Bill Watrous has long been known for his ability to swing. But few people know that he once could swing a bat as well as he could the trombone.
Scouted by the New York Yankees as a youngster, Watrous said he almost switched careers 10 years ago after taking a few swings with the minor-league Cubs of Midland, Tex.
"Their team was dreadful that year, and some of us were invited out to see them practice while we were out on tour," Watrous, 53, recalled in a recent phone conversation from his home in Shadow Hills. He plays tonight in Mission Viejo with the Saddleback College Big Band.
"I mentioned that I used to play, and so they hooked up the batting machine so I could take a couple cuts. After hitting 29 balls out of there and breaking 11 bats in the process, I was asked by the the manager if I wanted to fill their designated-hitter spot. 'You could really help this team out,' he told me.
"They were serious, but it would have been $540 a month, riding the bus and playing in the middle of nowhere. But for a while there I felt like Robert Redford in 'The Natural.' I still feel the pangs."
That Watrous feels regrets about not playing baseball is hard to believe, considering that he's among the top trombonists of his generation. Valued for his smooth, technical mastery and intimate way with a ballad, Watrous has few peers among those who play the slide.
Shelly Berg, pianist and USC professor of music, who has worked closely with Watrous on his two most recent albums, says that Watrous' talent is unique.
"He's the guy so many trombonists have been emulating over the last several years," Berg said. "I play with him all the time, and he never ceases to amaze me. Playing beautifully--that's what Bill excels at."
Watrous' latest recording, "A Time for Love," is a collection of tunes written by his old friend Johnny Mandel. Combining big-band charts arranged by Sammy Nestico and combo settings arranged by Berg, the disc finds Watrous working in his favorite medium: the beautiful melody.
"I'd been wanting to do a Mandel project for some time. As a composer, I see him among the greatest that ever lived, up there with Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, Henry Mancini. His music is monumental."
The collection of Mandel songs and Watrous' previous recording, "Bone-fied," indicate he has resolved a dilemma facing him since he began recording: whether to concentrate on his own music or on standards.
"For a long time, I refused to do standards," he said. "I was very elitist. . . .
"Now, that's all different. . . . I've been sort of a late bloomer as far as content goes, as far as learning what to play."
Watrous' career began in Connecticut, where, pushed along by his father, trombonist Ralph Watrous, he played in Dixieland bands while in high school.
The young player created a splash when he first went to New York and was recruited by Kai Winding to play in the bandleader's multiple-trombone ensembles. He worked with the big bands of Quincy Jones, Maynard Ferguson and Woody Herman, as well as "The Merv Griffin Show" orchestra in the '60s. In 1971, he spent a brief period with rock band Ten Wheel Drive.
But it was his own big band, the Manhattan Wildlife Refuge, that propelled Watrous into the public eye. The Columbia album of the same name, now out of print, has become something of a cult classic with its blend of jazz and rock styles.
In 1977, Watrous moved to Los Angeles, where he was active in the studio scene while playing the local clubs and traveling to New York and Europe.
One of the major facets of his career over the past few years has been giving clinics and seminars, as he'll do at Saddleback.
"(Doing clinics) is important to perpetuating the music. There are a lot of young people out there today who don't even know what an acoustic bass sounds like, let alone a trombone," Watrous said. "I not only try to get kids interested in the trombone and what it can do, but show them the value of a skill that has to be practiced and worked on. Discipline is the key to a lot of things, not just music."
In addition to his educational work, Watrous still gets calls for specialized studio jobs. His big band, a unit he's held together for some 12 years, plays Tuesday at Moonlight Tango in Sherman Oaks. And he continues to compose, though he now prefers doing standards in the combo setting.
"I'm working more on orchestral music," said Watrous, who also worked with Leopold Stokowski and the American Symphony Orchestra in the '60s. "I've just written a piece for trombone and symphonic wind ensemble and am now finishing a romantic fantasy for trombone and orchestra that will be a real sobriety test."
Occasionally, to see if he still has the knack, he accompanies son Jason to the batting cages: "I'm beginning to get my stroke back," he said. "Every once in a while, when it starts to crank, I wonder if there's still a chance to play ball. That's one thing I love--to hit."
* Bill Watrous joins the Saddleback College Big Band tonight in the McKinney Theatre at Saddleback College, 28000 Marguerite Parkway, Mission Viejo. 8 p.m. $3 to $5. (714) 582-4656.