allows for even more attention to be paid to the passage’s intonation and clarity. The bass trombonist must feel comfortable in playing lines that go in and out of the pedal register. This requires extra concentration to keep the air speed sounding constant despite the motion of the slide and quick changes in air speed when switching valve combinations-which is most obvious at the end of the duet.
The arrangement concludes by showing the extensive bottom register of the bass trombone, both in the ensemble and unaccompanied. In an insightful stroke of orchestration, the band pauses while the bass trombone continues towards the basement of the instrumental register and ends the musical selection by playing the lowest available octave of the tonic.
Interview with Thomas Matta, by David William Brubeck
Did you have Charlie Vernon in mind when you first wrote “You’re My Everything”?
Yes and no. Oh sure, I knew it was for him, but I chose the tune. In fact, I think I chose all the tunes on that great DePaul Jazz Ensemble CD except for “When I Look In Your Eyes”, which Charlie had chosen (he played it for his bride Allison at their wedding!) That tune in particular, I wanted to create an “updated” George Roberts-inspired feature for Charlie.
If not, did you make any adjustments for him?
Had I written that chart for anyone else – Bill Reichenbach or Mattis Cederberg, for example, I would have most likely included space for the bass trombonist to improvise. Instead, I created a tricky little soli for the bass trombone and bass to give Charlie some more meat to chew! And of course, the juicy contra notes on the last page are clearly smack dab in the middle of Charlie’s wheelhouse!
Do you play when you lead your pro band? Solo?
In the Tom Matta Big Band, I play the bass trombone chair, and run out front to conduct when needed.
I’m asking the musicians for a lot of focus and dedication to playing my music, which can be taxing and a heavy load to lift. They are all great ensemble players, but even more-so world-class improvisers. I want to feature them – this is why they are there! So with that in mind, I try and limit their exposure to my freshmen-level improvising as much as I can. My “solos” are primarily my compositions and arrangements. That’s my outlet.
Is the choice of alto sax solo a particular timbre contrast choice to the bass trombone?
It was a deliberate choice of timbre choice, yes. But more importantly, the phenomenal Rudresh Mahanthappa was in the band at that time, and I knew his improvisational voice would make for an even more intriguing contrast.
How do you view the potential solo or melodic characteristics of the different octaves of the bass trombone?
For all the impact the lowest register of the bass trombone, I still prefer what I call the “cello range” – the 2+ octaves starting with low C. That is my favorite and preferred zone for the bass trombone.
It’s not to say I don’t love the contra notes, or even the way above the staff notes. But low C to middle C is the land of the bass trombone – it’s where the instrument sounds the best. The notes in the staff are the bread and butter for the bass trombonist, not the double-pedal Bflats or altissimo high L!
How would you describe the style or inspiration for the chart? How does it compliment your other works?
In my opinion, it’s cute without being cheesy. It’s straight ahead but it has some subtle twists. It has the distinction of fitting in very well on a dance band set list as well as a concert program next to more progressive pieces I have written. The chart would not had come out the same if I had not been using George Roberts and his great solo recordings as a muse. Hey – there’s nothing wrong with being accessible and swingin’, is there?
How would you compare the bass trombone to its bass voiced rivals in jazz?
The bass trombone is overwhelmingly a section instrument, but it needn’t remain so. It has an incredibly sumptuous, rich voice for presenting a melody. In the right hands, it is very agile and nimble. So why aren’t there dozens of bass trombone players that are popular as the great bari-sax players like Gerry Mulligan, Harry Carny, Gary Smulyan, Pepper Adams, etc.? Maybe it starts with encouraging the young cats to improvise and not just play parts? Maybe the writers need to start leaning on that chair to have an improviser?
Bass trombone Features arranged by Thomas Matta:
1. YOU’RE MY EVERYTHING – written for Charlie Vernon as a bass trombone feature
2. I’M GETTING SENTIMENTAL OVER YOU – written for Bill Reichenbach.
Though originally for bass trombone, lots of guys have played and/or recorded it on tenor trombone.
Tom Garling is featured on it when the TMBB plays, and Rob Parton’s big band recorded it w/Garling, too.
(These have been Published by the UNC Jazz Press.)
UNPUBLISHED bass and tenor trombone features by Thomas Matta:
3. IT NEVER ENTERED MY MIND- for myself as a bass trombone feature. This arrangement includes improvisation.
Rob Parton’s band recorded this a couple years back featuring me on bass bone.
4. MY FUTURE JUST PASSED – vocal feature with a half-chorus of improvisation in the bass trombone part.
Rob Parton’s big band recorded it featuring his amazing wife Kristy on vocals with me on bass bone.
5. RUBY’S THEME – created on a pretty Bill Reichenbach ballad he he wrote for a film-(as I recall). Bill is an amazing composer; many folks don’t know that!!!
Tenor trombone Features arranged by Thomas Matta:
1. WHEN I LOOK IN YOUR EYES – written for Charlie Vernon as a tenor trombone feature
2. THE NEARNESS OF YOU – written for Charlie Vernon as a tenor trombone feature
3. MY ONE AND ONLY LOVE – written for Charlie Vernon as a tenor trombone feature
4. IT NEVER ENTERED MY MIND – written for Charlie Vernon as a tenor trombone feature
5. AUGUST DREAMS – written for the Waukee HS Jazz Band in Iowa as a tenor trombone feature
(These have been Published by the UNC Jazz Press.)
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