Whatever happened to the jazz trombone? This may seem like a loaded question, unfair to those who still practice their profession on this horn; yet it is undeniable that trombonists are no longer in the forefront of the scene. For every youngster who decided to take up this difficult instrument, there must be a hundred who pick up a guitar, learn a few chords and rush headlong into a career.
Among the Swing Era and post-swing giants, long gone are Tommy Dorsey and Jack Teagarden. Of the great Ellingtonians for whom Duke fashioned frameworks, Tricky Sam Nanton, Juan Tizol, Wilbur de Paris and Tyree Glenn are no longer among us. Neither are Count Basie's Dickie Wells, Benny Morton, Vic Dickenson or Woody Herman's Bill Harris. Kai Winding and Benny Green, who led their own small groups in the 1950s, died years ago. Benny Goodman's Lou McGarity and Cutty Cutshall also are among the missing, as is J. C. Higginbotham.
Lawrence Brown, a vital voice in the Ellington band, hung up his horn forever in 1970. Frank Rosolino killed himself in 1978. Ed Hubble, once with the World's Greatest Jazz Band, when last heard of was a chicken farmer.
It's a depressing picture until you examine the other side of the coin. There is actually a minor renaissance at work, in which the most prominent figure is the founding father of modern trombone, J. J. Johnson.
Once hailed as a sort of sliding Dizzy Gillespie, Johnson all but gave up the horn after moving to California in 1970 to become a composer/arranger for TV and movies. After his last assignment, as regular writer for "Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer," conditions slowed down (as they have for most screen scorers in this age of synthesizers and rock tracks). Johnson decided to pick up his horn again, form a group and go on tour.
Johnson disagrees with the premise that the trombone's present Cinderella status has to do with its sound, its technical demands or the vagaries of fashion.
"Actually," he said the other day in a call from Boston, "there are a lot of guys around who are playing up a storm. They just aren't getting recognition.
"Slide Hampton, for example, is doing some amazing things--and on a big, monstrous horn, the bass trombone. Curtis Fuller, who used to work with Art Blakey, has played beautifully every time I've heard him. Up here in the world of academia, where the air is rarefied and the level of musicianship high, I've listened to Phil Wilson, who left Woody Herman to head the trombone department at Berklee College of Music. He does impossible things on the horn!"
Johnson's return to jazz was one of a series of steps involving a new life style. He will compose for his new jazz quintet, and for larger groups now and then, but grandiose composing and conducting for film scores are the farthest thing from his mind.
He surprised his friends recently by announcing that he and his wife will leave Los Angeles to move back to Indianapolis, where they were born. They have already bought a home there and will take occupancy as soon as they have sold their home in Sherman Oaks.
"It's time for a change," he says. "Mr. Khayyam said it: 'The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on.' That sounds corny, but it's true.
"My mother and father, 84 and 85, still live in Indianapolis. Vivian and I went to high school there, and we look forward to enjoying a good life with the old friends and relatives who are still there."
Johnson was eager to emphasize that he feels no sour-grapes attitude toward Hollywood. "I've had a wonderful time in L.A. Musicians were kind and generous to me, and I had a lot of help from trombonists and composers. I didn't put down New York when I left there, and I don't put Los Angeles down now."
With the help of Slide Hampton, he has found a manager in New York and some world-class musicians for his group. His pianist is Cedar Walton, who has worked with him often in the past. Victor Lewis, the drummer, and Rufus Reid on bass are also well-established.
"The new discovery in the group is my saxophonist, Tom Gullion. He's from Bloomington, Ind., only 22, and I hired him on the basis of a tape I heard. He's a young monster, believe me." (The Johnson Quintet will man the stand tonight at the Loa in Santa Monica.)
Along with his tours as leader of the group, Johnson will step up his activities as a speaker. His enthusiastic, stentorian voice (so suitable to a trombonist) will be heard at colleges, where he will talk about the instrument's history and potential before offering live demonstrations.
The new Johnson Quintet is being submitted for a record deal; meanwhile, a CD of some 1960s sessions has been reissued on RCA Bluebird ("Say When," 6277-2-RB). Despite the economics of the traveling jazz group, he will be able occasionally to make appearances in more ambitious settings. On Jan. 14, he will be the principal guest soloist at the National Assn. of Jazz Educators' annual convention in Detroit, joining with a long-popular Air Force band, the Airmen of Note, in Slide Hampton's arrangements of three well-known Johnson compositions: "Lament," "Say When" and "El Camino Real."
Johnson's reputation as a performer has survived the 17 years during which he rarely appeared in public; in fact, ironically, he has continued to win the Down Beat poll as No. 1 trombonist even when he was inactive.
Told that he has won again this year, he reacted in amazement. "Are you sure? I can't believe it! That compares interestingly with the recent Down Beat Critics' Poll, in which I finished fourth, with several people high on the list whom I'd never even heard of. But that's as it should be; it's healthy to have new guys coming out of the woodwork and playing good trombone. (The critics' favorite was Ray Anderson, who has worked with Anthony Braxton and other avant-gardists.)
"But as for that Readers' Poll--you've made my day! Wonders will never cease--I'll have to go out and buy 10 copies."
Reminded that his tremendous reputation has carried him through the non-playing years, Johnson laughed and replied: "Let's just say I've been around the block a few times--and I'm happy to be back."