Interview with George Roberts
I am honored to have the opportunity to interview George Roberts, Mr. Bass Trombone, who has figured so prominently in many OTJ Forum conversations and topics. A studio veteran with more than 6000 movie and recording credits, George is single-handedly responsible for bringing the bass trombone from "last chair" to solo voice with his lyrical and expressive playing.
George has been interviewed innumerable times by many different journals and magazines. We are not limited by the space constraints typically found in printed media, so this interview can be presented to you in its entirety, giving you some real insight into the man behind the horn.
I would like to thank Mr. Roberts for taking the time to talk to us, for he is very busy and his time is extremely valuable. Thanks, George!
George, when and why did you start playing the trombone?
Well, my mother, in Des Moines, Iowa asked if I wanted to go see my brother play baritone saxophone in the junior high school band. I said that would be fine. We went to Washington Irving Junior High School in Des Moines, Iowa where the band was playing and my mother asked me if I would like to play one of those instruments on stage. I told my mother that I would love to play one of those things that "goes up and down with your hands." Mother said that we should go ask the teacher. The teacher informed my mother that I would never play trombone because my arms were not long enough. The teacher put me on clarinet. I quickly replied that I did not want to play clarinet - I wanted to play trombone! I could smell the slide oil already. Anyway, I ended up playing clarinet in the school band for two years. It was really kind of funny, the way I ended up on clarinet but I just hated it!
I wanted to play trombone! So, finally, one day, I went into downtown Des Moines to the basement of this music store and up on the top shelf, was this old, dusty, beat-up trombone. Just really beat up. Now, I have to explain that we really didn't have a heck of a lot of money when we were kids (1939-1940). I started playing trombone when I was twelve. Anyway, I saw this horn and went to talk to the shop owner and asked how much he would sell that trombone for. He said that I could probably have it for five dollars.
Now my brother and I, when we wanted new bikes, would go down to the Western Auto Store and get used bikes out of the back, take them home and paint them. These were our new bikes because we couldn't afford (real) new bikes. So, I told my dad that I had found this trombone down in the basement of Des Moines Music. I told dad that it was the greatest looking horn I'd ever seen. I also told dad that, if he bought that trombone for me, I would paint it (stressing that it was only five dollars) and that I would have a "brand new" trombone and could then start playing trombone in the school band. Dad told me that he would go look at it the next day. So, all day long I kept thinking, boy, I can't wait to get home.
Anyway, I came home through the back door, not the front door. Didn't go through the living room but went straight to dad and asked if he had seen the trombone. Dad said, George, I saw that trombone and I wouldn't give a nickel for it. I said to dad, you don't love me - I want to play trombone. I've got to have a trombone! I told dad that since he didn't love me, I was running away from home! Dad said, okay, fine, I'll help you pack your bags. Anyway, I got mad and stormed up to my bedroom and noticed that it was starting to get dark outside. I packed a small bag of socks and shorts and stomped out the back door of the house. There was an alley beside our house. I got about halfway up the alley and it was getting dark and spooky, so I thought that maybe I would put off this running away idea until the next morning. So, I went back inside and informed my father that I was still running away but was putting it off until morning. I was such a fool but learned a lesson that I've never forgotten as long as I've lived.
My father said, get in the living room and sit down; I want to talk to you. So, I stomped into the living room and lying on the couch, in an open case, was a brand new trombone. It was a Super Olds. And I looked at that horn and had just made the biggest fool of myself...ever! I started crying. It still gives me funny feelings about it because that was a true love affair, my dad going down there and getting me a new trombone. Now, dad paid every month for that trombone, he couldn't afford it but he did it out of his love for me.
I thought, with dad doing this, I've got to learn to play this trombone now! He took me to Drake University, which was only six blocks from where we lived, and got Jack Dalby, who was a kid getting his trombone credentials at Drake, and asked Jack if he could teach me to play trombone. Jack said that he would teach me but told dad not to let me touch that new horn until he could talk to me, so I would know how to respect and treat the horn. My dad said fine, so finally Jack Dalby and I started doing things such as whole notes, long tones and slurs. Jack was a baritone player, too, and had the greatest baritone sound that you ever heard in your life!
Jack Dalby and Robert Marsteller played together in the LA Philharmonic and were competitors in all that was going on with the baritone back in those days. Jack said, well I won once in awhile (laughs).
One day, my father came in and said, George, get dressed. I'm going to take you down to hear a real trombone player now. Dad took me down to the Shrine Auditorium in Des Moines, Iowa, where the U.S. Marine Band, The President's Own, was playing. The main trombone soloist was Robert Isele. You know, Jerry Cimera, Arban, all those people. I was 13 and he comes out on the stage and starts playing the most amazing intricate passage...high and low...all over the place and my thoughts were like, am I going to have to play like that on my trombone? I could never do that! I immediately wanted to meet Robert Isele because when somebody plays that way, it is a reflection of their personality. I wanted to meet Robert Isele to find out what kind of a guy he was that enabled him to play that way. His technical skills were so good that he just really startled me.
I did a clinic last year at Penn State University with all my kids from six different colleges; trombone choirs and things and the Marine trombone section was there. I mentioned to some of them that all my life, I had wanted to meet Robert Isele. I wanted to sit and talk with him but I could never find out where he lived. Well, the Marines informed me that Robert Isele lived around Penn State somewhere. His understudy, Jim Erdman, overheard this conversation and called Robert Isele on the phone and handed me the phone. I said, hello, who is this? The other voice said, this is Robert Isele. I said, are you serious - I've been wanting to meet you for 60 years! I started to tell Mr. Isele about myself and Jim Erdman broke in to inform me, George, he knows who you are - he knows everything that you have ever done and he is a great fan of yours. I said, he's a fan of mine? How could that be? All my life, every day, I thought about Robert Isele. So, after I finished the clinic at Penn State with the kids, Jim Erdman said, George, get your horn, get in the car. Everybody - we're all going over to Robert Isele's house. I just couldn't believe that after all these years; I was finally going to meet Robert Isele.
