The jazz trombone is a magical experience, particularly to hear and listen to.

John Jensen

This week, we’re diving into brass and highlighting the trombone, an instrument that really started to take a more prominent place in music at the start of the 20th century, with its expanding role in Dixie, jazz and swing.

Let’s take a look at this physically demanding instrument and learn about some of its earliest jazz champions, including a few who have ties to our own CJO!

Jack Teagarden (1905 – 1964)

While J.J. Johnson is unquestionably the “Father of the Modern Trombone,” Jack Teagarden was the first to make the trombone a viable jazz instrument. Teagarden did much to liberate the trombone from the repressive roles it held in the early jazz period. Before Teagarden, the trombone was either relegated to comedic vaudevillian utterances or lesser filler roles in most Dixieland ensembles.

Teagarden was a multiple musical threat, playing trombone and vocally. He could play sweet, but was also really agile, and was the first trombonist to keep up technically with the trumpets and clarinets with whom he battled on the bandstands. He possessed a big, gregarious Texas personality and was, in many respects, far ahead of his time with his apparent lack of racism.

Known as “The King of the Blues Trombone,” Teagarden had a respected solo career, but his work with Ben Pollack, Paul Whiteman, and Louis Armstrong also contributed much to his legacy. A number of tunes that are part of the jazz canon are associated first with Teagarden, including “Beale Street Blues,” “Basin’ Street Blues,” “Stars Fell on Alabama,” “Pennies From Heaven,” and “I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues.”

Listen to some of his tunes:

Tommy Dorsey (1905 – 1956)

Tommy Dorsey was another early jazz trombonist and bandleader. Known to trombonists for his amazing and effortless upper register, legato and fluid technique, his orchestra was one of the best known big bands in the heyday of that era. The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra featured numerous number one hits, including “Opus One,” “All the Things you Are,” “I’ll Never Smile Again,” and his trademark theme song “I’m Getting Sentimental over You,” which you can listen to here.

Dorsey is perhaps equally remembered for the amazing cast of musicians that broke in or spent time in his ensemble—not only did Frank Sinatra truly arrive in the public eye with Dorsey, others quite well known did also, including Doc Severinsen and Nelson Riddle. Other jazz luminaries who spent significant time in the orchestra include Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson, Bunny Berigan, and Buddy DeFranco. Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra also have local ties, as several members of the CJO cut their road teeth with a later version of the band, led by Buddy Morrow -our own Jack Schantz, Paul Hungerford, and our artistic director, Paul Ferguson!

Buddy Morrow (1918 – 2010)

Trombonist and bandleader Buddy Morrow, born Muni Zudekoff, enjoyed a long career made possible by his beautiful and effortless upper range and ballad playing on the trombone. These attributes made him a natural to take over the ghost band version of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, a group which he led from 1977-2010.

Our artistic director Paul Ferguson, as well as our own trumpeter Jack Schantz, spent time with the Morrow led ensemble, and many other members of the CJO also performed shorter stints with Morrow over the years. In addition to our own ties, Morrow was also heard with Artie Shaw, Jimmy Dorsey, and Paul Whiteman, and he was on the original recording of George Gerswhin’s Concerto in F.

He had a number of hits that he was known for, none more famous than his “Night Train,” in 1952. “Night Train” was actually based upon two earlier Duke Ellington tunes: “That’s the Blues, Old Man” and a more flushed out version called “Happy-Go-Lucky Local.” He also topped the charts with his “Rose, Rose I Love You.” Check out “Night Train” here.

Here’s a video from 1987 featuring Buddy Morrow at the Hollywood Palladium, and if you look close enough, you can see our own Paul Ferguson and Jack Schantz in the band.

J.J. Johnson (1924 – 2001)

J.J. Johnson, the father of the modern trombone, was born in Indianapolis, where he lived much of his life. He began playing at age fourteen, and by age eighteen, he was working with Benny Carter as well as performing in the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert. In 1945, he joined Count Basie but left after a year to pursue playing bebop in small groups.

As we learned in last week’s newsletter, bebop was a whole new jazz language, and the new, burning tempos found in bebop left a great deal of famous trombonists looking at this new music with despair; however, Johnson changed that—he was able to keep up with the saxes and trumpets that dominated the early bop movement, and became the only trombonist that was included in performances with Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Sonny Stitt, and Miles Davis in the late 1940’s.

