Part 1 of Gambit Weekly's Music Issue.
By Kevin Forest Moreau
NOVEMBER 10, 1997: In the French Quarter, where street musicians ply their wares for spare change dropped into a hat, passersby tend to take the trombone for granted as part of the everyday routine. In the Ninth Ward, the instrument is so ingrained into the culture of second-line parades or the joyful, sad celebrations of the jazz funeral that it sometimes blends into the background.
The farther you get from those neighborhoods, however, the more likely you are to notice that something is definitely in the air. Uptown, for example, you can hear trombones blaring inside Carrollton Station and other rock clubs, almost inconspicuous in the mix of searing guitar riffs and pounding drums. At the Howlin' Wolf, on the edge of the Warehouse District, you can hear it seamlessly weaving its way into the life-affirming rhythms of chicken-strut funk. And at Donna's Bar & Grill or the Funky Butt on Rampart Street, you can't help but hear the trombone blend with smartly delivered "street beats" and raps to produce a fresh new sound.
No doubt about it, New Orleanians are hearing the trombone in ways they've never heard it before. Slowly but surely, the instrument is enjoying a surge in popularity above and beyond its hallowed place in the canon of traditional jazz, R&B and classical music.
Newer brass combos such as ReBirth and the New Orleans Nightcrawlers are following the lead of pioneers like the Dirty Dozen by pushing the envelope of traditional brass into funk and R&B territories.
Local players like Mark Mullins and Mark McGrain are expanding the instrument's reach into non-traditional genres, including rock 'n' roll. And "brass-hop" sensation Coolbone has married the sound of brass, including the trombone, with the contemporary sounds of hip-hop and rap, thereby lending the trombone its new street-level credibility. On a national level, that cred is expanding to alternative radio playlists and rotation on MTV, thanks to the popularity of horn-driven ska bands such as the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and the swinging Harlem-era jazz of the Squirrel Nut Zippers.
The trombone, an instrument some people think of as the consolation prize for junior high school musicians, is experiencing a renaissance. Even more important, it's becoming cool. Call it trombone chic; call it the "'bone zone." But don't call it a passing fad. The trombone is loud and raucous, delicate and sensuous all at the same time. And it's getting louder.
An entrance into popular culture and, by extension, national consciousness would be a worthy accomplishment for any brass or reed instrument. (Of them all, the saxophone is the only one to find a consistent niche across the musical spectrum.) But such a feat is especially remarkable when you consider the history of the trombone.
The 'bone's ancestor was the "sackbut," a German instrument made from brass tubing that expanded to a bell at one end and was capped with a mouthpiece at the other. The 16th century innovation was used for church music and to provide the spooky sounds required for "supernatural" scenes in opera. Needless to say, the masters of the sackbut weren't beating back the groupies. By the 19th century, the trombone (as it had grown to be called) had earned a spot in most symphony orchestras, but it was still a long way from possessing any sex appeal. It wasn't until the 20th century, when jazz turned the world on its ear, that trombone players finally earned some hipster cred. People began to wake up to the instrument's virtues -- its saucy slide, it's great range and its unmistakable bleating attack. And the trombone's valveless design made it perfect for the loopy experiments of early Dixieland pioneers and other visionaries.
Even then, however, the 'bone frequently took a back seat to the saxophone and the trumpet -- the "sexy" instruments preferred by guys like John Coltrane and Miles Davis. And, despite being one of the most versatile members of the brass family, the trombone experienced a slide, if you will, in public opinion in the last few decades. As popular tastes moved away from jazz combos, big bands and "beautiful music," the trombone became the "Rodney Dangerfield of brass."
To many generations of junior-high school students, in fact, the trombone was strictly for nerds, the booby prize for those who couldn't play the saxophone and didn't want to carry the tuba.
Mark Mullins, a veteran of local bands like Rumboogie and George Porter Jr.'s Runnin' Pardners, was one of those students.
"I didn't want anything to do with the thing. I wanted to play the sax," says Mullins. "They told me to play something nobody else was playing. It was my orthodontist who really decided it for me, though. He said, 'Your teeth have this overbite and if you play the saxophone you'll just make it worse.' So I said, 'Okay, I'll play the trombone.'"
Mullins, who would eventually go on to ply his craft with Harry Connick Jr., distinctly remembers the first time he realized just where trombone players stood in the band hierarchy.
"I showed up for band, and there were a million drummers, a hundred trumpet players, and me. I said, 'This is great. I'm going to have no friends at all.'"
Some argue that the perceived dorkiness of the instrument was simply a case of bad PR. But others opine that the trombone, a slide instrument with no valves, ultimately took a backseat to valved cousins like the trumpet, which was thought of as somehow superior.
"It's hard to have as much precision on a trombone as a trumpet or a sax because you're not pressing valves," says Craig Klein, a trombonist with the New Orleans Nightcrawlers. "The slide doesn't allow you to be as precise."
Economics is also thought to have played a role in the trombone's image problem. When club owners were forced to raise the pay of union musicians, "they decided to cut a player out, from six to five pieces, instead of raising their prices," says Klein. And trombones were the first to go.
