Big Band Bass Trombone

I wrote the following for a jazz history course at North Texas in 1997. Paul Bauer's articles in the ITA Journal were a valuable resource and contain more information than I've included here. My focus was on the bass trombone, whereas Paul's focus was on all Kenton trombonists. When I begin adding past Journal articles to the ITA website in earnest, Paul's will be among the first to make it to the web.

In addition to the limited number of texts in the bibliography, I was also fortunate to speak with George Roberts on the phone for an hour or two. As always, he was incredibly gracious and wanted to know as much about me as I wanted to know about him. I've met him at numerous trombone festivals and am consistently amazed at how sweet the man is.

George and JoshThe bass trombone began its big band legacy in the Stan Kenton Orchestra.  As Kenton loved extremes of register, the bass trombone was the perfect complement to his style of music.  It was an obscure instrument early on in part because arrangers did not know how to write for it.  Stereotypes developed and have remained with the instrument through the present.  In this paper, I will trace the history of the bass trombone in the jazz big band, emphasizing the Kenton band in general, and George Roberts in particular.

Bart Varsalona was the first bass trombonist to ever play in the Stan Kenton orchestra, although he joined the band as a tenor player.  As if by chance, Varsalona happened to see a bass trombone in a music store window while on tour in San Francisco.  He said, "I had an idea.  The band was playing a lot of heavy bottom.  I went in and tried [the bass trombone] out.  It felt pretty comfortable and the price was right.  I picked it up, and I brought it on the job that night.  [Kenton] saw a difference immediately.  He said, 'Great, keep it.'"(1)  Therefore, the bass trombone was used for the first time in the Kenton band, and quite possibly any big band, in August 1943.(2)  Varsalona went on to say, "Stan Kenton had a great passion for bottom register sounds in his charts [so] he offered to help me pay for it."(3)  Varsalona refused.

At the time Varsalona made the switch from tenor to bass, there were only three trombonists in the band.  The section expanded to four players in May 1944.(4) Eventually, a fifth trombonist was added.  Gene Roland, a trumpet player and arranger on the band, had arranged a fifth trumpet book for himself in 1944.  He later left the band, only to return as a valve trombonist, the fifth member of the section.  He proceeded to write a fifth trombone book (played by the fourth chair player).  The extra part was treated as optional as Roland left the band and was not immediately replaced.  However, a permanent fifth player was added in September 1946.  Skip Layton filled the fourth chair vacated by Roland.(5)  In Paul Bauer's article on the Kenton trombone legacy, he stated that this, "rapid expansion of the trombone section [was] due to the fact that the trombone was Kenton's favorite instrument."(6)

There is an interesting side note in the Kenton trombone history.  In 1948, Kenton was planning to switch all five trombone players to the valve trombone.  Kenton: "The slide trombone is a jazz has-been.  Ordinary trombones are fine for some speeds, but when you want to play sixteenths at any kind of tempo, they are just too sloppy in a section.  With valve horns we could get almost as much speed of execution as with trumpets.  With valve trombones we'll have a brass coloring and cleanliness that no big band has had up to now."(7)  With the influence the Kenton band has had on many of the professional, university, and high school jazz bands around the world, it is interesting to ponder what would be the norm in big band trombone sections if Kenton had gone through with his idea. 

Kenton did experiment with his band's instrumentation by adding the tuba.  In many instances, the tuba was the sixth member of the trombone section, but on a summer tour in 1956, the tuba completely replaced the fifth chair bass trombonist.  This experiment did not last long, as the bass trombone would become the permanent resident of the bottom chair.  Kenton did not fully appreciate what the tuba brought to his band: "I wanted more depth and a tuba doesn't have the flexibility and fluidity."(8)  In the late 1950s, Kenton added a second bass trombonist which replaced the fourth chair tenor player.  The tuba would return only as a doubled instrument for one of the bass trombonists. It was used mainly on ballads after this time; the more technical parts would be played on the bass trombone.  The three tenor, two bass trombone instrumentation was the set section until the band's final tour in 1978.(9)

Bart Varsalona played bass trombone for Stan Kenton for over eight years.  After he left the band Kenton used a handful of players before George Roberts joined the band. While many incorrectly credit him with starting the big band bass trombone tradition in the Kenton band, Roberts did much to legitimize the bass trombone in the jazz world.