So, we were driving down the street and there was this old fellow (he's 86) standing out, looking up and down the street waving to the car. I got out of the car and looked at him and said, you're Robert Isele. He said, that's right, George, and I gave him a big hug. We went into the house and talked for three hours. He is the most wonderful guy in the world. His humor - everything about him is exactly why he plays the way he does. He plays technically fantastic but he also is one of the greatest interpreters that I've ever heard in my life. He plays a song just like Frank (Sinatra) sang and, you go from one end of the trombone to the other, this is why I've always wanted to meet him, and found out that he plays that way by being the neatest, most wonderful person in the whole world. So, your playing is really a reflection of your personality. The type of person you are is the way you are going to play. I still believe this today and tell all my kids that your personality is going to dictate what you do on the horn.
You know, I've never heard a "downer" play a beautiful ballad in my life. Never. You lose if you're negative. Smile and be happy when you play and love what you're doing! That's where it's going to happen and that was Robert Isele. Anyway, I waited 60 years to meet Robert Isele, so when we got up to leave, I turned to him and said, Robert, you don't know how much this means to me, and I gave him a big hug. I stepped back to leave and noticed that he had tears coming down his face. That really shook me up because I absolutely adore the guy. He was always a dream for me of what a trombone player should be. And that's exactly what he was. That was one of the most wonderful meetings that I've ever had in my life - three hours with Robert Isele.
I played tenor trombone and was in a conservatory out here in LA. I studied composition and such and had a friend - a bass player who asked me if I wanted to go on the road? I said, what? Make money with my trombone? Oh, boy! So I left the conservatory and went on the road with a hotel band. It was just some dipsy hotel music but I was making money with my trombone. My parents were really proud of me (tongue-in-cheek) for making money with my trombone!
I was with the Ray Robbins Band in Milwaukee when I got a call from Gene Krupa's Band in Chicago. A friend of mine, a bass player (Don Simpson) from Des Moines said, George, the trombone player from Krupa's band is leaving. Would you like to come on over and play trombone with Krupa's band? Don said, I know you're over in Milwaukee and it's close. I said, you bet! I'd love to do that! So, I quit Ray Robbins' Band and joined Gene Krupa's Band in Chicago two or three weeks later. I walked in and you know who was playing 1st trombone in those years? ('47 or '48) Well, it was Urbie Green. Talk about astounded! I was about 18 or 19 years old at the time. Urbie Green, Gene Mulluns, and myself. What a bunch of skinny, little brats! To sit night after night and listen to Urbie play was one of the highlights of my life. He is one of the dearest friends that I have.
When did you make the switch to bass trombone?
I thought, at the time, that every young person should sit down by themselves and ask themselves, what the heck am I doing? What am I doing now? What should I be doing? I thought, if I'm going to play tenor trombone, I've got a lot of work to do because I don't play like Urbie Green. Urbie Green is a heck of a better trombone player than I am. I've got to find some way to be as good or equal to Urbie or I'm out of this business. I tried to examine my own playing and find something that I did better. I thought, my low notes are pretty good and my pedal tones are better than Urbie's. I said, wait a minute! If I were to get a bass trombone like Bart Barcelona (who played powerfully, like a bull. Tough. Loud. Always. Never anything beautiful like a ballad. The bass trombone, by the way, is the most beautiful ballad instrument in the world. Really, it's like velvet. It's the male voice) in Kenton's band, that might be the answer. I asked Gene if he minded if I switched to bass trombone. He said, no, go right ahead, we're going to Texas where Urbie's brother lives and we can get out some old George Williams charts and some of the Stravinsky stuff that's so good with four trombones. So, fine - I switched to bass trombone and one night Gene said, George, I've never heard you play. Go down front and play something. You know, the audience used to stand around the band, right up front. So I went down and looked at Norm Schnell, the piano player and asked him to play "Where or When", I start on a low Eb. So, I began to play and when we were finished a lot of people really started to applaud wildly. That just shook me up. Really, it did. That was the first time I had ever been in front of a big band audience. Oh, boy - I almost flipped!
I started to think, are my thoughts right? Should I be doing this more? All the time? I went back and sat down and Urbie looked at me and said, George, you're the only one I know who plays that like a trombone. POW!!! That set into me like you wouldn't believe. From that moment on, I decided that it's got to be the greatest song horn in the world. That means being a singer. I want to be Urbie Green, just an octave lower. That's exactly what I set out to do. With Kenton, later Johnny Richards; I played Stella By Starlight, Yesterdays, Alone Together, and some other things like that.
I went to Reno for awhile after Krupa's band broke up. That's where I met Sue, my wife. Kenton called me while I was in Reno. The hotel maid came in and said, there's a man on the phone named Stan Kenton who wants to talk to you. So, I grabbed the phone and Stan asked me if I wanted to join his band. I was screaming, YES!!! into the phone.
So, I started preparing myself by memorizing about six or seven of Kenton's tunes. You know, the bass trombone parts. Sue and I would go outside - I would practice outside to try to build up my lung capacity. After playing with the show band and the hotel band, I needed some lung capacity in order to survive with Stan. So, I would go outside and practice long tones and stuff.
