The versatility of Lawrence Brown, Ellington’s lead trombonist

Lawrence_Brown_1943The self-deprecating Lawrence Brown is best known as one the great players in Duke Ellington’s trombone section. In fact, when Brown joined, the Ellington band became the first jazz band to have three trombones. He is, of course, more than just a number.

He became the band’s lead trombonist and a very versatile soloist. How versatile? In addition to his incredible displays of virtuosity, he is probably the first of the great jazz ballad trombonists.

But I described him as self-deprecating. He frequently spoke poorly of his own ability. It must have been an attempt to appear humble. If he believed his comments, it’s hard to see how anyone with so little self-confidence could succeed in anything!

Brown and the ballad

Brown joined Ellington’s band in 1932 after Irving Mills, Ellington’s manager, heard him play solos at Sebastian’s Cotton Club in Culver City, California. He was hardly the typical jazz trombonist. Instead of playing a raucous tail-gate style or simple oom-pah bass lines, his ambition from the first time he picked up a trombone was to emulate the melodic sound of the cello!

When Mills urged Ellington to hire Brown, Ellington offered a contract without auditioning him or even having met him. Brown was available because he had just quit the Cotton Club, where the band backed Louis Armstrong, because he refused to participate in a studio session Armstrong’s manager called for Easter.

On tour of England, Brown played a solo called “Trees.” It outraged many jazz fans because it was so little like what they expected from a trombone solo. It was a slow and smooth tune. In other words, a ballad. In fact, it was the same tune that had so impressed Mills at the Cotton Club.

When Brown first became interested in playing jazz trombone, only a few other trombonists had attempted to break loose from the tail-gate style, notably Jimmy Harrison and Miff Mole.

Concerning Mole, Brown said, “After I began playing professionally, the musician I liked was Miff Mole. His work was very artistic and technical. To get the smoothness I wanted, I tried to round the tone too much, instead of keeping it thin. Mine, to my regret, has become too smooth.”

I can’t find “Trees” on You-Tube, but here is a beautiful sample of Brown’s ballad playing.

Brown the virtuoso

In Ellington’s first recording session after Brown joined the band, he featured Brown’s virtuosity on “The Shiek of Araby.” I haven’t found that piece on You Tube, either. Louis Armstrong plays it as a slow love song, but hardly suitable as a ballad. Other versions display considerable flash and dazzle.

Here, too, Brown put down his own ability: “I can’t play jazz like the other guys in the band. All the others can improvise good solos without a second thought. I’m not a good improviser.”

In fact, he couldn’t improvise like the other guys, but he could and did work out solos in advance. It certainly sounds to everyone else like he was playing jazz “like the other guys”!

But in one important respect, Brown didn’t play jazz like other trombonists. Tail-gate trombonists like Kid Ory played in the middle and lower registers because they lacked a good upper register and apparently saw no need to develop it. Brown’s contemporaries like Jack Teagarden and Tommy Dorsey played their solos almost entirely in the upper register. Brown used the entire range of the instrument.

“Blue Cellophane,” which Brown co-composed, illustrates his ability to dazzle. For ears used to the frenetic pace of bebop after J. J. Johnson demonstrated it was possible on slide trombone, the piece might seem tame to some. But it certainly must have inspired awe in the first audiences that heard it. And it doesn’t resemble ballad playing at all.

Lawrence Brown, Trombonist / Steve Voce (obituary first published in the British newspaper The Independent. Brown died September 6, 1988.)
Lawrence Brown / Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

Photo credit: Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.

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