George Roberts, like Varsalona, began his big band career on tenor trombone, he in the Gene Krupa band.  The band had three trombonists: Urbie Green, Gene Mullins, and Roberts.  While sitting next to and listening to Urbie Green play night in and night out, Roberts wondered about his musical future:  "What are my percentages of making it in the business?  I have to be better than what's out there if I'm going to make it.  What can I do that's better than Urbie?  What am I doing?  Where am I going?"(10)  George Roberts had an epiphany.  Knowing he had a solid low register, he began exploring the idea of playing the bass trombone in the big band.  He thought to himself, "Nobody has ever played a solo on bass trombone, and I could really take advantage of my [lower register].  It [will] be harder because of the pacing against the tenor, and there are more restrictions.  Bass trombone is like playing an open inner tube.  I'll have to pace myself differently.  I'll go more for sound.  Maybe I could play songs like Urbie only an octave lower."(11)

Roberts asked Krupa if he could make the switch to the bass trombone, and upon adding another tenor trombonist, Krupa agreed.  Roberts moved to fourth chair, and Krupa's arrangers gave him some lower parts to play.  On one gig, Roberts played a solo on Where or When.  He looked up to find Krupa smiling.  He said, "My percentages just shot up because I was competitive.  Among hundreds of players I was the only one doing it.  At that time, playing bass trombone was like selling a bad sack of potatoes.  Nobody wanted to buy it.  It drags and it plays flat."(12)  Roberts' statements are somewhat misleading, as Varsalona had already been playing bass trombone in Kenton's band for a few years.  Roberts started playing bass in Krupa's band sometime in 1947 or 1948, at least four years after Varsalona had made the switch.(13)  However, Roberts had a different approach to playing the instrument than Varsalona.  In an interview, Roberts described Varsalona as a "bull."(14)  Roberts' statement that he was the "only one doing it" refers to the style in which he was playing.  While he believes that playing like a bull is sometimes necessary, Roberts states, "You gotta have both sides if you want to survive."(15)  Furthermore, Roberts believes it is not necessary to disguise or alter the bass trombone sound.  Urbie Green told him, "You're the only guy who plays bass trombone like a trombone."(16)

In 1951, Roberts received a telephone call from Kenton, asking him to come play in his band.  Roberts replied by screaming "YEAH" into the phone.  After purchasing all the Kenton records he could find, he memorized September Song, it being one of the charts in the book that had soloistic bass trombone lines.  The first night on the gig he was very nervous. After dropping his book into the gutter when entering the concert hall, Kenton called September Song just as the lights went out.  Kenton apologized to the audience, saying that the piece featured the bass trombonist who was new on the band.  Roberts convinced Kenton to play it anyway, and proceeded to perform the entire tune from memory.  When they finished, Stan turned to the audience and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, we've been looking for a bass trombone player, and you are looking at him right now."(17)

While on the band, the arrangers would try to write parts that would emphasize Roberts' style.  One of his favorite arrangers was Johnny Richards.  He wrote for bass trombone in what Roberts described as the "velvet range."(18)  Richards' arrangement of Stella by Starlight is a prime example of this style.  It doesn't take the bass trombone into the high register; rather, it stays centered in the low range.  Roberts stated that Kenton would always try to write high bass trombone parts that were difficult to play on the larger instrument.  Kai Winding, a former tenor trombonist in the Kenton band believes this is the wrong approach to the bass trombone: "It has its own tonality; it is actually an instrument to its own.  [Playing high on the bass trombone] defeats the purpose; the higher range thins out, and then you may as well play a tenor trombone."(19)

After Roberts ended his first stay with Kenton, he needed to make a name for himself as a freelance bass trombonist.  He let Lee Gillette, a friend of his at Capitol Records, know he was interested in finding work.  When he went to his office, he was introduced to Nelson Riddle.  Gillette prodded Riddle about using a bass trombone in his band, but Riddle said that nobody could play the way he wanted.  He went ahead and hired Roberts for a gig with Dean Martin just to appease his friend.  He wrote an unusually low part in the hopes that Roberts would fail and he could be rid of him.  However, Roberts played the part well and even added a little to it.  Riddle smiled at Roberts throughout the entire gig.(20)