We were on the road for some time and I wrote a terrible chart. Johnny Richards heard it (during this period, he wrote Stella By Starlight and all these other great tunes) and wasn't real impressed. You know, the song things were the key, even with Kenton. The musicians who went down front with Kenton, like Maynard (Ferguson) were playing triple high C's and enough notes to choke a mule. When I went down front, it was always "dah, dahdah, daaahhh, dahdah" from some beautiful ballad. The audience always loved my ballads. The rest of the players would say, that little so-and-so! They were playing their tails off and I was just standing there playing my long tone ballads.
I thank Urbie in so many different directions for that time I came back after playing my solo, for telling me that I'm the only one who plays the bass trombone like a trombone. Well, it is a trombone! Bass trombone shouldn't have a sound like a baritone or a tuba, or anything. It's a trombone sound. Bass trombone should be resonant and project. The direction I went was to put that trombone sound together with songs.
Along that line, can you give us your thoughts about the importance of sound?
For myself, I honestly believe that you've got to have the greatest sound in the world. If somebody's going to hire you as a trombone player, they're hiring you because of the fantastic sound that you have. Unless you're into real intricate jazz or that type of thing but even then, I think, the great jazz players, the really good ones...Urbie, Watrous all have great sound (pounds the table for emphasis). Sound, to me, is the number one most important thing you can do. Get the greatest sound in the world and learn what to do with it. It has to be that way.
Why do I think the bass trombone represents the male voice? I was with Sinatra for so long. Where he sang is where I'm talking. Where you're talking. That is the bass trombone lyrical range. Too many bass trombone players want to be smart and play everything down an octave. You kill the song that way because you can't get out of the hole. You've got to put yourself into the lyrical range of the horn or you won't be able to play with it.
Do you feel that was part of Frank's success, as well? That he recognized how closely the average person could identify with his sound?
Absolutely! I have always felt and thought that Frank Sinatra was one of the greatest trombone teachers who ever lived. If you listen to his phrasing, the way you say what you play...there's the big one. Say it the right way with a great sound - and I think that's a bass trombone!
And that's the best thing I can say about sound. Long tones and slurs. I've been saying that all of my life. You know, kids often ask me, how do you do that? Play a slow ballad, that's the greatest way to play long tones and slurs that you can find. Make a song out of your long tones. Sing, sing, sing! That's my feeling about long tones and the importance of a musical, song-like approach to playing the bass trombone.
There was a time, when I first went out to LA...one of the big contractors who did most of the hiring, he worked for Bobby Helfer. He wouldn't really hire me at the very beginning because I was a jazzer. Oh, he thought that a jazzer couldn't play legitimate or semi-legit, like they do on motion pictures. Like, all these big pictures had Alfred Newman and Elmer Bernstein, and all that. He thought, George couldn't possibly do that.
So, I'm sitting at home one morning. This was a big turning point in my life, it really was. It was about 8:30 in the morning and I get this phone call, and this is how Helfer was (in a very business-like voice), Mr. Roberts, what are you doing right now. I replied, I'm having an unemployed cup of coffee. Helfer said, how long would it take you to get in your car with your bass trombone, your bag of mutes, and everything else that you carry and get down to Radio Recorder's Annex? How long will it take you to get down here? I said, about 40 minutes. Helfer said, get all your stuff, put it in the car and be at Radio Recorder's in 40 minutes. Buzzzzzz. And he hung the phone up. I thought, good Lord. I ran and got my stuff and put it in the car and I was there in 30 minutes!
I walked in the door and there's the LA Philharmonic sitting there. The bass trombonist had gotten up and walked out on Helfer and Igor Stravinsky. This is insanity, you just don't do that! Some of the players convinced Helfer to "try the new kid" (me). Anyway, I was told, get back there, sit down, and play. I went back, looked at what I had to play and I thought, well, all I can do is look at the part and count like heck. I had to play a solo with the harp, which was all the way across the room. I already knew that the sound delay was going to be a son-of-a-gun but Stravinsky began to conduct and we got a little way in and he stopped and said, he (George) is right and you're wrong (harpist) - play with him! We made the date that (snaps fingers) fast.
When the date was over everybody was saying, George, great! Way to go! Helfer was just frowning, furious, sitting against the wall. Everybody thought it was just fabulous, what I had done and I had just saved Bobby Helfer from a guy walking out on one of his calls with Igor Stravinsky. That, I'll never forget. It didn't really hit me because it happened so fast. If I had known what I was walking into, I might not have been able to pull it off. On the way home, I started thinking about Helfer, Igor Stravinsky, and the music business and I started shaking in the car. It really would have blown me if I had known what I was walking into. I worked for Bobby Helfer from that day forward. The other guy didn't. You don't get up and walk out, no matter how good you think you are. There's always somebody around the corner waiting.
Smile and be a happy individual - that's the way I feel about it. I am so thankful for that opportunity because what actually happened was me playing that thing with Bob Kraft and Igor Stravinsky (Kraft was the conductor) was that it opened up television, motion pictures, and everything else for me in LA.
I went out looking for a job one day and passed by Capitol Records. Well, Lee Gillette was the biggest A & R man at Capitol at the time. He used to come out and record Kenton - he was the money behind the Kenton recordings. Lee used to come out and record us on the road and he liked me. He used to come up and talk to me during breaks because he liked bass trombone, he liked the sound. If you think about it, an A & R man is always looking for new sounds. Anyway, I had always thought Lee was an Engineer because he was always sitting at the controls, playing with knobs.
So, I went into Capitol to see Lee. A & R man? What's an A & R man? I was just going to see my friend Lee, the Engineer. I asked the receptionist if I could see Lee Gillette and she said, let me call Mr. Gillette's office and see if he is available. I thought, Mr. Gillette? Office? What's this all about? The receptionist sent me up to see Lee and I was petrified. I thought Lee would just be in a back room fiddling with electronics. So, I started walking toward Lee's office and when I got there, the door was open and Gillette was sitting there, talking with some guy at his desk. I was so scared that I continued walking right on by. Well, he saw me walk by and he got up and said, George, my office is back here. What are you doing back here? I said, well, Sue is having a baby and I didn't want to be on the road with the band with a baby on the way, so I came home to see if I could make it in LA. Lee said, come in, I've got somebody I want you to meet: Nelson (Riddle), this is George Roberts. We sat down to talk and became inseparable friends for a million years, Nelson and I.
