[Dixielandjazz] For the Trombonists on the DJML - Finally, some respect.

Steve Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Sun Oct 15 07:24:09 PDT 2006

"In modern times, however, the trombone has its buffoonish image. It makes
for good cartoon music. It is awkward to hold. It uses a sliding tube to
change notes." (From the below article)

Not OKOM, but perhaps interesting to the slush pump players. The article
prominently mentions Charlie Vernon (bass trombone Chicago Symphony) and Joe
Alessi (principal trombone NY Philharmonic). Years ago, they both played in
the Philadelphia Orchestra with, and took some lessons from, Glenn Dodson.
(trombonist for Barbone Street & retired principal trombone, Philadelphia

Steve Barbone

NY TIMES - October 15, 2006 - By DANIEL J. WAKIN

In the Back, by the Tuba, a Star Is Born

Dateline Chicago:
He may be a god of the trombone, but most of the time, Charlie Vernon is
just another figure in black tie, laboring in obscurity at the back of the
Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Yet on this particular night in Orchestra Hall,
he stood in front, pumping his fists, waving at the audience and bathing in
its adulation.

Mr. Vernon, the bass trombonist in the orchestra¹s legendary brass section,
had just finished playing a tour-de-force concerto written expressly for
him. This was its premiere run of concerts.

Backstage, scores of students, their teachers and fellow professionals from
as far away as Boston, New York and New Mexico came to pay homage. Mr.
Vernon signed autographs for 45 minutes: for one late September night, he
was the Elvis of the brass set. ³This is awesome,² said Mat Anderson, 19, a
trombone student from the University of Wisconsin, Platteville, almost
quivering with excitement.

It was a rare moment in the spotlight for an instrument that receives little
respect, and certainly little renown as a solo instrument. Yet this season
there are four ‹ count ¹em, four ‹ major trombone premieres in the United
States. The others are at the New York Philharmonic, the Harrisburg Symphony
and the Hartford Symphony.

The premieres suggest that an instrument that has rarely been invited into
the spotlight has finally hit the big time. They also shed light on how solo
commissions come about, through a mixture of friendship, personal ambition,
dedication to the instrument and, sometimes, sheer ¹bone luck.

For much of its existence the orchestral trombone has labored in the
background. It started out as a church instrument, and joined the orchestra
relatively late, although it had isolated moments of glory, like the ³Tuba
Mirum² solo in Mozart¹s Requiem or blazing chords in big symphonies. In the
mid-19th century the trombone became popular in town and factory bands, and
in the next century it found its voice in dance bands and jazz.

In modern times, however, the trombone has its buffoonish image. It makes
for good cartoon music. It is awkward to hold. It uses a sliding tube to
change notes. 

³That in itself is funny,² said Joseph Alessi, the New York Philharmonic¹s
principal trombonist.

It is capable, composers have long known, of great lyricism and power.
Berlioz said it had ³the utmost nobility and grandeur² and ³the deep and
powerful accents of high musical poetry.² But few wrote to flatter it.
Trombone players had solo works by Frank Martin, Ferdinand David and Ernest
Bloch. By contrast the French horn had Strauss and Mozart. Hearing a
trombone concerto was like ³seeing a Maserati every once in a while on the
road,² Mr. Alessi said.

One reason, suggests Steven Greenall, the executive director of the
International Trombone Association, is that trombonists are an easygoing,
collaborative lot who prize blending. ³You¹re not supposed to stand out,² he
said. ³You¹re a section.²

Christian Lindberg is perhaps the world¹s leading solo trombonist. An
accomplished composer as well (he wrote the piece that Mr. Vernon performed
that evening in Chicago), he said he has been fighting for 25 years to
promote the instrument. ³You wouldn¹t believe what the people said,² he
added. When he won a competition, one critic wrote that a trombone on the
concert podium was like an ³accordion in church,² Mr. Lindberg said. A
London impresario told Mr. Lindberg¹s manager he would go to hear a trombone
concerto only when ³heavily drunk.²

But in the last decade or so something happened. Concertos began appearing.
The ranks of talented trombone players swelled. (The International Trombone
Association, one of at least six such societies around the world, now counts
5,000 members.) The technical boundaries of the instrument, already pushed
in many ways by great jazz players, expanded.

³More composers were stepping up to the plate and writing for the
instrument,² Mr. Alessi said.

As the talent grew, and the repertory with it, even more composers were
encouraged and inspired to write new pieces. A Pulitzer Prize for
Christopher Rouse¹s trombone concerto in 1993 was an important spur. The
snowball grew. More performances gave the trombone more credibility with

Two men are credited with outsize influence: Mr. Alessi, for whom the Rouse
work was commissioned, and Mr. Lindberg.

³Really, they¹ve been desperate,² said Melinda Wagner, another Pulitzer
Prize-winning composer, who wrote the new concerto for Mr. Alessi and the
Philharmonic. ³There haven¹t been very many trombone concertos until the
last generation.²

Mr. Lindberg says 82 trombone works have been written for him in the last 25
years. It is not entirely surprising. Though he picked up the instrument
only at 17, he is a prodigious and tireless virtuoso, raising the profile of
his instrument as James Galway did for the flute.

³You could stick a kazoo in his hands, and he¹d sell the concert hall out,²
Mr. Greenall said of Mr. Lindberg.

