The glissando: from bad trombone technique to a common performance idiom

Perhaps no technique more perfectly characterizes the idiom of the slide trombone as the glissando. Its first deliberate use in performance is fairly recent in the long history of the trombone, and its acceptance as a legitimate technique came somewhat later. Nowadays, we tend to think of glissando and portamento as synonyms. They are, indeed, played exactly the same way, so it seems odd that the portamento enjoyed early approval and that all manner of musicians, including trombonists, strongly disapproved of the glissando within living memory.

Daniel Speer provides the earliest reference to the glissando I have found (1687), when he wrote, “Some slur the trombone’s sound with the breath, but it comes out better and livelier when it is cleanly articulated with the tongue.” Anyone who has ever taught beginning trombone students knows how hard it is to get some of them to tongue at all. They might start a phrase with their tongues, but continue it with a sloppy combination of natural slurs and glissandos. Professionals who never progressed beyond that stage must have been legion in the more mediocre town bands for centuries before and after Speer’s observation. In fact, long after the last descendant of the old Medieval wind band disappeared from France, Felix Vobaron (1834) made a similar complaint about such poor technique.

To the modern mind, therefore, it seems odd that Vobaron’s complaint about the sloppy technique that resulted in all those glissandos comes in the context of explaining how to perform portamentos on the trombone. At the time, the portamento was a highly respected vocal technique. Nowadays, of course, voice teachers, choral conductors, and about anyone else who has any musical authority command singers not to scoop their notes. We like the vocal sound—and that of the violin and other stringed instruments for that matter–to start on pitch and stay on pitch until the next note. Nineteenth-century audiences might find our performance practice bland and unexpressive. It is very easy to find recorded examples of the portamento in re-releases of the very earliest recordings. Listen to how Caruso, Gigli, other singers, solo violinists, and orchestras of that generation scoop and slide in ways modern teachers wouldn’t tolerate.

Meanwhile, the early nineteenth century witnessed a radical change in both the construction of brass instruments (mostly but not entirely because of the application of valves) and of society’s understanding of their musical role. The natural horn had long been associated with hunting, especially as an aristocratic pastime. Its acceptance into the orchestra in the mid to late eighteenth century maintained that association. The natural trumpet likewise had aristocratic associations, not to mention its critical role in military signals and the proclamation of new decisions of every government from kings to any town large enough to support a trumpet corps. The trombone had nearly disappeared from much of Europe, but it was most useful for church music. Unlike the trumpet and horn, it also had a role in public entertainment. German town bands had a legal monopoly on performing for weddings and similar occasions until at least the 1850s.

Perhaps for that reason, the trombone quickly found a home in the new vernacular music that followed the international disruptions caused by the French Revolution and gained admission into the symphony orchestra only in the face of stiff opposition. One reason, then, why the glissando also ran into opposition is that many trombonists were still fighting for recognition of their musical legitimacy. How could they embrace something that simply seemed like the poor technique of the untaught?

Nevertheless, the glissando appeared in both art music and vernacular music in the last half of the nineteenth century. Early orchestral uses include The Sea (1889) by Glazunov, The Dream of Gerontius (1899) by Elgar (in unison with cellos and unplayable on trombone as notated), and Pelleas und Melisande (1902/03) by Schoenberg. In 1900, Sousa’s band performed lots of ragtime pieces, with heavy use of glissando, at the Paris Exposition. After that, most but certainly not all instances of the glissando in European orchestral music referred to this exotic new sound.

Trombone solos featuring glissandos probably came out of the minstrel shows, the first truly indigenous form of American entertainment. Minstrel shows originated in the 1840s and continued into the 1920s. I don’t just when they started to feature instrumental solos along with song and dance routines. Harvey’s Greater Minstrels, one of the last of the line, probably featured smear solos by Slim Jim Austin. Austin’s act probably directly inspired Henry Fillmore’s Trombone Family, which includes “Slim Jim Trombone.” Although documentation is lacking, there is no reason to  question whether Austin used the technique or suppose that he invented it.

Smear solos also appeared prominently in the earliest New Orleans jazz. The so-called “tailgate” style got its name partly from the trombonist’s position in the wagons bands often performed from. Seated at the back near the tailgate, the trombonist enjoyed uninterrupted freedom of slide movement. The other part of the name comes from the trombonist’s role in defining and emphasizing the harmonic structure of a piece with glissandos. That technique will be forever associated with Kid Ory, the first trombonist to record such solos.

It is unclear how common the glissando would be if it depended entirely on music by composers like Glazunov or Schoenberg. Its roots in the music of Black America gave it both an attractive exoticism and a reputation as something lowbrow and tasteless. Conservatory teachers, like André Lafosse of the Paris Conservatory, disapproved. They had worked for generations to show that the trombone could be a respectable participant in the most refined music. Jazz musicians of the next generation after Ory, including Lawrence Brown of the Duke Ellington band, likewise turned their back on the tailgate style as an insult to the more artistic performance practice they favored. By that time jazz, like the trombone itself a century earlier, sought to elevate its reputation and leave behind any association with the lowest strata of society.

Today, no one questions the trombone’s legitimacy as an orchestral instrument or jazz’s legitimacy as an art form. Could that at least partly explain why the glissando no longer excites controversy?

Source, besides my own research: “Trombone glissando: a case study in continuity and change in brass instrument performance idioms,” by Trevor Herbert in Historic Brass Society Journal (2010).

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