David Brubeck asked me about the trombone climate that I found myself in around the L.A. area during my time. What follows is kind of a train of events that got me where I wound up along that meandering stream in the music business.
Q1. California and LA are know for innovation. From Olds to Minick, Earl Williams to Burt Herrick, Kanstul, and George Strucel, what has your involvement been with CA/LA “customizers”?
A: When i was coming up through the ranks of practicing trombone players, the norm for a bass trombonist was a single valve, Bb/F horn and an actual, not faux, “E” pull technique. After hearing George Roberts I knew I wanted to ‘play like that’ only in a Symphony setting. After using school horns for a few years, namely an Olds Ambassador, and a Reynolds Contempora, I decided to graduate to a real instrument. A guy named Si Zeldin was a local LA trombonist that had a Bach 50B bass trombone that he wanted to unload on a talented student. Somehow we got together, but he needed to hear me play to see if I was good enough for his prized Mt Vernon Bach. It was an early 50’s vintage, serial no. 1183, or something. I fooled him enough that he sold me the horn for $300, U.S., and it was a gem. This very horn solidified the tonal direction I would take for the rest of my time in the bone biz.
I’m often asked the name of my most important teacher, and I have to admit that it was that Mt. Vernon Bach 50B. My main teacher was Robert Simmergren. It wasn’t long before I was experimenting with leader pipes and mouthpieces made my local craftsmen. My first experiments were with “old-tyme” brass repairman, Burt Herrick. He was a true craftsman and made me some bass trombone lead pipes that I treasure to this day. Every one who tried these pipes loved them too and wanted to buy them from me. But no, I used one of his for decades on several different horns. Eventually, experimenting with lead pipes lead me to a collection of about 30 lead pipes of all descriptions. Burt also made mouthpieces and they were very good. I still have a trombone stand that he made in 1962 that has a cymbal stand base and after he took measurements, a mandrel turned wooden head made from a used bedpost covered with felt ( and a succession of black socks) that fits a b. trb. bell perfectly. I also had dealings with Earl Williams who made trombones in his shop in Burbank. I loved his bass trombone but it was still not as good as my old Mt. Vernon. Dick Nash played a Williams and so did Phil Teele for decades. George Strucel had a small shop right downtown L.A. He was the first of the genius-class horn builders that I was happy to have run into. I asked him to add a second valve, stacked to my Bach 50B but using only one lever. No problem. I still have the guts to that job and it worked like on a universal joint, pushing thumb straight down for F and sideways at a diagonally down for Eb (eventually D).
The most important collaboration I was involved in was with the fabled horn builder, Larry Minick. We were the same age within a week and played in the All Southern California High School Honor Band together, him on Tuba next to me on bass trombone. We were like brothers. The guy was simply a genius. He could solve any problem. About the time I meet him for the second time (since H.S.) I was already thinking about making a better mousetrap. He re-arranged Stucel’s handiwork to include 2 independent levers which, in the long run worked better. Larry was the first one to do this and the open wrap on a bass trombone. We tried all kinds of odd-ball ideas like:
Converting a Conn 60H, single valve horn into a double valve/stacked horn with no F-attachment. Huh? Yes, Bb/G/D, side by side. It really worked well fixing the resonance woes with the F attachment.
Another idea was to build a Great Bass Trombone in G. I had bought a Boosey and Hawkes G trombone while we were on tour in Manchester (UK) and got to choose from dozens of obsolete G trombones. I think I paid $100, U.S. for the horn with case and mouthpiece. But, this purchase got the ball rolling to have a lower pitched trombone that could do KontrabaB Posaune duties in the orchestra, and without a handle or double slide. So, Larry made the first of six Great Bass trombones for my perusal. It was an in-line rotor horn using Bach valves and 50B slide with custom neck pipe and hand hammered and formed, two piece soldered bell, the shape extrapolated out about 20% from the dimensions of a Bach 50B bell. With the addition of a European K-baB posaune mouthpiece it was a great instrument.
The pitches were: G/Eb/D/B and later G/D/Eb/B in first position. G, thumb D, 2nd valve E, both-C and the second set: G, thumb D, 2nd valve Eb, both-B. The horn wound up having only 6-1/2 positions, but that was enough with all the valve combinations. Only low Ab, using all the tubing the horn possessed was a little stuffy. It has a great double pedal G.
This is a clip with the Phil with Carlo Maria Giulini playing the Schumann 3rd. Part of it includes the great chorale with Ralph on his Conn Eb alto, Sonny on his 88H, and me playing the Minick G Great bass, so, 3 sizes of trombones.