What Nelson Riddle opened up was the sound, the melody - being a time player, a melody player was the thing that opened up the music business for bass trombonists. Nelson was a big benefactor of ours. Nelson and I talked for so many years that it's ridiculous, about the horn and the way to write for it. I remember once telling Nelson that bass trombone is the best melody horn in the world and he said, you must have the heart of an elephant! I thanked Nelson for the compliment and repeated that bass trombone really is the best melody horn in the world. About eight years later, Nelson did The Joy of Living album. After we finished The Joy of Living album, I couldn't wait to get up to the podium where he was standing and say, Nelson, you must have the heart of an elephant!
The personal friendship of Nelson Riddle and I was a long, long thing. This relationship was one of the most important things that could have happened for all of us bass trombone players because when I got out to LA there were only two or three guys and some doublers who just played a note every once in awhile. Not really bass trombone players. All of a sudden, things started changing. Like, somebody would write something really hard for bass trombone, which meant they were going to have to hire a bass trombone player, not just a doubler. This caused the business to really grow for us. That's what I worked toward for a long time.
This enhanced visibility for the bass trombone generated increased interest among composers and arrangers, once they understood the capabilities of the instrument.
Absolutely! Nelson, bless his heart, out of that meeting with Gillette and the thing with Helfer and Stravinsky and all that kind of stuff - if you put all of that stuff together, there's where your commercial business came from for all of us bass trombone players. From one to thousands!
In an excerpt from the book, September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle, it is stated, "Almost immediately, Nelson began to make use of Roberts' unique sound on Nat Cole recording dates. As Paul Tanner observed, "George played delicately and pretty on a clumsy instrument, he really opened up the bass trombone business".
Nelson Riddle had the guts to expose the horn. The bass trombone had to be exposed in the right way. If it wasn't exposed, you're not going to get called. If nobody knows what it does, then, where are you?
Nelson had an identity, a voice. Nobody in the world wrote beautifully, like Nelson Riddle did, for bass trombone, flute, harmon mute trumpet, big strings and stuff like that. And, then there was his melodic brilliance. When you hear one of the bass trombone things or bass trombone with that harmon mute and flute, people immediately recognize that as Nelson Riddle.
George, could we discuss the trombones that you have played - what horn you started on, what you have played, and what you are playing now?
Well, when I first started, I played a 70H Conn with the tuning-in-the-slide. I'm not Tommy Dorsey, so I don't need a feather-light slide. I found that, sometimes, the weight actually helped me. In those days, there were only two pro horns available for bass trombone players: Bach and Conn. I started working with different companies. These days, every company makes a pretty darned good bass trombone.
It wasn't my egotism that caused the Roberts Model Olds. That was Reg Olds. The reason he wanted my name on the horn was that Olds had a reputation, at the time, for only building the student model Ambassador. Reg felt that if a name player would help him build a bass trombone, that he could break into the pro line. Zig Kanstul was there and we built a prototype, with a copy of the old Conn Schmidt bell, a copied Remington leadpipe, and various other copied parts.
Every time I participated in developing a new horn, one thing that stayed with me was the leadpipe. My leadpipe wasn't that different but I didn't want to feel alienated with a new leadpipe. I don't like ultra-dark sounds. In symphony orchestras, for example, conductors want a dark, heavy sound. Okay, then, that's what you have to do. I chose more of a commercial sound. Lighter, singing...that type of a thing.
Zig Kanstul called me up a long time ago and said, George, I've got a factory in Anaheim. I'm making bass trombones and I'd love to have you come out and look at them. I finally went out one day and walked through the building, asking if Zig was there. Zig saw me and said, George, wait a minute! He ran across the factory to a card table where there was a bass trombone bell sitting on a stand and a slide lying there. He put them both together, brought them over and asked if I had brought my mouthpiece. I played it and looked at Zig and said, at 76, I need a new horn like a hole in the head but I'm going to take it! That's just what I told him - he's an old friend from years ago.
The Kanstul quality control is great. If I could say anything to bass trombone players, they should try his horns - he's got single triggers and double triggers and everything like that. All bass trombones; Conn, Bach, Holton, Kanstul, Olds, everybody makes bass trombones. We only had two at the beginning. That all changed and I think it's because of songs and sound and that's part of what created the business for bass trombone players.
The Kanstul you play - isn't it more or less a 60H clone?
It looks like the old 70H but I think really down deep it's more of a single trigger 62H. It looks like that, with a 9.5-inch bell, the tuning is in the top slide tube (you don't even know it's there), the bell is seamless with no unnecessary locking mechanisms and it is very vibrant. When you pick the horn up and play, you'll find out real fast. The neat thing for all the guys around here is that Zig is just up in Anaheim. Nobody knew that before and they should know about it because he's got a great product.
I haven't played a horn that plays like the Kanstul horn for years and they are excellent, excellent horns. I'm throwing that in because Zig waited nearly two years for me to come out and say hello and I thought that was pretty nice.
I remember my buddy with the LA Philharmonic, Jeff Reynolds, came up to me once and said, you know, you're the reason I play bass trombone. A few years later, all these double triggers were flying around and I've never played a double trigger in my life. I did the whole business, everything that I've ever played on a single trigger bass trombone. Jeff came up to me one day after a real tough session and he said, you son-of-a-gun! You knew all this time that the double trigger didn't mean a darned thing. Jeff said, you're still playing the single trigger, aren't you? I said, yeah, when you play a concert with the Philharmonic which horn do you play? And he said, the single trigger Bach. I said, that's what I thought!