Which was a shame, because the instrument adds such color and life to an ensemble.
"The trombone has a real funky sound," says Lucien Barbarin, who's also played with Connick and whose musical family includes Paul Barbarin (who worked with Louis Armstrong) and the legendary Danny Barker. "You can make a nasty, rot-guttin' sound, a real growling sound, and you can also make the most beautiful sounds with it. It depends on what style of music you're playing and when it's time to present that kind of sound."
Says Mark McGrain, who fronts the trombone-driven combo Plunge: "The trombone's appeal to the public has to do with its warmth and diversity of sound. It's raucous, rude and incredibly sweet all at the same time. It's a really beautiful thing."
"The trombone is limited only by who's standing behind it," says veteran player Freddy Lonzo. And it's true that an instrument is only as good as the men and women who learn how to play it. It stands to reason, then, that if there is a rebirth of interest in this overlooked instrument, it is due in no small part to the young lions and veteran players who are consciously moving the trombone past preconceived boundaries of genre and form, pushing its slide in new directions and in new combinations.
"Maybe because some of the players are getting better and they're able to handle the horn, people are seeing what can be done with it," says Lonzo.
Bands like ReBirth and All That use the trombone as a funk instrument, elemental in creating a classic party groove. Until a recent personnel change, the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars employed a trombonist in their decidedly aggressive take on the Jewish Klezmer tradition. And Lonzo and Barbarin keep the traditional aspects of jazz and brass alive while following in the footsteps of innovators like J.J. Johnson and Frog Joseph. Meanwhile, Klein and young talents like Keith "Wolf" Anderson aren't too far behind, with one foot in the tenets of the traditional school and one in the funkier paradigms of modern brass.
On the other side of the spectrum, Mullins uses his trombone to anchor his rock band Mulebone. Although he jokingly refers to himself as the "Eddie Van Halen of the trombone," Mullins doesn't substitute flashy chops for songcraft, instead rising to the challenge of emphasizing the trombone as a lead instrument.
McGrain, who recently shared a bill at Snug Harbor with fellow sliders Rick Trolsen and Al Grey, also uses the trombone as "essentially a second guitar" in the latest incarnation of Anders Osborne's roots-funk outfit, which also features veteran sousaphonist Kirk Joseph.
These guys are all being sought after by other groups. Mullins, for example, has guested on the most recent CD by local pop-rockers Peabody, and he performed a trombone solo with local rock success story Better Than Ezra at this year's Jazz Fest.
No doubt, all the work is a welcome relief from the lean years of the trombone, which spawned a batch of jokes that are as familiar to trombonists, according to Mullins, as most jazz standards.
"How do you make a trombone player's car go faster?" asks McGrain. "Take the pizza delivery sign off of the roof.
"What do you call a trombone player with a cellular phone and a beeper? An optimist."
When it comes to the future of the trombone, McGrain is indeed an optimist. All jokes aside, it's clear that he considers the instrument's best days to be ahead of it, not behind.
"I made a choice to pursue the trombone because I believed in its potential as a pop instrument that would extend beyond its brass band/John Philip Sousa background," he says. "I believe [that] with people like Mark Mullins bringing it into rock and R&B and people like Freddy Lonzo choosing to keep the traditional thing going, the instrument is going to live on and grow and expand far beyond its current role. You can't say that about very many instruments.
We've witnessed the decline of the guitar, for example. By virtue of being a fretted instrument, it's limited, and you can see its limitations in its continued development, as they add strings and they lengthen the neck to find something different to do with it. You don't see that with the trombone.
"The trombone is virtually unchanged throughout its history. It's always functioned beautifully the way it is, because its range is dependent not on the instrument but on the player. A good trombone player can play notes as high as a trumpet and as low as a tuba."
New technology will add to a trombonist's bag of tricks, adds McGrain. With the advent of signal processing and other techniques, he says, the instrument has tremendous possibilities.
"The trombone has a huge range, and coupled with signal processing, you can get virtually any sound from it that you could get out of a synthesizer," he says. "It will exist no matter what musical developments occur, because it's micro-tonal. You can play any pitch on it. If musical scales change in the distant future, which is likely, the trombone will still have a place. My business card reads 'Trombone: The Weapon of the Future.'"
Regardless of its bright future and its radiant present, the trombone's battle for respect isn't completely over. And it's clear that many trombonists know there's still work to be done. McGrain, for one, bemoans a world in which subtle jabs at his instrument of choice still exist. An example, he says, is the musicians' dressing room at House of Blues, which uses trombone slides as coat hangers.
"It just breaks my heart," says McGrain. "There's no room for that. You don't see them hanging ties off a saxophone."
And Mullins is all too aware that the trombone has an uphill struggle ahead of it when it comes to the media -- and the advertising industry in particular.
"How come the trombone is never in any sexy commercials?" he asks. "It's in the Immodium commercials and the baked beans commercials. What kind of connotation are they making there?
"Yeah," he says with mock pride, "that's the instrument I play."
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