Editor’s note: Trombones featured at 23:20
I learned how to play this horn by practicing the Vaughn Williams Tuba concerto and it took 6 months of actual practicing to get it down so it was automatic. Before this instrument, I was locked into playing Roger Bobo’s 1909 Conn BBb, double slide, double-clutching, contra. I was never enamored of the tone as it did not sound like a trombone; it just looked like a trombone.
Larry also made a double slide contra in CC/GG for the Moravian Trombone Choir in Bethlehem which had the best sound ever of any double slide trombone. We also experimented with in-line instruments and I played the prototype valve Ed Thayer made. Because I have a wide jaw and play downhill slightly, I could never get it around my face. Too bad. I was never really happy with the constrained sound of an in-line rotor horn, even thought I owned a couple and tried like mad to make them work, all to no avail.
Spoiled by the Bach 50B, yet again.
In the meantime, after trying a lot mouthpieces, I asked Larry to make a mouthpiece to my specs. No problem. It would involve a deep, but cup shaped cup as I had had it with cone shaped cups-check; a rather wide rim for endurance -check as I had had it with cookie cutter rims; a rather tight backbone for more middle overtones coming out the bell-check. He wound up make hundreds of them. I still play one that I found on his shop floor, unplated. I asked him if I could try it and noticed it had a ding on the side of the rim-the reason it was on the floor. I played it and asked if it could be plated. No problem.
I’ve owned some famous horns over the years including a 1921 Fuchs model, tuning in the slide, Conn Bass Trombone owned by Ralph Sauer’s teacher, Bob Harper. It had a very special sound. Minick made a valve that went into the F-pull slot so as not to ruin the instrument. It was actuated by a long stem and lever. Lew Van Haney sold me a couple of his old horns including a series 1, N.Y. Bach 50 Bass trombone built as one of the first of six by Vincent Bach in 1933. The serial number was 598 or there about. The bell was only 9-1/4” across but it had that big throat. Great horn. As Harper tells the story, Vincent borrowed his 1921 Fuchs model so as to make dimensional plans for his first foray into the world of bass trombones. So this gives one the Alpha for Bach Bass Trombones.
Now a word about the instruments of the Downey Moravian Trombone Choir. This year will be 50 years since I started this strange ensemble. At the beginning, I had a Mirafone Soprano; a Mirafone Eb alto; and found a couple guys to play in a quartet. Gene Pokorny was also in the band on my Conn 72 H bass trombone. As time passed, I needed to expand the instrument supply for this Baroque Trombone group, so I called Olds, and they happened to have four F-alto trombones already made up with a .455” bore. Just right. A very lightweight sound and half way between soprano and tenor in sound. So, I bought those and looked around for sopranos. I contacted Getzen and talked to MR. Getzen about having some good sopranos made. No problem. So he cranked out a dozen or so of which our players purchased with abandon. Along the way I bought a 1910 Conn slide cornet and own it to this day. What a great sound. In the meantime, I asked Larry to make a Minick Eb sopranino trombone and I own it to this day. Some very good trumpet players wound up playing the ‘Eeffer”. We also used Conn, Bach, Minick, and other Eb altos which were somewhat more readily available. I bought a couple more BBb contras by Mirafone to use with the big groups. The largest trombone choir ever for us was at Christmas in 1979 when we sported 97 players at our Advent program, including five contra players, with case and mouthpiece. Tommy Pederson wrote some special music for the occasion and played in the band along with half of the players in L.A.
Above, in about 1966, is the first gig I ever played with the L.A. Phil. Byron Peebles on 2nd and Robert Marsteller on 1st. They needed a quick replacement for Charlie Bovingdon and I got the call. Right place. Right time. Right stuff. Right people. I had taken lessons from both of these guys.
Q2. Please reflect on the most memorable conductors you have performed with, and their characteristics.
A: In no special order: Zubin Mehta (he hired me, and that’s worth something), Itsvan Kertesh, Salonen, Boulez, and very specially C.M. Giulini. Oh, I’ve got stories, but that’s all ancient history now.
Q3. In televised broadcasts of the LA Phil it has appeared to me and sounded as though it is a remarkably relaxed orchestra physically. How does the LA Phil approach music differently?
A: I don’t know. I think Tom Stevens put it the best when he answered that question to a management person, “We just take care of business.” It didn’t hurt that everyone in the hard brass could pull their own weight. Nothing is more cancerous that trying to cover for a weak colleague.