This began a working relationship between the two that would last for nearly forty years.(21)  Riddle would ask for Roberts' input on what he thought the bass trombone should be.  Roberts had always disliked the way in which writers associated the instrument with big people or big things. He felt that the bass trombone should be a more melodic instrument - the player should emulate vocalists.  He explained to Riddle that the bass trombone is ideal in accomplishing this because the male vocal range is the very core of the bass trombone range.(22)  Riddle told Roberts that he must, "have the heart of an elephant."(23)  However, this conversation influenced the way Riddle wrote for the instrument for years to come.  Roberts, as well as many other bass trombonists, credit Riddle as the creator of the commercial business for the bass trombone.(24)

George Roberts ended up playing for Kenton off and on from 1951 to 1957.  His longest stint in the band was from June 1951 to April 1953.(25)  When not touring with Kenton, Roberts would play in the Los Angeles area.  There is one gig that Roberts credits with giving a major boost to his career.  He was booked on a recording session with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and was very surprised to see Igor Stravinsky sitting in the booth.  Right before he had to play, someone came over and said that the previous bass trombonist had not made the part.  Apparently, that player had had difficulties with a challenging solo with the harp.  After playing the difficult passage, Stravinsky announced that the harpist was not matching the bass trombonist.  "He's right (Roberts), and you're wrong."  Roberts reply was, "I had just legitimized myself."  As a result of this session, Roberts became the top-call bass trombonist in Los Angeles for 36 years.

Roberts has just recently turned seventy, but he is still quite active in the music scene.  He frequently travels to Japan to put on clinics and concerts, and he performs in a club in California every Sunday afternoon.  He is also involved in a project for Music Minus One that includes much of Sinatra's repertoire.(26)

The Kenton bass trombone tradition did not stop with Roberts.  Many excellent players performed with the band, one being Ken Shroyer.  Kenton thought very highly of him: "So far as individual sidemen are concerned, Kenton considers bass trombonist Kenny Shroyer 'the greatest talent to come into the band in recent years.  He knocks me out.  Just fabulous.'"(27)  This statement alone proves how far the bass trombone had come.  Where the last chair trombonist had previously been a utility player, the bass trombonist had opportunities to shine. 

Success for the instrument would not have been possible if the writers were not willing to compose for the instrument.  Kenton's writers arranged a handful of charts to feature the bass trombone.  First, Gene Roland composed Invention for Bass Trombone for Bart Varsalona in 1947.  As mentioned previously, Johnny Richards arranged Stella by Starlight for George Roberts.  It is a slow ballad without improvisation that displays the mid to lower range of the horn.  It was recorded on The Kenton Era in 1953.  Richards also arranged a feature for Ken Shroyer, this one Cole Porter's Get Out of Town, which was recorded on Back to Balboa in 1958.  Desiderata, composed by Joseph Coccia, also featured Shroyer.  Originally intended as a tenor trombone solo, the composer rewrote it for the bass trombone.  It was recorded on Rendezvous with Kenton (the selection on the accompanying tape is from a re-release of a live recording).  Captain Obu was composed by Roger Middleton for Bobby Knight.  It can be found on Artistry in Kenton, a private release.  Finally, an arrangement of Tenderly features Mike Wallace.  It can be found on Live at Butler University.(28)

Despite all the efforts of Roberts to convince people otherwise, many still regard the bass trombone as a "bull."  Immature players can do a lot to turn people off to the instrument.  John Berry authored a book on the development of a school jazz ensemble.  In it, he alerted the ensemble director to the problems associated with the "monster" bass trombonist: "About once a decade the music world renders up a bona fide monster bass trombonist... the guy who can play louder than any human on earth.  No audience wants to hear a bass trombone dominate a band all night long.  Except for those occasional authorized solo bombs, his job is to blend in with the trombones."(29) 

