Juan Tizol, Ellington’s valve trombonist

Juan Tizol, Ellington valve trombone

Juan Tizol at the Hurricane cabaret with Ellington. New York, New York, May 1943

Of all the people who populated the trombone sections of professional big bands in the swing era, not many played valve trombone. Not many became famous, either, unless they became known as soloists or band leaders. Puerto Rican Juan Tizol was one of the few in both categories.

Most municipalities in Puerto Rico offered musical instruction, and produced many excellent musicians in the process. Jazz bands and theater bands that catered primarily to African American audiences began to recruit them in large numbers beginning before World War I.

Tizol first arrived in New York in 1917, but returned home, overwhelmed by the size of the city. In 1920, however, he and some friends stowed away on a British steamer and identified themselves as crew members when they got off on Ellis Island. By that time Tizol had gambled away all his money and lost even his trombone. By the end of the year, though, he joined the pit band at the legendary Howard Theater in the Washington area known as Black Broadway.

Duke Ellington played piano regularly at the Howard Theater before he formed his own band, and so came to know Tizol’s musicianship. Ellington’s first band, formed in 1923, had no trombonist. He quickly hired a succession of trombonists, but like most bands of the time, had only one. After 1926, it was Tricky Sam Nanton.

Tizol and Duke Ellington

In 1929, with a show scheduled with Ziegfield Follies, Ellington recruited Tizol to join the band–not to replace Nanton, but to join him. By expanding his brasses from four to five, Ellington created opportunity for totally new scoring. He could use the two trombones playing harmonies without the trumpets. The addition of Lawrence Brown in 1932 gave Ellington what turned out to be the most renowned and stable trombone section in the history of big bands.

The styles and talents Tizol and Nanton contrasted greatly. Nanton was an improvising soloist, already well known for his use of the plunger, growls, and other techniques that were fairly exotic at the time. And of course, he played slide trombone.

Tizol, although an experience jazz player, was trained in classical techniques. He was an excellent sight reader. Despite these differences, the two of them (and later Brown) achieved an excellent blend and balance in section playing. Since Tizol did not have much skill as an improviser, he rarely played solos. On the other hand, his sight-reading and transposition ability allowed him to fill in for missing saxophonists. Ellington sometimes wrote parts for him where he would join the saxophones in passages that were too awkward to play on slide trombone.

By the time Tizol joined Ellington’s band, he was an active composer as well as trombonist. Given his Puerto Rican background, his compositions had a Latin feel. Within months after Tizol’s arrival, the Ellington band recorded one of his compositions, “Admiration.” Nowadays, Latin music on a big band jazz set is commonplace, but Tizol’s pieces for Ellington were among the first in history.

Among all of his compositions, whether Latin inspired or not, only two have become standards: “Caravan” and “Perdido,”

“Caravan” has been recorded so many times by so many artists that KFIC, a California radio station, considered airing 24-hour “Caravan” marathon of the different versions. Here is a video by the Ellington band featuring Tizol himself.

Tizol’s later career

Tizol got tired of constant touring and wanted to spend more time with his wife in Los Angeles. So in 1944, he left Ellington’s band and briefly joined Woody Herman’s. Herman let Tizol out of the contract when Los Angeles-based Harry James offered a more lucrative one. He played with James for seven years.

In 1951, Ellington lost the services of soloists Lawrence Brown (trombone) and Johnny Hodges (saxophone), as well as drummer Sonny Greer. In what became known as the Great James Robbery, Ellington enticed Tizol plus James’ drummer and a saxophonist to his band.

Tizol returned to Los Angeles in 1953. He played with James on and off, and briefly rejoined Ellington in 1960. Mostly, however he devoted himself to studio work with Nelson Riddle and others. He can be heard on recordings by Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, among the great recording artists of the time. He retired from playing in the mid 1960s and lived until 1984.

Basilio Serrano. “Juan Tizol: his talents, his collaborators, his legacy” Centro Journal (Fall 2006), pp. 83-99 [PDF]
“Tizol, Juan (Juan Vincente Martinez)” / Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians.

Photo credit: Public domain, from Library of Congress collection via Wikimedia

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