There's a lot of opinion on the different styles of horns that companies make. It's important that they all make horns for us. For you, me , Jeff. We have more of a choice than one or two horns. Everybody else does, why not bass trombone?
George, know that you favor the single trigger bass trombone and have worked your entire career on one. What are your thoughts about double valve and single valve bass trombones?
Well, I'm a little prejudiced that way. Single triggers are light and I'm an old man! When I pick up a double trigger, I fall over on my side. I'm kidding but I just like the single trigger - it's light, more resonant. When somebody hands me a double trigger, I get about half way through the material and I have to put the horn down and shake my hand to get the blood back into it. Double valves are just too heavy.
I have always thought, what in the heck is the point of doing this? Why don't I play a single trigger horn like I've always played and not bother with this? Well, you know, I get cramps from the weight of the double trigger and it drives me crazy. I just didn't want to bother worrying about a physical thing with my hand because I'm not King Kong, you know!
You just sound like King Kong!
Not the original, maybe the second one - thanks a lot! Mainly with the double trigger, it's the weight. I like a horn that projects. Heavy, heavy horns are dark. To me, their sound goes sideways and I want my sound to go straight ahead. My new Kanstul is very light and responsive. It really resonates.
Mark Lawrence, principal trombonist of the San Francisco Symphony, came out to a BonesWest rehearsal and the guys asked me to play something with the group after Mark's clinic was finished. So, I played and he came up afterward and asked to try my horn. Mark picked it up and played it and remarked, I could play this anywhere. Evidently, he ordered one, too. It's a matter of opinion, you know, whether you like dark sounds or light sounds or what sound you're being paid to produce. Sometimes, you have to accommodate. If you know how to accommodate all of the various situations, you're in business.
What about mouthpieces, George?
I have a mouthpiece that Burt Herrick made for me years and years ago. I played a 1.5G Bach for years and Burt made me an oversized 1.5G that I just loved. I played the Herrick for a long time, then went with Conn for awhile. Conn made a copy of Burt's oversized 1.5G, which I liked. I thought that was just great.
I am now playing a Kanstul GR. That is basically the same Conn mouthpiece, which is basically the oversized 1.5G that I played for so many years. So, it goes all the way back, nothing dramatically different. Zig said, I've copied everything else for you, so I might as well make the mouthpiece, too! I like it every bit as well as what I had been playing before. I like everything, the mouthpiece, the horn...they work just great for me.
You have discussed the importance of long tones and lip slurs in your developmental years. What sort of warm-up routine do you use to get ready for a performance?
Long tones, long tones, long tones! Some slurs. But everything is played real soft. I don't start off by blowing real loud. I know some people do but I don't. Lloyd Ulyate, my dearest friend (who passed away just recently) and I were playing a date. Anyway, when it came time to warm up, I started my soft, long tones and noticed that Lloyd was playing even softer and longer. Daaaahhhh, daaaahhhh, you know. Over on the other side of the room, was Dick Nash, and he was playing, like, doodleoodle dee. All over the upper stratosphere. That was his warm-up! Lloyd looked at me and said, George, you know that you and I have to get a new warm-up. Dick's only been here five minutes and he's already earned his pay for the night. We haven't done anything! That was really very funny. Lloyd was such a dear friend of mine.
There again: a sound player. Dick Nash: sound player. Eddie Cusby: sound player. Dick Nole: sound player. Keep going down the line: sound, sound, sound. How do you get that? By playing long tones and slurs! That isn't going to change ever, I don't think.
The manufacturers are all making great horns now - they all are. Doug Yeo, with the Boston Symphony, plays a Yamaha and sounds fabulous. I called Doug when he accepted that job; to tell him how pleased I was that one of the young guys had taken over a John Coffee tradition. That one of the young players took over one of the old-timer's, stronghold chairs. That Doug would have a family and a life, like every normal human being could have. I am really proud of Doug for getting in there and doing that.
Doug and I are very dear friends. I just saw him in Ithaca at the festival. Zig had asked me to go to the ITF and just sit at the Kanstul table. One of the guys asked Doug to try the Kanstul bass trombone. So, Doug came up and started playing a real pretty song and I said, give me the horn! You know - just kidding!
A lot of the playing on a single trigger horn is physical. The horn is light and I can last all night! I do a thing down here, at the Coronado Ferry Landing, where I play for two straight hours. If I were playing a double trigger horn, I couldn't last the two hours. My hand would never last. How about a six-hour date, that's the same thing. I just never played a double trigger bass trombone, mainly because it hurt my hand and I didn't need it. That's basically why I didn't do that...
I think they're writing a lot more for double trigger bass trombone, whatever that means. They can write more notes, different combinations of positions and things like this with valves and such. What the heck does that mean? Are they going to write more mechanically now than they were before?
I think that's true. What I've seen happening is that composers and arrangers are attempting to make the music meet the technical capabilities of the instrument and it simply means that they are plugging more (low) B naturals into the music.
Well, that's right. I still think that we should place more emphasis on the music and less on technical and mechanical processes.
George, you once mentioned to me the importance of "placing" pedal tones into a tune such that they are musically tasteful and not in a manner that blows everyone's hair off.
When I first started attending the ITA's, years and years ago, I played "Send in the Clowns", which is a Sinatra thing. After playing this very nice, soft piece, the very last note of the whole piece is an Eb pedal tone. I played it almost like a breath. Just extremely soft with a decrescendo, until it simply disappeared. If you play that Eb loud, you just destroy the whole tune that you played! If you play an Eb pedal tone like velvet, they'll eat you alive! And they will!
