Trombone talk with
Photo by Joshua Brown
The meeting chaired by LES TOMKINS in 1974
It's nice to see you two great trombone men together.
NASH: Well, it's so good to be together, again.
LUSHER: It's a marvellous experience — again.
NASH: Don came over to L.A. for about three weeks last June, and between our two families it was love at first sight, really. I'd never met Don; we'd corresponded, and wanted to meet. And it was beyond our wildest dreams, as far as instant friendship; we played together, and everything. Wonderful.
I'd say it was logical that you should get together, since you have a similar kind of musical approach. You both play a certain amount of jazz, but are well-known for your melodic type of work.
LUSHER; Yes, the more commercial, all-round jobs.
And would you say you both originally idolised Tommy Dorsey.
NASH: I hated him once. The thing is, when I was a kid I played trumpet; I started at the age of ten. As a trumpet player, I would listen to the phrasing and the way Tommy played. I admired Harry James, as most kids did, and Harry was the antithesis of Dorsey, because Harry was so bendy, so loose in what he did. When you would hear Dorsey, it was the opposite: right on, stiff, no deviation from the way the tune was written. Then they switched me over to baritone horn, because somebody was graduating and they needed to fill that chair; so I went to the bigger mouthpiece. And I would always look back and see those slides moving, you know. The trombone itself intrigued me; I was getting a little tired of that baritone sitting in my lap. So I kinda picked up the trombone quietly, on my own, just trying to figure, well, a second position would be the second valve, and so forth.
This had been at a boarding school in Vermont. When I was fourteen, I went to Boston, and in the school there I told them I was a trombone player. I was very bad, but they accepted me in the band, along with the football team. One time I was in the band room after the rehearsal, and everybody had gone home, I thought; I picked up a loose baritone that was there, started noodling around, doing all kinds of busy, technical things that I had been doing before. What I didn't know was that the bandmaster was in the next room; he came blasting in through the door: "You play baritone from now on— that's it." So I was stuck with the baritone again for a while. But, anyway, I did start to study trombone— with John Coffey of the Boston Symphony, who was fantastic.
Then, of course, at that time, when you hear Tommy Dorsey records— with the breath control, the sound and all that — you just have to say, well, he was really incredible. He was the forerunner of this whole kind of pretty thing that we try to do today.
LUSHER: Yes, I think the Dorsey style still does have an impact, really. Because it was a wonderful way of playing the trombone; only a trombone player can appreciate fully how hard it is, with not taking the liberties of phrasing and bending notes. I mean, he just plays the plain tune; so all the articulations and that sort of thing have got to be so perfect. Plus his tone, his breathing and purity of sound. Let's face it — this man had a tremendous influence on people who didn't know anything about trombones, or didn't really take an interest in bands.
I was lucky enough to see the band in the flesh in '56 or '57, when we were there with the Heath band. And it was all better than I had anticipated from having heard him on records.
NASH: I heard him live once, too, in Boston. I remember listening not only to the phrasing and the sound, but he was honest as far as his intervals were concerned. A lot of people, when they are going for a higher interval sometimes, will cheat and give it a little tongue. He would just air the thing through, and he might get a click in between — which is great, because it's honest.
LUSHER: These are all things where it would be very easy to goof or to split a note. A good player could take his chance, and — a clang, which people hate to hear. And he used to do this all the time.
NASH: Another thing I was surprised about: he would get up close to the mike and play very, very softly; then towards the end of the evening there was a jazz thing going on, and he played for fifteen minutes as loud and as raucous as I've ever heard anybody play — I didn't know he could do that.
LUSHER: This is one of the things that made an impact on me. I thought that when we saw the Dorsey band in the flesh he would be the very big-time bandleader, who wandered out to the microphone, say, six times in the whole evening, played very quietly and nicely, then off for the customers and all the rest of it. No— we saw him four nights on the trot, and he played the whole time. Sometimes extremely loud with the band; at other times just whispers.
There's one thing I'll always recall; they did a broadcast from the Stadtler Hotel, where they did this business of sticking the microphone up in the band. They went on the air with the red light, and he played the first few bars of "Getting Sentimental Over You" at a normal dynamic range, which was marvellous. Then, when it got to the middle, the announcer started to make his introduction of the band. And Dorsey didn't move back from the mike at all—he just dropped subito pianissimo until the guy had said his piece; then he went up to about a mezzo-forte again. Just like turning a switch.
An incredible person. I now know quite a lot about him from other people, and I must say I admire him tremendously as a bandleader. We hear all sorts of things, that he was a fiery man, unpleasant in some ways. I think he was, because he believed very strongly in certain principles. He was an extremely positive character, wasn't he, Dick?
NASH: And he wanted a hundred-and-ten per cent from everybody— because he gave a hundred-and-fifteen, you know.
LUSHER: That's right. But he had a first-class band always, and had first-class money and conditions to offer. It was run correctly and big-time. And not all bandleaders fulfil all this. A lot of leaders have very good bands, but pay very poor money, and don't really care about the fellows, as long as they deliver the goods. Dorsey I don't think was like this at all. And in my estimation, that's the way to run a band.
NASH: As far as bandleaders are concerned, I guess I've been fortunate. I really didn't go with too many bands. I was with Sam Donahue in '47, found out that some of the requirements were jazz and things like that —- but at that time I really hadn't gotten into jazz too much. Then I went home for a whole year, and studied legit again with John Coffey. I had a beautiful year of really working on pure legit technique of the trombone, as well as tuning in to Bird and Diz. Of course, I was weaned on J. J. Johnson with jazz — everybody was, let's face it. J.J.'s another forerunner. You talk about Dorsey —well, J.J. opened up a whole bag of tricks for everybody. Also, Kai Winding was a very big influence.
