Out of the Case: A Little Less about the Trombone, A Little More About Music.

By Sam Burtis • November 01, 1997 • 10 min read

This will be my seventh column for the OTJ since February of this year, and as I search for a worthy topic, I'm reminded of something a very great trombonist said to me once. He was speaking of students and teaching in general, and he said "You know, it used to puzzle me... students would come to my house; I'd give them an hour lesson, tell them just about everything I know, and then two weeks later they'd come back for another lesson and I'd end up telling them the same damned thing all over again...year in and year out, the same routine, until they either got bored and changed teachers or finally figured out that the basic principles of playing the instrument aren't really all that complicated in the first place.

However, I think I've finally figured it I can tell'em all I know in under twenty minutes.

I took some lessons from John Coffey in Boston, a legendary trombonist and teacher, and his whole approach to the horn...he was quite old by the time I met him, and he'd had a lot of time to refine his techniques...could be summed up by three things he said at least once in almost every lesson..."Tongue and blow, kid, tongue and blow; that's all there is to it," "Relax, kid, it ain't gonna bite you," and, somewhere near the end of the lesson, "Have a drink, kid, have a drink." This from a man whose playing career included such disparate jobs as bass trombonist with the Boston Symphony and subbing for Tommy Dorsey on recording sessions, a real working musician and life-long teacher.

OK, what am I trying to say here...??? Playing the trombone is not all that hard??? If it's so easy, how come we can't all play like Joe Alessi or J.J. Johnson or John Coffey?

I think the problem is better stated by saying that the act of making music on the trombone...and by extension, any other TOO complicated to THINK about, while being performed...thus the need for practice, the need to separate the various acts that become "playing" into disparate, smaller elements that CAN be considered, put under a performance microscope, perfected, and then further, the often neglected need to reintegrate these parts into a larger totality called "technique," and further still into "music."

Rereading my previous articles in this series, I realize I've said just about everything I know about the trombone...unlike the musician I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I've not yet succeeded in getting it down to an hour, let alone 20 minutes...and any further articles would be a repetition of what I've already written. Therefore, at least until I discover something new about the horn that I think I understand well enough to be able to write it down, this will be my last regular column for the OTJ.

In light of what I said about concentrating fairly complex information into elegant, compact packages, I would like to end this series of columns with a group of teaching stories. Some of these are taken directly from personal experience, and thus are as close to "true" as words will allow, and some are apocryphal, stories that have probably circulated orally among musicians, in various forms, since the court musicians of the Pharaohs, and certainly since jazz began to take form in New Orleans around the turn of the century.

Here they are, in no particular order.

Someone once asked Fats Waller, the great jazz pianist and songwriter of the '30s, to define swing. His answer? "If you don't know...I can't tell you."

I once played a show where the horn section, because of space considerations, was in the balcony of a fairly large Broadway theater while the conductor and the rhythm section were in the pit. There were a couple of players in the woodwinds that absolutely could not play...not such a rarity, on Broadway, especially in the '70s...and I myself was just beginning to be able to play passably, after a major embouchure breakdown from which it took me several years to recover.

When the conductor gave a downbeat, we saw his hand fall about half a second before we heard the sound from the rhythm. Add to that the terrible pitch and sound of a couple of the musicians, and my relatively insecure embouchure, and within two days of rehearsal I had lost the ability to reliably attack any note, anywhere, any time, on the horn. Panic!!!

I was studying with the great brass teacher, Carmine Caruso, at that time, and I hurriedly made an appointment for an emergency lesson. Carmine, who was the very soul of calm and clarity in the frenetic, high pressure New York City free-lance music world, greeted me in his old, cluttered office, sat down in his old, battered easy chair, and asked me to play him his basic first exercise, which he called The Six Notes, to see for himself what was happening.

One of the basics of Carmine's approach was to let the muscles of the body find their own way into good playing, by relating highly simplified exercises that isolated small parts of brass playing to (mentally subdivided) good time, and every exercise was done to the accompaniment of your own tapped foot. I picked up my horn, started tapping my foot at the tempo I meant to play the exercise (about 60 BPM), got about three beats into the tapping, started to raise the horn to my lips, and Carmine said "Stop."

I looked at him...he looked at me...and he said, very slowly and kindly, "You're not listening to your foot."

There ensued a long pause, while I digested that one, followed by another four foot taps, followed by the first good, secure attack (on a third-partial F) I had experienced in days. Carmine smiled, said "OK, that's enough; go home and practice now." Within 20 minutes of practice all my attack problems were least for that episode. Whenever they, or any other timing problems, have ever reappeared again, I have always remembered Carmine's words..."You're not listening to your foot."