Q4. From solo recordings to excerpts you have taken on several special projects. Which were most enjoyable? Which seemed to have the greatest impact?
A: Putting an album together is work no matter how you do it. Since the brass were on a perpetual roll with the recording industry at our doorstep it was easy to put together a recording project in terms of logistics. Also, if you have the stuff, record it, quick before you don’t have the stuff.
Q5. How did you become associated with the Moravian church, and how has it enriched your life?
A: My first wife, Judy, played organ at the Moravian Church and we were married there. They needed a choir director and she asked me if i could do the job for $50 a month and all you could eat-(enter the starving trombone player). Sure! I conducted the choir there for decades to good avail. It made me a better musician, with them occasionally bringing me to my knees. Within 2 years, Judy was dead of Hodgkin’s disease. Only after a couple years did I find out that the Moravians had historically used the full consort of trombones for their services. Thus started a collaboration with the old and the new in terms of slip-horns.
Above is the Moravian trombone choir about 1967. Gene (Conn 72H bass) and brother Bob Pokorny (Mirafone Eb alto) played in this octet. You can see the two Mirafone sopranos on the right. I’m on the left, next to the would-be tuba player in the Chicago Symphony.
Q6. Please describe your success as a teacher, which has included remarkably diverse students. Which are most memorable at this point?
A: Some of my best work was not with trombone players at all. I’ve had very good luck with every trumpet player I have taught, every horn player; and most, not all, tuba players. Really, my least success has been with tenor trombone players who think it’s the same as playing bass trombone. It isn’t.
Q8. What is the best bass trombone playing you heard?
A: A few not-so-famous hero bass trombonists come to mind, but I’ll keep that to myself. They know who they are. Generally, George Roberts was my hero at the beginning. I got to play next to George on recording dates in Hollywood and have a little story to tell:
One day recording at Disney Studios on one of the VW Herbie movies, there were 5 trombones: Dick Nash, Lloyd Ulyate, Ed Kusby, myself, and George Roberts on last trombone. The tenors fed into one mic, and the bottom two fed into one mic.
After the first set of takes, a few of us went into the booth to hear the playbacks. Tenors got on great. George Roberts sound jumped on the mic. My tone was non-existent. George said he was used to this, and said I should move up closer to the mic.
I got right up on the mic with George several feet away.
No change in balance.
George says, “play louder”. I did that and finally got on but with none of the sizzle that George had. Tommy Johnson who was on the call, confided in me that George had what he called “the mystery tone”.
He could get on any microphone, no matter how distant.
Q9. Please recall your favorite stand out performances.
A: Probably the operas we did with the Philharmonic. Falstaff with Giulini was a pinnacle set of performances. I played the trombone basso part on the G Great Bass. Before the rehearsals started, Bobo and I had a meeting with the maestro to decide what instrument he wanted to play the bottom part. Roger had his F-tuba along, and I brought a bass trombone and the G Great Bass for him to hear, or not and decide. One look at the Great Bass and Giulini exclaimed, “Deese one! I like deese one.” So, that’s how the instrument selection was settled.
I was also fond of doing Wozzek (A. Berg) on the G Great Bass, in this case with Simon Rattle. Just right. Also the Berg Violin Concerto with different fiddle pickers.
The Symphony of Psalms is right up there, with its mystical aura.
After 22,00 services with the band, nothing sticks out any more.
In my declining years I conduct and arrange music for four Compline Choirs.
A Comprehensive Workbook for Bass Trombone & Trombone with ‘F’ Attachment, by Jeff Reynolds.
c. 2015 David William Brubeck All Rights Reserved. www.davidbrubeck.com
Photos courtesy of Jeff Reynolds.
Interested in more “Seve Positions” tm interviews?
Charlie Vernon of the Chicago Symphony, James Markey of the Boston Symphony and New York Philharmonic, Chris Brubeck Jazz Great, Doug Yeo of the Boston Symphony, Jeremy Morrow of the New World Symphony,Tom Everett of Harvard University, Gerry Pagano of the St. Louis Symphony, Ben van Dijk International Soloist, Randall Hawes of the Detroit Symphony, Denson Paul Pollard of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Thomas Matta, Chicago Jazz Man, Fred Sturm Matrix Bass Trombonist, Bill Reichenbach, King of the Jazz Bass Trombone, Massimo Pirone Brilliant Improviser, Erik Van Lier Jazz Great, Jennifer Wharton NY Studio Cat, Matyas Veer Classical Soloist, & Stefan Schulz of the Berlin Philharmonic.