It is difficult to do justice to someone so deeply and broadly talented as Wayne Coniglio: Bass Trombonist, writer, engineer, bass player, band leader, producer, and probably a few things more! The Jazz Bass Trombone is elated to highlight his accomplishments on the bass trombone which include a duo with Scott Whitfield, tours with Ray Charles and performances in NY with the great Thad Jones and Mel Lewis Orchestra. Deeply inspired and inspiring, “The Jazz Band Trombone” is delighted to welcome Wayne Coniglio to our series….Enjoy!
1. How did you begin your musical journey and when did you switch to BASS trombone?
Long story. My folks really liked the big band era so I was exposed early to that. I grew up in mostly Phoenix and attended an amazing inner city public school called Longview which was a K-8 school so continuity was ever present. The school had choir and recorder classes that started in 2nd grade and band started in 4th. Longview featured a couple of music teachers that were be beyond compare. They established a program that featured a full big band that played real charts and would performed live frequently throughout Phoenix. At these performances we would play a half hour set then break down and sing SATB songs with choreography. This seemed normal to me and I later found out that this level was unheard of then and even more so now. Remember this was a group of mostly 7th and 8th graders and a couple 6th graders. The program was run by William E. Wells “The Oz” and Debra Gunby (who has just recently passed) and they have become legends among their former students to this day.
My first year at West Phoenix High I was a member of the senior choir, the orchestra on trumpet, lead trumpet in the big band and bass trombone in the concert band. Again and outstanding program. It was at this time time that my folks accidentally bought me a Holton TR 183 single valve bass bone. My parents then moved back to Springfield, IL (where I had been born), before my sophomore year and I was stunned by the lack of opportunity at the school. The only great thing was a fantastic choir director named Dan Sprecklemeyer who was a great and funny guy and a basso profundo who would travel to sing around the country. At the same time I became acquainted with local pros and joined the union at age 14 in order to play with different groups like the Municipal band, summer theaters and the Springfield Symphony. I’ve been in the union ever since.
The choir involvement at Springfield High was excellent as it honed my skills as a musician in ways that I would only fully understand later. My playing and exposure to important music went through the roof. It was at the same time I was buying as many Coltrane, Frank Zappa and (you name it) records as I could find. I became exposed to pretty much any kind of great music buy going to the public library. My private teacher Larry Neihaus had just gotten his bass trombone modified by Larry Minnick to an inline horn in F&G, so I sent my horn to Giardinelli and they did the same for me. This was a major turning point in my playing. More about this later. I made Illinois All State Jazz Band One both years that I was eligible. I also auditioned for All State Choir and received a perfect score but didn’t attend as I had a gig.
I attended Illinois State University for a year, St Louis Conservatory for a semester, lived in Urbana, Il and played as a walk on with the famous John Garvey band at the University of Illinois which was amazing. Also, while at Urbana, I performed at the infamous “Natures Table” jazz club a ton and developed my small group chops. I did attend St louis Conservatory for a semester but found it quite lacking.
I later attended William Patterson College where Steve Turre was teaching along with Joe Lovano and Rufus Reid. I arrived there at the same time as drum phenom Bill Stewart. We hit it off and I played many hours of duets with him further developing my concept. While in school, Rufus Reid recommended me to the cats on The Mel Lewis Band and I got to play with them at age 22 at the Vanguard Thanks to Earl McIntyre and Douglas Purviance. They were playing some quite difficult Brookmeyer charts but luckily I had worn out that record called “Make Me Smile” and I could have read it blindfolded. I loved playing in that band!
New York was rough and great at the same time so for a bit I worked cruise ships then eventually back to Illinois. While in NYC I played in Dick Loeb’s rehearsal band and one of the trombone players was Armin Marmallejo who was on Ray Charles’ band. He suggested that I give him a tape so I did. After the cruise ships I got a call from Ray himself and I joined the band. Oddly I originally got called to play lead but the bass bone player quit suddenly so I was called on bass. My great friend Steve Sigmund took over and played lead for the remainder of Ray’s life and did an amazing job. (He’s currently keeping Ray’s torch going with a series of concerts featuring members of Ray’s band and Maceo Parker.)
After a few years off from Ray, I was back in New York in 1996 and I had a great time playing just about everything including some time with the Big Apple Circus.
I now have a great career in St Louis, MO. I play as much as I want, subbing in the St Louis Symphony, I play in a couple of brass quintets, my own 36 piece studio orchestra that I conduct and write for and a bit more. I have engineered/produced numerous recordings for myself and other artists. I’m currently working on an album featuring Opera star Christine Brewer.
I write full time and I teach privately and REALLY enjoy it. I also play string bass in and write for my sweetheart’s band, The Poor People of Paris.
2. What was the moment you decided bass bone was for you? Who were your influences?
When I got my horn modified to inline F&G since I was good at transposing and playing trumpet I drew a correlation between the F&G valves and certain valve combinations on the trumpet. This way I could read Trane, Freddie and whomever transcriptions and adapt them to the horn. Again more on the jazz playing later. I got the album “Road Time” by Toshiko Akiyoshi and there was Phil Teele playing those gorgeous tones. I later met him and he said play long tones all day. I started that night after seeing him. I later fulfilled a dream by getting to sub numerous times with Toshiko’s band in New York at Birdland. She was one of the few band leaders that respect and expect the bass bone player to be just another jazz player and not just a role player.
