Jazz Professional               


Jimmy Knepper

The trombone's possibilities


My approach to the trombone
Goodbye to those dance band days
Listen to others
The trombone's possibilities
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1982

Photo by Denis J. Williams

Do I teach? If somebody comes right to my door, I’ll give ‘em a lesson. Yes, I have a few students—and a few maxims that I just keep repeating over and over until they get it. One of them is about not relying on crutches. Number one is: have a model to strive for, as regards your basic sound—that is, tone and articulation: Avoid reliance on crutches of vibrato. . .

and there’s a few others. Keep the air–stream steady, and articulate everything—not relying on the crutch of overblowing partial series to make your articulation. When the time comes, it’s possible, by instinct, to use overblowing the partials as a technique to rest—but I don’t really recommend that; it is a crutch. Just be aware of what you’re doing. I rely on crutches too; I overblow partials, but I know that I’m doing it, and I’m not too happy about relying on a crutch like that to make certain things come out.

Certainly, trombone is a very rewarding instrument to play. If students will do what you tell them to, they can’t help but play. You say: “Play this thing twelve times every day, and do this for half–an–hour”—it’s impossible for them not to play.

This is just an inevitable reaction; they’d have to fight to do away with the habit pattern that you’re getting them into. Or the neural response, moving the hands and knowing where the positions are. And hearing in their mind what intervals should sound like; they know very well when they’re playing notes out of tune, if their sound isn’t up to par, or whatever. It just takes awareness.

There are some youngsters who have a great deal of discipline; if they do it at an early age, and get these basic things a part of their inner selves, they can’t help but be whizzes, as long as they keep at it long enough.

As for valve trombone—it’s kind of like a toy, almost. It’s not a trombone in the real sense; it doesn’t have anything of the kind of sound that comes from a trombone. The sound goes in and around, and around again and out—it doesn’t go through a lot of valves. The slide trombone is a distinctive sound. If somebody learned how to play slide trumpet, that would be quite a sound too. That would be very difficult—the positions are a quarter of an inch, half an inch apart; someone’d have to play extremely chromatic music and fast–moving things on if.

But some of the youngsters coming up are profiting by what it took us thirty or forty years to learn. If you lay that on a youngster, and say: “Here, start out with this”, then he’s thirty years ahead. It won’t take him all that great deal of time to learn what we did. If you emphasise what you’ve found out to be important about playing, and they have that when they start out, then there’s no stopping ‘em. Instead of trial and error, which is one way to learn, they have the knowledge that others have accumulated—it’s just a time–saver. You can tell somebody the essentials in five minutes, and save them three years of all that uncertainty and probing, all those errors.

It’s like—parallel fifths, parallel octaves, hidden fifths and things like that, that are mentioned in harmony are just what the writers and the musicians found out in the course of a few hundred years.

There’s nothing wrong with them; they’re a certain sound—but there are ways of doing it better. These have a certain kind of hollow sound, or Indian tom–tom–like kind of thing—if that’s what you want, okay, you use parallel fourths and fifths. The fact is, there is a better way, and it comes out more musical if you do it this way. It’s just a suggestion; it’s not a hard–and–fast rule—it’s just something that the musicians before them had learned from experience. It doesn’t sound as good as something that’s contrapuntal, or moving in contrary motion. Just like root positions of chords—there’s nothing wrong with them, but the music will come out a little better if you use inversions for some of the chords. And you put different notes in the bass, rather than root to root to root to root.

It’s a very eclectic musical scene nowadays. Musicians are getting familiar with all ages of music, as well as music from all over the world, and they grab something from here and something from there, stir it around in their own personality, and hopefully come up with something that’s uniquely their own.

Probably Bach might have written every fragment of melody that’s come out in the last four hundred years, but somebody uses the same materials that he worked with, and they come out with something different. Maybe whole phrases you can trace back to one of the earliest composers, but they wouldn’t know it. They’re permutated a different way.

Music is an art, a science, a therapy, an emotion, a feeling, a swing; it’s rhythm, it’s harmony and it’s melody. You’re always able to learn; there’s always something there that you don’t know, that will be a very great revelation, and that might turn your whole playing around when you become aware of it. Some musicians have been exposed to, say, music from a different country, and it’s completely changed their way of thinking, with the result that they’ve started on a very different tack.

Some players came up playing Dixieland; they were influenced by that kind of music, and they were very set in their ways. Then they heard something else that completely floored them, and they said: “Wow—let me get into that.” And rather than imitating, they got into the spirit of it, and made this different kind of music their own. Their personalities, their thought processes, their emotions set the way that they went about it. A new intake had a different influence on them than it had on somebody who was out of the same bag, so to speak, and was influenced in his individual approach. Music is very rewarding in that you can look forward to the possibility that years and years later you’ll be into something completely different. You have learned a whole concept that is much newer, and it has turned you right around. And, hopefully, you can continue learning indefinitely—because it’s all there.

For myself, I certainly hope to earn my livelihood in the jazz field consistently now. I’m getting the name; so I’m being hired to play out–and–out jazz jobs—hopefully, it’ll continue. I’m very happy that I don’t have to play back–up music for Petula Clark, Tom Jones, or some of the dreadful rock groups you hear. Or the acts that you play for, where the music is pure drivel—and some not so pure. Some music is absolute trash, that you can have no respect for, but you just do it because you’re a professional, and do it well—the only satisfaction is getting paid for it.

I enjoy England very much; not that I can understand what a lot of the English are saying to me, but at least I have a handle on the language. I’m getting use to the chaps, blokes, geezers and twits, though.

I’m especially pleased that these places we’re playing are little arts centres that hold two hundred, three hundred people, or maybe less. Even though we’re playing with amplifiers, microphones and all that, it’s still a far cry from playing in big places with three thousand people out there, that you have no real contact with; you’re hearing yourself through a monitor, that distorts what you’re doing. I much prefer more intimate scenes like this.

I’d love to play some acoustic music, but it doesn’t seem to be possible any more. Even in small places they have microphones and the rest of it. But we’re playing wind instruments. When I came up, you had to play at the level that a drummer played, or the drummer had to hold down to the level that you could play. Now the whole thing has changed—you can play at a whisper into a microphone, and have it come bellowing out.

Copyright © 1982 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.