The world's shortest lesson.

A word on the difference between notation and music, from that world reknowned musician, Pablo Picasso.

Picasso was painting one of a series of works he did, using models, but painting them as if they had exploded into many dimensions simultaneously...the beginnings of what's known as Cubism, the attempt to paint a three dimensional object on a two dimensional plane in such a way that you can see it from all sides, like sculpture...and the model's husband, after several weeks of painting, dropped by one evening to see how the work was going. Picasso showed him the piece, and the man was outraged. "That looks nothing at ALL like my wife!" he said.

Picasso stepped back, eyeing the painting this way and that, and then asked "Well, what do YOU think she looks like?"

The man drew a snapshot of his wife out of his wallet, and handed it to Picasso, saying "There. THAT'S what she REALLY looks like."

Picasso looked at the photo curiously for a moment, shrugged, and handed it back to the man rather rather noncommittedly, saying only "Really? I'd no idea she was so small!"

A young tenor player...I've heard it was Wardell Grey, Lester Young, who knows who it really was, or even if it happened this way at all...was hired to join the Basie band in the late '30s. He was very talented, a great soloist, and really knew the music the band was playing, having listened extensively to it on record. During the next several months, he became one of the band's most featured players, and he was really good in the section, too.

Some months later, Basie called a rehearsal to get together some new music, and when they started playing, this guy could barely get through a bar of the new stuff without screwing up.

After a few minutes of this, Basie got up from the piano and, walking over to the tenor player, said "What's the matter with you, man...can't you read?" To which the player answered with the deathless line, " least not enough to hurt my playing."

Thelonious Monk once hired a bass player in Washington DC to do a week-long gig with his regular quartet. Now, Monk's music is known as notoriously hard to play amongst jazz musicians, especially harmonically, and this bass player found himself thoroughly challenged the first night. He took the music home, practiced it, and the second night began to feel OK with most of the pieces.

The next day he worked on the ones that were still giving him trouble, and by the third night he was comfortable with all of the tunes but one, which, no matter how he approached it, never felt right. He spent the next day working only on that tune, and the day after that too, and by the fifth night he finally felt as if he'd mastered it. After they played that particular tune on the last night of the gig, he mentioned to Monk that he had really had trouble finding his way inside that particular piece, but felt he had finally gotten it.

Monk...known for his contrary, gnomic utterances as much as for his contrary, gnomic music...growled "You played it better when you didn't know it !!!" and walked away.

Another short lesson...I had the tremendous good fortune to play regularly with Jimmy Knepper (a GREAT trombonist!!!) in various bands for a few years in and around New York City. One of the things I tried to pick up from him was his way of holding the slide, which consists of turning the wrist so that it is parallel to the body instead of the more common approach, where the wrist is turned almost at the perpendicular, and holding the slide with four or five fingers, instead of just two or three. This allows for the wrist joint to come more into play in the manipulation of the slide, plus a more positive control of the slide itself can be gained with the use of the whole hand.

It was quite an adjustment from the way I had always played before, and, being an analytical kinda guy, I started experimenting with different variations on the grip, and various ways of holding my shoulder and arm to get the best possible results.

Jimmy and I were rehearsing some really difficult music in unison and octaves with two saxes and two trumpets one day, music not really meant to be played by a trombone, with lots of quick little triplet turns and figures in the bottom of the bass clef, Cs and Bs and Bbs...and Jimmy, playing a straight tenor, was making every figure, while I, with an F attachment, was having lots of trouble playing the lines.

Finally, on a break, I started working on some of the more difficult parts, changing hand positions, trying it with my elbow out, down, up, over, using five fingers, matter what I tried, I couldn't get it. As I struggled with the music, I noticed Jimmy watching me, and asked "Jim, I just can't seem to get some of these lines. What am I doing wrong here?"

Jimmy answered...imagine Jimmy Stewart crossed with William Burroughs..."Maybe you're not moving your hand fast enough."

Of course, that's two more words, three more syllables, than Carmine needed, but it worked just as well.

A couple of song titles to chew on:

"It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing"-Duke Ellington

"It Ain't Whatcha Do, It's The Way 'Atcha Do It"-Trummy Young (ANOTHER great trombone player)

That's about enough, my meaning should be becoming clear about now. The REAL stuff almost can't be talked about, can't be said or studied, only played. All the rest is just preparation, and commentary around the edges of the unsayable.