The bass bone players on those great recordings from the 1960’s like Tony Studd, Paul Faulise, George Roberts, Joe Randazzo had an influence on my section playing but I had no real players to copy for jazz so after some Carl, JJ, Frank and many others, I moved right on to Trane, freddie etc. I have also studied clasically and was influenced by Kleinhammer and Premru and the lot.
There was a nice bass bone feature on “Wave” recorded by Bill Reichenbach on a Buddy Rich album and I really liked it but was disappointed that he didn’t get to blow because he’s such a bad ass player.
3. When and why did you decide to play jazz on the bass trombone?
There really wasn’t a time that I haven’t played jazz so, I have played jazz trumpet, trombone, bass trombone, string bass, tuba. For a time I played clarinet and some sax and I played jazz on those as well. We have a nice piano and I’ve been trying to work that out, a task that I’ve put off for too long.
3a. What are your successes?
I suppose maybe I’m influencing some younger players to go ahead and play solos especially in a big band. I’m a full time writer so I’ve written several charts that either feature the bass bone or at least allow for the opportunity to solo.
I have had some on the most amazing students in my private teaching career and I do my best to supplement the things that a formal education does not provide. (there’s a lot BTW)
A couple of years ago I was asked by Jazz at Lincoln Center to recreate an entire nights worth of Ray Charles’ book for some shows in New York. I also performed and it was a great success. The great Dianne Schuur was in the role of Ray and since then we have collaborated a bit.
For a bit I played in NYC with the Chuck Clark Little Big Band in the East Village many Monday nights. That band was like dream as Chuck, who had seriously deep writing chops, really saw all of the potential for me as a soloist. He made sure that I got to play in an equal setting as the other players and even wrote a couple of features for me.
My album with long time cohort Scott Whitfield entitled “Fast Friends” on Summit Records came off very well reaching #31 on the jazz charts in 2014. I producer/engineered it. I liked the CD because our voices are both unique and it didn’t really come off as a 2 trombone album. (BTW my nickname is Count Kakula and Scott’s is Chip Kakenstein ; ) )
I also appear on an AMAZING big band album with The Pratt Brothers Big Band and Roberta Gambarini called “Sixteen Men and a Chick Singer Swingin’ ” . I wrote for this CD as did some other amazing writers and Dean Pratt made sure that I got featured. The bass bone section writing is sublime. It’s on CAP records.
4. How do you envision bass trombone best utilized in jazz?
Just as another voice in the jazz world, especially in a small group.
It’s getting a lot better finally with more plyers committing to it and I love it!
I have some very strong opinion regarding how the bass trombone has developed over the past several decades….
Well, here we go. Ever since the 1980’s the bass trombone has developed to the direction of “Slide Tuba” and so many people had glommed onto that sound concept that for a long time there was separation of the bass trombone from the rest of the section. Huge mouthpieces, heavily reinforced horns and giant or even no lead pipes had prevailed and still do somewhat. This caused writers to hear the instrument in an almost gimmicky way so much of their feature writing is like “isn’t that special” instead of just another jazz voice. There are many exceptions though that I will talk about later.
The way I see it and have lived it for almost 40 years is thus:
The original 2 valve horns had a non-uniform design for the deployment of the 2nd valve. Some were in E, Eb, D and even C but all were dependent meaning you could only use the 2nd valve with the 1st valve engaged.
I’m not sure who did this, (Minnick?) but in the 1970’s someone came up with the in-line valve (independent) design tuned to F&G which I’ve luckily enjoyed since my Sophomore year of High School. In that horn I found not only a fully functioning bass bone but a quite facile instrument that I could get around on throughout the entire range like a trumpet or sax. What happened was this though; many of the dependent valve players settled on the D tuning because they could play a Bb arpeggio in first and they got a Bb in seventh which is great in the classical world but when those people wanted an independently valved horn, and the option was 2nd valve in G which gives Eb in first when combined, they started asking for a 2nd valve in Gb which gives D in first when combined. Again there are many great players and horns that utilize this combination but my opinion is there’s quite a lot of facility that is lost with that set up. People aren’t quite sure what to say to this because now the majority of horns don’t even come with a tuning slide option for a valve in G so they are not exposed and they haven’t done what I’ve done.
They don’t even have the option to try out many of the ideas that I’ve worked out.
Here’s why I believe there is an issue with this design: On a technical note the F/Gb valve set gives an unequal placement of note options along the slide. Ex: low F in 1st, low F in 2nd then low F in 6th. The G valve allows low F in 1st, low F in 3rd and low F in 6th which is a more equal distribution on notes and “pivot points” are evenly spaced along the slide. That’s just one advantage.