You know, when youngsters see a pedal tone written on the page, they just hit it, like BAM! One of the most important things that I could say to kids is to be absolute masters of simplicity. Sound. Time. Inception. All the simple things. Do the simple things really just fabulous - you'll have 95% of the business, if you do! There's only 5% of this business that's stark terror. You never know when that's coming but if you're a master of simplicity, you will do just fine. If you listen to TV and motion pictures - you can play that - the music is not all that hard! You have to have a great sound.
Master of simplicity, great sound - you've heard these trumpet players such as Malcom McNabb play something in the middle of an Alfred Newman piece...daahhh, deehhh, daahhh (large intervals). Real soft. Not a clam. Where are those trumpet players today? Well, there are very few and it's just like with trombonists - masters of simplicity who have great sound and can control their instruments. I think that really is true.
You mentioned that one's sound is a reflection of their personality - when you play a beautiful ballad, what goes through your mind? How do you approach the tune?
The first thing I think of when I play a beautiful ballad is that I want my wife, Suzanne, sitting about ten feet in front of me. If I play her a beautiful, soft ballad and she closes her eyes while I'm playing, then I just won. If she doesn't close her eyes, I'm not sure if she liked it, or not. That applies to anyone who's listening to you. I want to have a love affair with the horn. Like Sinatra - I want to play like Frank sang.
What other vocalists do you emulate in your playing?
Tony Bennett. Sarah Vaughn, oh, man! She was a good friend of mine, bless her heart. Nat Cole. He was absolutely magnificent! They were wonderful vocalists but the key guys were Frank and Tony. If you can play like those two guys, with a great sound, with their conception of playing the song, you'd be a heck of a trombone player. You really would! Put some headphones on and really get into listening to the good vocalists sing and the way they phrase.
How do they get their vibrato? You can actually take your handslide and, with hardly any motion, replicate the truly great vocalists, completely in character. You listen to all that stuff and realize that their vibrato is not distorted like "WAH, WAH, WAH, WAH, WAH" or ultra fast like "bababababa". It's very subtle, smooth, and in character. It adds but does not detract from the song.
I've got four CD's from Irv Kratka (Music Minus One). They have about 100 Frank Sinatra backgrounds with strings. Although they are "canned", you still get the same feeling as if the performance were really live. That's what I play here, at the Coronado Ferry Landing. You could play for four hours from those CD's. These CD's are good enough that you still get the same feeling of playing with live background.
If a little kid from Des Moines, Iowa went home one night and played "Here's That Rainy Day" that Sinatra did and he goes into his bedroom, takes his horn out, puts that CD on...his parents sitting in another part of the house are going to go straight through the ceiling. That's how he's going to learn how to be what we're talking about. That's only one means to do it. This way, a bass trombone player can be self-contained.
How am I going to survive in this industry with all of the electronics taking over the field? I thought, if you can sing to what Irv's got, you can play to it. That's my library for down here. Everybody loves this stuff because they've all heard it and they know where it comes from. Just sit down and pound out some lead sheets.
George, if you would tell us a little bit about your time in the Navy?
Well, I'll tell you, the Navy was interesting. I went to boot camp at Great Lakes at age 17. One morning we got up and the wind was absolutely howling and we were going out to play for colors at 6 am. So we marched out there and my hands were just freezing to death. I dropped my slide and the band marched over it! The Chief saw this and said, Roberts, come into my office as soon as you finish. He said, I'm giving you a new horn and oil to put on the slide, a plastic mouthpiece, and gloves. You're going to play colors every morning for the rest of your life!
I took all the steps at Great Lakes in order to get into the Navy music program which I thought would be a good thing to do. I had to wait for my orders to come because I was in for two years. The Chief called me in and said that my orders were in but if I accepted them, I would have to commit for an additional year. Well, I wanted to get out, so I could go on the road with a big name band. The next morning, I was in the draft for Guam, so I spent two years on Guam! I had my mother send my old, beat-up valve trombone and I put together a little band that played at the Officer's Club on Guam. You know, we planted coconut trees and stuff like that...
When I got out and returned to Des Moines, and went straight out to a conservatory on the GI Bill, to learn more about music and the music business. I wanted to learn faster, rather than spending another four or five years learning this stuff in college, which is sometimes okay and sometimes not. At the conservatory, I met a guy who got me my first paying job and I was actually making money playing the trombone. I thought, hey, this is really great!
After this job, I returned to Des Moines and got the call to play in Milwaukee. All the jobs that you get in the music business are basically from friends...my friend from the conservatory got me the job in Milwaukee. From Milwaukee, I got the offer from Krupa. When Krupa's band broke up in Chicago, I went to Reno. After a year in Reno playing show bands, I got the call from Kenton to see if I would come out to LA. Bob Fitzpatrick and Mel Burne were the two friends who got me into that band. They knew that I could play because they knew me when I was with Krupa and Urbie. We'd hang out once in awhile. It's your friends who will get you all of your jobs.
What type of thing do you like to do away from the horn? Any hobbies?
Well, I love photography! I haven't really had time to get totally involved with it very much any more but, boy, I really love photography - it's a great art form. What I really like is black and white photography. You can be so expressive in the black and white medium. If I didn't have this trombone thing, I'd probably find some way to be involved with photography, you know, because it provides an opportunity for self-expression. You can enlarge a negative and get eight or nine different pictures from that blow-up, especially if you have good negatives.
It was Urbie who got me started on photography. Then he went with Woody Herman's band years ago and left the band. I said, Urbie, what the heck am I going to do with all of this photo equipment you sold me! We used to mess with our photo equipment at night on the road. That was a lot of fun!