One of his performances came with the Chicago Symphony in 2002 when he gave
the American premiere of the dense and weighty ³Solo for Trombone and
Orchestra² by Luciano Berio, a composer with strong credibility.

Mr. Vernon was there. They met, and Mr. Vernon listened to a recording of
Mr. Lindberg playing a work of his own and pieces by other composers. It was
time, Mr. Vernon said, for Mr. Lindberg to write a piece for him. Mr. Vernon
gave a recording of Mr. Lindberg¹s music to the orchestra¹s music director
at the time, Daniel Barenboim.

³ ¹Course, he never listened to it,² Mr. Vernon said. ³Finally he agreed. I
was hounding him.² 

Mr. Lindberg took no money for the commission. He was happy, he said, to
write for the likes of Mr. Vernon. ³He¹s an absolute giant on the bass
trombone,² Mr. Lindberg said, known for the ³incredible smoothness² of his

They began an extraordinary collaboration. Mr. Lindberg asked Mr. Vernon
detailed questions about his favorite notes and intervals in different
registers and volumes. He e-mailed fragments of music, and Mr. Vernon chose
the ones he liked. They settled on seven fragments, and Mr. Lindberg built a
movement around each, evoking the rhythm and energy of Chicago with the
title ³Chick Œa¹ Bone Checkout.² The title plays on the words Chicago and
trombone, and the idea of ³Let¹s check it out,² Mr. Vernon said.

For the performances in late September and early October, Mr. Vernon wore a
three-piece cream-colored suit with light pinstripes and black buttons, and
black-and-white wing-tip shoes: an evocation of gangster Chicago. A
bull-like six feet and 220-plus pounds, Mr. Vernon, a competitive swimmer,
played with his feet apart, his bald head turning pink with the effort, his
eyebrows dancing in time.

For 21 minutes he displayed just about every sound a trombone could make,
playing a bass, tenor and alto trombone. The work is full of jazzy riffs,
balladic passages that bloom with passion, rapid staccato notes and low

Backstage afterward he said, ³This is the highlight of my professional

With some satisfaction he said the reception to Mr. Lindberg¹s piece had
taught management ³a huge lesson about the trombone.²

The next big moment in the Year of the Trombone comes on Feb. 22, with the
premiere of Ms. Wagner¹s Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra by Mr. Alessi
and the New York Philharmonic. The trombone world is small. Mr. Alessi and
Mr. Vernon used to play together in the Philadelphia Orchestra, and they
belonged to a brass-section barbershop quartet. Mr. Vernon, the bass
trombonist, sang high tenor.

Mr. Alessi said he had long admired Ms. Wagner¹s work and suggested to
orchestra management that she be commissioned. There was little interest.
But Lorin Maazel was soon appointed music director, and he was also an
admirer of Ms. Wagner¹s music. Besides, Mr. Alessi had leverage. His
contract stipulates that the Philharmonic pay for commissions for him.

³I realize commissioning new works for trombone is not on top of their
priority list,² he said. ³But I¹m a trombonist, and I¹m going to try to do
that every single time.² He said he once asked Leonard Bernstein to compose
a piece, but he was too weak by that point in his life.

Ms. Wagner declined to quote her fee but said that a typical median rate
would be about $1,000 a minute for an orchestral work. Her piece is about 25
minutes. Mr. Alessi described it as ³serious, complex music.²

Ms. Wagner said she was taken with the trombone¹s surprising agility,
beautiful tone and broad expressive palette. She had to be careful not to
linger too much in the low and middle ranges, which take a lot of air.

³You don¹t want the trombonist to pass out on the stage,² she said.

Mr. Alessi is also giving the premiere of a concerto by Stephen Michael Gryc
with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra on March 15, paying the fee out of his
own pocket. Mr. Gryc, a former trombonist, met Mr. Alessi at a recording
session in Albuquerque. The resulting work is ³Passaggi: Concerto for
Trombone and Orchestra.²

Mr. Gryc¹s professorship at the University of Hartford made it logical to
approach the Hartford Symphony. ³Definitely the selling point of this piece
was Joe,² Mr. Gryc said. ³It¹s like the secret weapon of a composer. If he
can have a great musician be an advocate for a piece, there¹s nothing

The fourth trombone premiere takes place in May in Harrisburg, Pa., courtesy
of the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra¹s principal trombonist, Brent Phillips,
and the Texas-based composer Scott McAllister. The two knew each other as
students at Rice University in the 1990¹s.

Mr. McAllister was a promising clarinetist at the time, until New Year¹s Day
1994. A driver ran a red light and smashed into his car, Mr. McAllister
said, crushing his hand and ending his playing career.

So he poured his energy into composing and took a job teaching at Baylor
University. There he reconnected with Mr. Phillips, who joined the faculty
in 2004. They discussed a piece. Mr. Phillips said he felt a responsibility
to the trombone world to commission and promote new works.

³I want to make an impact,² he said. Mr. McAllister used a university grant
to finance his Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra.

Jeff Woodruff, the Harrisburg Symphony¹s executive director and a former
trombone player, said he programmed the piece in part to keep one of its
stars happy. Another factor helped.

³It¹s unusual that an orchestra the size of Harrisburg would premiere a new
piece,² he said, ³but it¹s a no-brainer for us, because somebody else is
paying for it.²

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