The poitive results as far as I see it: I potentially can play a chromatic scale (except low C and B) along the entire horn in 3 positions. With a Gb valve one must go to 4th a few times. I can play entire major scales in only 2 positions.
The Gb valve, when related to the trumpet, is like have the valve combo of 2 and 3 whereas the G valve is related to the valve combo 1 and 2. When a necessary chromatic motion is needed all you need is a one position change either up or down.
I also must mention that I use the valves all over the horn, not just below the staff.
To sum up, the modern jazz bass trombone design has gotten backed into a corner a bit based on functionality.
5. What is your essential listening list for a young jazz bass trombonist?
Except for the handful of folks that actually play jazz like an artist, I’d say anything BUT the bass trombone.
If you’re looking for big band/orchestral playing influences, and not improvisatory, that’s a different animal and I don’t think quite on this subject.
6. What do you look for in an improvised solo?
Do I like it. Is there Heart and mind? Is the soloist engaged with the the band as a whole?
More on that; Regarding practice and backing tracks; one of the teaching techniques I employ is to have the student imagine that they are the horn soloist in the isolation booth that the rhythm section is reacting to. (that’s how most of those tracks are recorded) I tell them to try to react to the accompaniment as if it were live with the added advantage of being able to rewind it and examine. I also tell them to corroborate each lead sheet with, not only the original recording of the song, but with the backing track itself. This helps them to be able to constantly examine their role in any live situation and be much more involved. This is paramount if you want to become a true communicative artist rather than one blurting out the latest licks you’ve been working on.
7. How did/do you practice jazz?
Early on I listened, transcribed by ear and wrote it down.
I was influenced by: Scott Joplin, the big band era, John Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard, Booker Little, Rhasaan, Frank Zappa, Joe Henderson, Joe Lovano, Herbie, McCoy, Pepper Adams and the list goes on and on and on. At one point for a couple of years all I could listen to was Coltrane and, as I mentioned before, I played from transcription books Coltrane solos. “Giant Steps”, “Blue Trane” etc. All of these solos lay right in the wheel house down an octave which puts these solos right in the staff and just a bit above and below, Basically the range of the Tenor Sax down an octave. I do believe that the best functional improvising range is similar to Bari sax.
I don’t transcribe solos as much any more except that I do quite a lot of transcribing of arrangements as well as my own writing.
I also believe in singing, I do a bit, and I also think that jazz musicians should also learn a rhythm section instrument in order to gain perspective, develop awareness of changes and interaction, empathy. With regard to singing, I believe it’s a major game changer as far as developing confidence, phrasing, breathing, pitch memory and score reading.
“Jazz Education” has suffered a bit by the over specification of harmonies at times, especially when it speaks of the dominant chord and the alterations associated with it. Most altered dominant chords can be gleaned from the diminished scale related to the diminished chord. As you know, most popular music has abandoned the varied emotionally nuanced dominant chords so young folk just aren’t hearing them on a regular basis.
Also the Be-bop “side step” ii-V7 (the chromatic foreshadowing of an upcoming ii-V7) has somewhat marred the utility and austere beauty of the passing diminished chord and it’s derivatives. Not going to detail this as I’m getting long-winded here.
8. What are your favorite bass trombone features?
I’ve written a few as I mentioned. Mantooth wrote something really nice on “Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” that doesn’t have you play in a gimmicky way and has changes.
I played “I Ain’t Gonna Ask No More” with Toshiko’s Band numerous times and she had the bass trombone blow.
Matt Finders and later Tim Newman who both occupied that chair and are strong improvisers were probably responsible for that.
When I was with Ray Charles I wrote a few charts that featured bass bone mainly because there wasn’t much in the book. Ray actually encouraged me to write and I credit him with stimulating what has become a nice career in writing. Whenever I spoke with him it was mostly about writing and a bit of sports.
9. What instruments blend best with bass bone?
Vibes are really cool in the jazz world. Guitar, trumpet, sax. Hard to really pin it down though.
With regard to classical playing; I believe that, when working with tuba, one must consider the composers idea behind the use of bass bone and tuba in exact unison as opposed to being in octaves. I’ve found that, as a writer myself, I like the bass bone to provide the edge (pointed sound) when in the same octave as tuba but be more tuba-like when in octaves. Also when just being the 3rd bone to the tuba just to be a trombone. I’ve done this for years and the sections and tuba players love it.
10. What are your thoughts on bass function for bass bone? When does it work well, when should it be avoided?
Again you have to play in context to the style, voicing and such.
Sometimes you’re the tuba to the bari sax and need to provide width to the sound and sometimes you’ll have a line that really needs to cut. When you’re playing 4th trombone rather than providing a bass function you really need to adjust your air stream
When I was touring with Ray Charles, there would often be impromptu jams in the dressing room or even on the street. Since the bass player’s amp was not available I got to play a lot of bass lines and, since I’m also a string bass player, I drew from that. I did that with my brother Trumpeter Kenny Rampton quite a bit because we were just hungry to play.
c. 2018 David William Brubeck All Rights Reserved. www.davidbrubeck.com
Images courtesy of Wayne Coniglio.com