George, you mentioned, that as you have "matured", it has become more difficult to hold up heavy horns. Are there any other adjustments that you have made over the years, in order to keep playing?
I can tell you right now that, anyone who is honest with themselves, knows their own strengths and weaknesses better than anybody in the whole world. I know my weaknesses better than anybody. You know that I have been playing for the past ten years down here in Coronado playing beautiful ballads. Playing long tones and slurs - that is the way I am going to leave the business. It's the way I came into the business.
To play for two straight hours, playing every tune is not that easy. I feel that now, physically. But I know how to lie about it! And cheat. And connive. Playing in the staff for two straight hours - that's a real workout! I'll say, oh look, here comes an F above the staff and I just play "baaahhh", you know. I didn't have to play that high F - it becomes an F in the staff!
What advice do you have for aspiring your trombonists who want to break into the business?
Try to get the greatest sound that you can and learn how to play tunes. You will know how well you are doing. Remember, I said that we are all the masters of our own strengths and weaknesses? You'll know if you are playing it right or wrong. That's where you are going to start asking so many questions. I think the idea of being a sound player and a song player is the greatest way to begin.
Upon showing George a photo of Bill Watrous, he noticed that Bill was carrying a plastic garbage bag.
You know, I probably shouldn't do this but you see that plastic garbage bag? Watrous and I used to play a lot of dates and we sat next to each other. One night, I saw a piece of paper on the floor and I threw it under his chair. He would wait for a couple of takes, and throw two pieces under my chair. This went on and on until there was this great mound of garbage being thrown back and forth under our chairs! Well, the contractor is not very happy and says, you guys are going to stay here until that mess is cleaned up! Not smart to do but we've been doing that for years. You know, Watrous, Marcellus and I are the best garbage players in the whole world! Oh, we do terrible things to each other. We really do!
George, you have a bass trombone method that was put out several years ago. What skills should young bass trombonists be focusing on? (Let's Play Bass Trombone)
That's the book that Paul Tanner and I did together. The book starts off as simple as possible but gradually gets more involved. There again, is that thing about long tones and slurs. You can see that developing from the first pages of the book, where there's nothing but long tones: whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes. Play slowly and precisely with great accuracy and focused sound. This way, you get a great sound before moving onto anything else.
There is one exercise in the back of the book that came from Frank Comstock's Pattern album. It is graduated down in half steps in my book. That was a special lick that I wanted to include in the book - a drill that I have used for my own playing.
How did you tune your horn for recordings such as Meet Mr. Roberts and Bottom's Up?
I love playing in Bb/F because that's easy to tune and leave set up that way. I had a habit, for fifty ears, of scanning a chart and looking ahead. If I saw a wide-open low B natural sitting there, a whole note, then I would pull to E. If I had to play it in E, then I would do so. I looked for B naturals. If it was in eighth notes, I would lip it down because you'll feel the note but you won't hear it. You know, that's really true - you didn't really hear that B but you felt it. That's the way I played for fifty years. I could always catch the low C out in flat seven.
What are your thoughts about playing with Stan Kenton from 1951 to 1953?
You know, when I was a kid, the two bands I wanted to play with were Woody Herman and Stan Kenton. Ultimately, I got with Kenton and Krupa. Kenton was always a thrill because that first ensemble sound was always so powerful; it could really just knock you out! You don't forget that - it's a sound you want to be around all your life. My dream bands were Woody Herman and Kenton. So, I was fortunate to get with Krupa and Kenton.
Who do you like to listen to?
I like to put on the phones and listen to a lot of the Don Costa/Riddle stuff that they did for Sinatra and listen to the backgrounds and the way they interpreted things. That's been my whole act for so long and I love to do that with phones and get right inside the orchestra. I sit there and think about the song and emulate the voice. You can even work your slide hand, to get the right feel and especially the vibrato. I have some very strong, intimate memories of playing this music and I can really get a good feeling from these recordings.
There's a sort of escalation in trombone size going on - they keep getting bigger and bigger. What are your thoughts about the "bigger is better" argument?
Times have changed. My own feeling is that bass trombone is still just a trombone and it should sound like a trombone. It shouldn't sound like a baritone or a tuba. It should be a trombone. That means that you should be able to sing and whack notes just like a tenor trombone. The first order is that bass trombone should still have a trombone sound - to me, that's the important thing. If you get too dark or too big, you can only play with certain groups.
Most students in conservatories and schools of music are intentionally directed toward that big, dark orchestral sound. Given your experience with commercial music, is there a danger in this?
I think that they'll take care of business. They will hear things that they really like and will need to work toward that type of sound, to grab hold of it. If they hear one thing and one thing only, such as legitimate symphony music, then that's what they'll end up playing. Now, you listen to Doug Yeo, who can instantly transition from symphony playing to a big band style just as easily as anything. You should never say, I don't want to play this style because that's the only thing that I like. You need to play everything. Everything. Or, you won't work!
Of all the sound tracks on which you've played, what is your favorite?
I just got a sheet the other day that said I had played on over 6000 recordings over 50 years. I'm very proud of that! You know, John Williams is a very dear friend - used to be a trombone player. Do you remember the album Bottom's Up? Well, John Williams was the piano player on that album. Yes, John wrote all the arrangements, too.
Jaws. The movie Jaws is my favorite. As the movie starts, all you see is the ocean and you hear some very soft, subtle long tones. Very, very soft. You kind of feel, in your chair, that something is about to happen. You almost want to turn around to see if something is sneaking up on you, it is so very soft. Of course, I played the violent shark scenes, too, but those soft long tones, early on the movie were the most dramatic. I have never forgotten the feeling I got from playing on that soundtrack. I just loved it. I like all of the Jaws pictures, except when the shark got up on deck of the boat and started eating people!