Johnson had great commercial success as a leader with many of his forty-three (!) solo albums, like J.J. in Person!, J.J. Inc., The Eminent J.J. Johnson, as well as in his pairings with Danish trombonist Kai Winding in the 1950’s. This trombone duo released a dozen popular recordings, including The Great Kai & J.J.

Here’s the J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding Quintet performing “Blues for Trombones.

Johnson was also a great composer, contributing several tunes that have become part of the jazz canon, including “Wee Dot” and “Enigma,” as well as writing music for TV and films including Cleopatra Jones, Starsky & Hutch, and The Six Million Dollar Man.

You can listen to his beautiful composition “Enigma” here.

Not only was Johnson a model with his technical wizardry on the trombone, but he also influenced all that followed with his rhythmic vitality, approach with vibrato, and wonderfully crafted lines. He was so revered that he continued to win DownBeat Magazine awards as Best Trombonist even in years that he was taking one of his many sabbaticals from the instrument.

In 2016, NPR’s Jazz Night in America highlighted J.J. Johnson’s music and role in jazz, as well as spoke of his partnership with Kai Winding. Check it out here.

Kai Winding (1922 – 1983)

One can’t talk about jazz trombonists and J.J. Johnson without also talking about Danish trombonist Kai Winding. While he may have been overshadowed by his partner in crime, J.J. Johnson, Winding was similarly a force in establishing that a trombonist could play bop music at the level of saxes and trumpets.

Winding’s family moved to NY when he was twelve, and as a young man, he served in the U.S. Coast Guard during WWII. Following the war, the late 1940’s saw him perform briefly with the Benny Goodman Orchestra, followed by three years with the Stan Kenton Orchestra. This decade closed with Winding participating in some important dates with Clevelander Tadd Dameron, as well as in the landmark Birth of the Cool recording led by Miles Davis and Gil Evans.

In 1954, he and J.J. Johnson formed a quintet that became staggeringly popular. The group performed rather light fare with simple but effective harmonies, and the two horn players were excellent foils for one another. Winding opted for edgier and slightly older sounding concepts and ideas, while Johnson was always steady, brilliantly quick and pushed the instrument to new heights. The group recorded on and off for a decade or so, and its success led Winding to form other successful trombone and brass ensembles with rhythm sections.

Here is the famous duo of Winding and Johnson and their album Trombone for Two.

Urbie Green (1926 – 2018)

This week’s final spotlight trombonist, Urban Clifford “Urbie” Green, also shared a connection to Tommy Dorsey and the CJO. Green’s incredibly fluid upper register, buttery sound, joyful buoyant ideas and blazing technique had dropped jaws since his earliest recording days. Over the course of his career, he released thirty solo albums, and was on many others as a sideman in both popular and jazz settings, including recordings with Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Quincy Jones, J.J. Johnson and Burt Bacharach, to name a few!

When Green was fifteen, his father passed away, and to help support the family, he became a professional musician. His first name gig was in the Gene Krupa big band, but his fame truly began with his tenure in the Woody Herman Orchestra. He won a DownBeat Magazine award for “New Star” in 1954 and soon after found himself doing stints as a leader for the Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey Orchestras.

His recording career really took off in the 1960’s, and he was rewarded multiple times by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences as being the “Most Valuable Player,” a distinction not typically reserved for a trombone player. As a leader, his albums with Enoch Light as a producer are still found in every pro trombonists sonic library–especially his two-volume sets of 21 Trombones and The Persuasive Trombone of Urbie Green, as well as his albums Bein’ Green and Urbie Green’s Big Beautiful Band.

Check out “Dream” from The Persuasive Trombone of Urbie Green Vol. 1.

Fun fact: the CJO link to Urbie Green is that our very own Scott Garlock, Executive Director and trombonist, had the unfortunate task of trading fours with Urbie as a high school student that was sadly recorded and performed in front of 3000 people. Let’s just say that Urbie may have won that day!

T is also for… THANKS for sharing the music with us!

Hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s toe-tapping, trombone tunes!

Until next time, stay safe & share the music!