The bass trombone has many roles other than dropping bombs. "The style determines whether the bass trombone should add mainly to the rhythm section, the trombone section, and/or the bass-line rhythm section."(30)  The rhythmic role can be heard on Stan Kenton's arrangement of Intermission Riff.  In this chart, the repeated motive heard first in the rhythm section is punctuated by the edgier bass trombone.  The second role of the bass trombonist, that of the bottom of the trombone section can be heard on numerous Kenton charts.  September Song is a beautiful example of how this can be done effectively.  Another arrangement from the Kenton library that demonstrates this facet of playing is Hank Levy's A Time for Love.  Finally, by playing a bass line, the bass trombonist can fulfill the final role of the instrument as stated by Pryor.  An excellent example of this can be heard on Gil Evans' Stratusphunk, recorded on Out of the Cool in 1961.  Bass trombonist Tony Studd and bassist Ron Carter trade the bass line seamlessly throughout the entire chart.

Pryor's categorizations demonstrate again that many fail to see the melodic capabilities of the horn.  Players such as George Roberts, Bill Reichenbach, David Taylor, Phil Teele, et al have demonstrated its melodic capabilities in many big bands over the years.  With younger players such as Reichenbach, whose beautiful sound and phrasing can be heard on a Buddy Rich Big Band recording of Wave, the bass trombone will continue to gain legitimacy.  Phil Teele displays Roberts' ideas of melody when he solos on Saturday Night.  Douglas Purviance's rendition of Round Midnight on World of Trombones is as fluid and graceful as any recording this author has heard.  Finally, David Taylor's virtuosity alone can propel the bass trombone even further.  His performances on Bob Mintzer's Big Band recordings are a prime example.  On Mr. Fone Bone, recorded on Camouflage, Mintzer writes the melody in the bass trombone part for a number of bars at the end of the piece.  Although it is not an extended display of ability, the point is made to whoever purchases the album that the instrument does not have to be a "bad sack of potatoes."   Finally, Mintzer wrote an extraordinarily difficult solo on Incredible Journey, recorded on the album of the same name.  In it, Taylor shows how the bass trombone is closely related to the rhythm section.  The part calls for angular, punchy two-bar fills, in much the same way a drummer would fill solo breaks.

The big band bass trombone tradition is one that seldom gets any exposure or glory.  Scholarly writing on the subject is almost nonexistent.  In performance, bass trombone moments pass by with little notice, as the lead trumpet or solo saxophonist invariably controls the audience's attention.  Stan Kenton did much for the instrument; yet, if it were not for the personal initiatives of two bottom chair trombone players, the bass trombonist may have had little opportunity in the jazz world.

  1. Paul Bauer, "The Trombones in the Orchestras of Stan Kenton: The Development of the Trombone Section," International Trombone Association Journal 10, No. 3 (July 1982): 25.
  2. Ibid.
  3. William F. Lee, Stan Kenton: Artistry in Rhythm (Los Angeles: Creative Press of Los Angeles, 1980): 52-53.
  4. Paul Bauer, "A Complete Chronological Listing of the Trombone and Tuba Personnel of Stan Kenton's Orchestras," ITA Journal 11, No. 4 (October 1983): 24-25.
  5. Paul Bauer, "Trombones," 26.
  6. Ibid., 25.
  7. Ibid., 26.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Elecia Hill, "George Roberts: Tribute to a Legend," ITA Journal 16, No. 1 (Winter 1988): 24.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., 24-25.
  13. George Roberts, telephone interview by author, 18 April 1998.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Hill, "George Roberts," 26.
  18. George Roberts, interview.
  19. Les Tompkins, "Trombone Topics Discussed by Kai Winding," Crescendo International 19, No. 8 (March 1981): 23-24.
  20. Hill, "George Roberts," 27.
  21. George Roberts, interview.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Hill, "George Roberts," 28.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Paul Bauer, "A Complete Chronological Listing," 24-25.
  26. George Roberts, interview.
  27. "Stan Kenton: A Look at the Future," Down Beat, 6 March 1958, 20.
  28. Paul Bauer, "The Trombones in the Orchestras of Stan Kenton: Trombone Feature Pieces Performed by Stan Kenton and His Orchestra," ITA Journal 10, No. 4 (October 1982): 17-18.
  29. John Berry, The Jazz Ensemble Director's Handbook (Jenson Publications): 5-4.
  30. Stephen Pryor, "Bass Trombone Jazz Styles," The Instrumentalist 31, No. 11 (June 1977): 63.

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