The versatility of Lawrence Brown, Ellington’s lead trombonist

The 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 … Continue reading

Medieval Night Watchmen and the Modern Wind Band

What do a night watchman and a professional musician have in common? The first professional wind musicians were night watchmen. Many modern wind instruments can find their ancestors being played from towers to keep the city safe at night and entertain citizens by day. Protective walls surrounded every European town of any significance until the 18th century. Many cities had hundreds of towers. … Continue reading

A prehistory of the trombone

The familiar shape of the slide trombone has been around at least since 1490. That’s when Filippino Lippi included an image of it in frescos he painted at Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. It hasn’t been around as long as the word “trombone,” which first appeared in 1439 in court records in Ferrara. The court at Ferrara had a three-piece wind band for most of the century. Pietro Agostino played played trombone in that band from at least 1456 to at least 1503. … Continue reading

You can’t play that on trombones!

According to an anecdote I read long ago and now can’t find, Theobald Boehm, inventor of modern flute fingering, spent a night at Rossini’s house. In the morning, he began a warmup, playing low trills. Rossini burst into the room and said, “You can’t play that on a flute.” Boehm said, “But I just did.” Rossini responded, “I don’t care. You can’t play that on a flute.” The same sentiment has followed performances on trombone, too. A European orchestra actually took Arthur Pryor’s trombone apart looking for the trickery. They knew what they had just heard was impossible. “You can’t … Continue reading

Trombone vs bumblebee

“Everyone knows” that the trombone can’t play fast. In the orchestra, trombones are likely to be playing long chords when everyone else has a moving part. Even in jazz, Stan Kenton assumed that bebop would spell the end of the slide trombone. So some trombonists try to prove that “everyone” is wrong. Bass trombone soloist and clinician Alan Raph has pointed out, “Trying to be the world’s fastest trombone player is like trying to be the world’s tallest midget,” but nothing seems to keep trombonists from trying. Here are three of many videos of trombonists playing “Flight of the Bumblebee.” … Continue reading

Thomas Gschlatt, the Mozarts’ trombonist

Trombonists know the name Thomas Gschlatt because he worked in Salzburg at the same time the Mozart’s did. Besides playing the trombone solos in works by now-forgotten composers, he participated in works by both Mozarts, including Wolfgang’s youthful Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots (KV 35, 1767). If that title isn’t familiar, the story of its composition is: Prince–Archbishop Sigmund Schrattenbach was not persuaded that an 11-year-old boy could write such excellent music as he in fact did. He suspected that the boy must have at least gotten considerable help from his father. So Wolfgang wrote that cantata locked up in … Continue reading

Women trombonists of the late Renaissance

Professional women musicians in the Renaissance were usually singers, not instrumentalists. Usually. Women who learned to play instruments—especially aristocratic woman—usually didn’t take up trombone. Not usually. Here and there, fascinating exceptions turn up. Including perhaps the Queen of England? The illustration, by the way, is a detail from a 19th-century engraving made from an embroidered tablecloth, which was made in the 1560s. Portraits of a German count and his wife occupy the center of the tablecloth (no longer extant, but a photograph exists). This woman is among 9 very aristocratic-looking men and women depicted with various instruments encircling the count … Continue reading

Moritz Nabich and the second generation of 19th-century trombone soloists

In 1861, Dwight’s Journal of Music reprinted a notice from an unnamed English journal: Moritz Nabich was moving to Paris. His long-suffering English neighbors would no longer have to listen to him practicing that musical menace, the trombone. Parisians would suffer instead. Who was Nabich, and why would a Boston-based magazine print this notice? The well-traveled and world famous Moritz Nabich was the foremost trombone soloist of his day. His name and reputation would have been familiar even in musical cities that he never visited. He carried on the work of his illustrious predecessors Friedrich August Belcke and Carl Traugott … Continue reading

Waisenhauskirche Mass: Tradition vs innovation in Mozart’s trombone parts

Mozart’s Requiem, the last piece he ever worked on, has a trombone solo in the Tuba mirum movement. So far as I know, there is nothing like it anywhere in the standard sacred music repertoire. The important word in that sentence is “standard.” People who wrote about musical performances in the nineteenth century were all too aware of the uniqueness of that solo. Throughout the century in every country from which I have seen magazine or newspaper articles, critics rarely mentioned the trombones in classical music except to complain that they were too loud. Along with more than one author … Continue reading

Antoine Dieppo, French trombone virtuoso and teacher

Antoine Dieppo’s name is familiar as the first professor of trombone at the Paris Conservatory upon the trombone class’ official formation in 1836. He deserves to be known as more than a name on a list, however. As it turns out, he obtained that position, and also that of principal trombonist of Paris’ principal orchestra by displacing established incumbents. He wrote a method book, which was the required text for his students. It has not maintained its place in the modern teaching literature, however. Thompson and Lemke note only a volume of nine etudes still readily available. I have a … Continue reading