What do you see in the future of big bands and live orchestras? Where are they headed?
I don't know. I pray for all of the young people that the big bands will come back some day but it will have to be the young people who bring them back. I don't know where that's going to come from. The college big band is the savior for all of the kids who want to play in commercial music. It's the only place they have to play any more.
My young friend down at North Texas State told me that he couldn't get big band jobs for his best students, like he used to. It's just so expensive to put a big band on the road and there isn't any market. He said, I just don't think I'd be doing my students any favors by putting them on the road because it's not like it used to be.
We don't have the big names standing down in front of big bands any more. If you loved Kenton, you loved his band. If you loved Woody Herman or Tommy Dorsey, it was the same thing. If you loved the leader, you loved their band. Those opportunities have pretty much dried up. There isn't much chance of moving from one band to another like there used to be. There might be one opportunity in a lifetime and you are forced to stay with it. Remember, there was a time in my life when I had to stop going out on the road. People want to start families and have normal lives...
What are your thoughts about embouchure shifts?
Well, believe it or not, I have an embouchure shift. Not all over the mouthpiece but I can play a single embouchure down to about a G pedal tone. From the G pedal tone and down below, with a single embouchure, I would start to disappear. So, I pivot off the bottom lip and get more of my top lip into the mouthpiece and then I use a crossover thing where I can play from Eb pedal tone to G and am able to play a Bb pedal (up or down), AA, AAb, and the rest of the way down. If I hadn't been able to do that, I could not have played the F pedal tone with Henry Mancini, when I first went to LA. The high embouchure thing is what I'm talking about. You can just scream - Mancini said, that's what I want!
If I hadn't had the means of doing that, with the embouchure shift, that wouldn't have happened. So, I do have an embouchure shift in the pedal register that I can manipulate.
We all know that you sing through your horn but do you sing, yourself?
When I was a little kid, I sang in the choir and I learned to sing words and notes and melodies. That's where much of this came from. My brother-in-law, Vern Grant, had a little band. My first taste of politics came from my mother. Mother asked Vern, is there any way you can get little Georgie into your band? Vern said, if George can play a song, I'll put him in. Vern gave me a songbook and told me to learn the songs. It wasn't too hard because I had been singing in the Church choir. Shortly after that, I heard a Tommy Dorsey album and that ignited me on playing melodies.
Has there been any push to get Meet Mr. Roberts and Bottom's Up reissued?
Yes, even John Williams tried to get it done. Sony bought the rights from Columbia.
At this point, several of George's many friends and fans in Coronado recognized him and stopped by to say hello. It would be an understatement to say that George has an adoring audience. In fact, many of the questions that I have asked came from OTJ Forum members in Australia, Canada, Germany, Great Britain, The Netherlands, Scotland, and Sweden. He has truly reached an international audience.
George, what are your thoughts about breath support and breath control - airflow management?
Kids come up to me all the time and ask these questions. I tell all of my kids that you must always take as much air as you can - you can't exhale and start playing. Otherwise, there won't be anything there and you start shaking. That's the fastest way to explain why you need to take a big gut full of air. If you don't, everything is going to shake. This explanation really works with kids because, if they exhale before playing, they have nothing.
What is your favorite aspect of the bass trombone - what do you like most about it?
The sound. I used to get an absolute thrill in a 90-piece orchestra, coming in on a low C. You know, Baahhh! Just one note to lay the foundation for the entire orchestra. I would get a kick out of the strings, complaining that they had to work their tails off and all I had to play was one note and go home!
Which players over the years impressed you most with their talent and work ethic?
Joe Howard, Lloyd Ulyate, Dick Nash, Eddie Cusby, Dick Noel, I can go on down the line of guys that I worked with when I first came out to LA. They were the greatest guys on earth - they taught me how to play - the best trombone players you've ever heard in your life but nobody's ever heard of them. They were the players in motion pictures, television, radio...all the recordings.
From whom did you learn the most about commercial playing and the commercial music industry?
Well, it's that same group of people I just mentioned. When I first came out to LA, I realized that every note I played was not going to be a solo. I had to be able to bend because, when you play a date and have four trombones, they're going to rotate the lead parts amongst themselves. I had to be able to bend as each of those guys took the lead part, to support the different way that each one of them played. That's key for the bottom of the trombone section, for the bottom of the orchestra. I had to be the absolute epitome of pitch, to be the foundation for the orchestra and to flow with the shift in lead players. When the lead player changed, I'd go right along with him.
What major changes have you noticed in big bands and commercial music from when you started to where we are today?
I miss the feeling of the big band and the camaraderie I had with the players and personalities. The incredible vocalists. There's nothing like standing in front of a big band. Where the heck can you go to play in front of a big band? Kids these days just don't have anywhere to learn and there is not really a viable way to make a living playing that type of music. It's pathetic that such a large part of our culture has simply disappeared.
What I miss most is live music and the opportunity to share music with large groups of people. People used to come out to dance and really made live music a part of their lives.
George's final thoughts...
I love all of you trombone players and wish you the best of luck. There are many ways to approach playing the trombone and I have told you my way that has been pretty successful. Put yourself into this and make some beautiful music. The more of yourself that you dedicate to making beautiful music, the better you will play and the more enjoyment you will get out of it.
Besides my family, trombone has been the biggest thing for me since the age of twelve. Sing with your horn and make beautiful music. For yourself and for others. I love all of you kids and just pray that there will still be a music business for you!
Thank you so much, George, for taking the time away from your busy schedule to spend some time with us! It has been a true honor for me to see you again and to spend this time with you. The Online Trombone Journal readership is most appreciative of this opportunity to read your thoughts and get to know you better.