But there was one thing about Dorsey I want to mention before we move on — if we ever can — concerning the occasion I heard him at the Capital Theatre in New York City. He was doing "Trombonology", which is a big production thing, as you know. Well, he got to the end of that thing and, bless him, he missed the high F! I was thinking: "That's great" —- and he missed it; it fell off, and he didn't get it. So he stopped, turned around and said: "Letter F again." And he went into it, and he missed it again! He stopped again, and I could see how determined he looked. This was beautiful; it really turned me on, because he said: "Son-of-a-bitch, I'm gonna get that!" And he did it again, and this time he hit it, and he played it loud. Then he bowed to the audience. This was a morning show; here he is tackling that thing at ten in the morning. But the point was — he didn't slough it off, put the horn down, and go into the next number. He had to get it.
Obviously, you both still speak in awe of Tommy Dorsey's control and technique, but do you think that the kind of things he did have become more commonplace nowadays? Certainly, players of your calibre can duplicate technically what he played.
NASH: Well, it's never really commonplace. It's something to strive for; it's a level of playing that we should all try to have. Just recently, I was fortunate enough to be called upon in L.A. to take part in the Time-Life series of recordings, re-doing the old bands in beautiful stereo. It required your turning on all the aspects of all the different players. I had to do Tommy Dorsey's "Marie" — and you have to phrase it exactly the way they did it. They'd send you a copy of whatever solo you were going to do, maybe a couple of days in advance. The whole idea being that you'd analyse the record, and come in prepared, so that you could get on it quickly. But when you hear "Marie", and you have to match those long, long phrases on there—it's never commonplace, you know. You've really got to be up for it.
LUSHER: It's amazing how many very fine sweet trombonists, in this country and in the States, who, when it comes to taking off a Tommy Dorsey tune, if the bandleader or someone wants it done in an identical way, fall far short of it. You know, it's a thing that tends to really bug you. I've done the same sort of thing as Dick, and had to take part in making carbon copies of Dorsey for Reader's Digest and other firms. And I never really liked doing it. I'll have a go, but when it comes to playing "Getting Sentimental", I have a bug about it even before I start. He played that and made it sound so easy, just like pressing keys on a keyboard—and I find personally it's not an easy tune to play. That is, if you try and play it like Tommy Dorsey—not taking any liberties with the phrasing. You could play that at a slower tempo, change the phrasing, and make it much easier to play in the key of D, which he played it in. But you try it in a nice sort of tempo, like Dorsey, bearing his sound and his phrasing in mind ... I do not find that easy; I don't think I ever will.
The strangest thing is: three times now, when I've been away for a short holiday, within three days I've had record dates in the book where we've been covering Dorsey things. Three times I've come off holiday and have had to record "Marie", "Song Of India" and "Getting Sentimental Over You". So while you're away, you've got to do something with buzzing and keeping your chops going, and, even then, of course, in three days you don't feel good at all. But it's just been the luck of the draw.
NASH: And speaking of preparation —somebody said that Tommy would go out in a boat for a month, come back, and blow maybe one pedal note, and then he was ready to go for the evening. If that was true—he was one in who knows how many million.
LUSHER: Dick and myself were discussing this, as to whether it's true, or is it something that was built up, or did he do things secretly, shall we say—or could he really do this? There is only one thing, which Dick did mention—any good player's chops are weak after any lay-off of a week plus, or even less than that. Now, if you're fronting your own band, you then can play eight, twelve or sixteen bars of solo, and then stop while the band carries on. It's not really like going into ordinary work, where you've got to keep playing and playing. But even so, I marvel at it, because even if he was playing in small doses, I don't really know how it was done.
NASH: I remember one time when I was visiting my brother Ted in California; I had not moved out there yet. And he was working a record date for Decca with Bing Crosby and Tommy Dorsey. Tommy didn't know or care who I was—an aspiring trombone player, in the Service at the time—and so I was able to sit right under him, practically, during the date, as it was a fairly small studio. Si Zentner, Eddie Kusby and some of the L.A. guys were there. And Tommy came in—and he just blew that one fat note, and he was ready. Boy, it was beautiful to watch. He had an attitude, such a positive approach about everything, in talking to Bing and all that. I mean, he was king, let's face it; he was up there and knew where he was—there's no doubt about it.
Then, at the end of the Crosby session, he was playing some tapes that I don't think were ever put on record. They were from an album they were working on, with Dave Rose arrangements. Like, "Body And Soul", and just beautiful strings—you know what a great master Dave is with the orchestra—with Tommy Dorsey playing those things. Wow. I remember Crosby hanging around listening; he had his hat on, ready to go, and Dorsey said: "Oh, one more thing, Bing—" Bing says: "Professor, can I go now?" So he left, and we listened to some more tapes. But Tommy was so positive—he just had that direction.
LUSHER: I've recently read the Dorsey Brothers book; a lot of the things in it I knew, but there are some very interesting facts. For instance, the tremendous amount of work that that band did—the Brothers' band, Jimmy's band or Tommy's band. Fantastic hours they used to work sometimes—you really wonder how they kept such a standard up.
Another thing was clear in the book, and I was talking to Johnny Mercer about this as well—he was very good to those guys, you know. Very often the entire band used to go to his place for a whole weekend, and they were really looked after. You could enjoy yourself while you were there, get up when you wanted, do as you pleased. There was only one strict rule—you were not allowed to talk about the band at all.