TROMBONE
Studying with three teachers in three years, I was a trombone student in Oklahoma until I was about
fifteen years old. Each weekend at one of their houses I'd wait in the kitchen until the trombonist in
the basement would yell up at me to come down-- they all taught in their basements. I would
descend, assemble my horn, sit in a folding chair, park my sheet music on the stand, weather some
insult aimed at my embouchure, and play whatever I had not been studying for the last week.
My teachers-- industrious, frugal, starving men-- had one thing in common other than my unpreparedness:
they'd all installed do-it-yourself showers in those basements. These units stood in
some corner, usually my corner, and they'd drip... ploink, ploink. There was nothing more ominous
than basements with leaking showers in them, and there was no telling when fear began, but my
trombone kept those home improvements at bay.
I was a hero.
I had fewer illusions about my playing. Bob Green was a trombone player, I was a kid with a
trombone. Still, I was convinced that I'd eventually outgrow the roll in my embouchure and grow up
like Pinocchio to be a real trombone player. I loved to play and I loved the trombone; but I never
considered that a trombonist might have to install his own shower; I never guessed that my
trombone teachers might be trombonists; I never considered that a life in trombone might differ from
the one I was imagining... a life lived in hotels, in black suits and skinny ties, Ray-Bans indoors, by
someone who never played much and was depressed.
(By the time I knew depression was free, and that I didn't have to play trombone to be depressed,
I'd imitated its "mood" for so long that I couldn't refuse the Damned Cloud when it did arrive. If
you've been imitating the seeming cool, the detachment, and the languor, genuine depression won't
be noticed until you tire of your pose. Bored with oceanic despair, you reach for the ladder back into
the boat and you drown: no ladder.)
To build your own shower, as my teachers did, is to laugh at depression... ploink, ploink. Keats called
this negative capability. So, if you were or are a trombonist, you've likely confronted one or more of
these home improvements because it's no picnic to master an instrument; and if you're a student,
you're squirming in a kitchen somewhere and you've just begun reading Popular Mechanics. You're
waiting for that voice to call you downstairs. More disturbing than Popular Mechanics, you are already
seeing the music on that stand beyond the stairs: "The Bluebells of Scotland," "Down Home on the
Farm," "A Stalk of Corn," "Tango for the Veterans Administration."
A couple of those pieces I made up, but the ones I didn't were exhumed long before I could have
dug them up from the cornfield. To be merciful, there's a sliding scale for these musical stiffs: "Blue
Bells" is much better than "Down Home on the Farm," for example. I know this because I’ve heard
"The Blue Bells of Scotland" and I’ve actually played "Down Home on the Farm." I couldn't play "The
Blue Bells of Scotland;" that piece is what we musicians call "hard." Bob Green played “The Blue Bells
of Scotland.” I played, “Down Home on the Farm.”
I played it for three judges at an annual state competition in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
I skulked out to center stage in an empty hall that year, announced the title of this hayseed kitsch,
the judges laughed, and I played the cadenza: a collision of hope and ability. Then I stated the
melody and the judges laughed again-- they knew a melody when they heard one-- and somewhere
in the middle of this thing they realized what was coming and they began to chortle.
If you want to torture someone but not to offend them, you will chortle.
I repeated the melody twice as fast, and the judges squeaked from chortle to snort. They couldn't
help themselves. They didn't care how I felt, and they knew what was coming. Bowing to tradition, I
too knew what was coming: I repeated the thing a third time and played it three times as fast. I
ignored the judges' snorts, clawed my way through another cadenza, and received my failing grade
the next day.
I blame this episode not on the perpetrator of "Down Home on the Farm," she couldn't have helped
herself, but on my trombone teacher, the bass trombonist for the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra, who
had it in for me. It's also possible that my judges were friends of his, that he was giving them some
relief on a dull day.
These recital pieces are an industry. You won't hear them, other than at state-sanctioned ordeals,
because they're not any good. They leak like boats. They leave nothing after them-- a life preserver
or two. Some valve oil. A gasp. My trombone teachers would probably have insisted that these pieces
suited my abilities, that they'd have given me good music if I could have played it; but I was
sometimes first chair in the Muskogee West Junior High Band, conducted by the inspirational Lowell
Lehman; and my competition was Julian Fite, a kid who went on to become District Attorney. I was
unassailable... but, of course, I remember none of my trombone teachers playing more than one note
for me. I do remember some funny looks when I played for them... a long time ago.
A few years ago I built a couple motors. (I was depressed.) And my skills as a mechanic reminded me
of my skills as a trombonist. But I learned how to adjust valve stem clearances on an Alfa motor with
parts from a Volkswagen. Doing this was like building a zip-gun, two of which were confiscated at
West Junior High in the Year of the Farm; but a self-installed shower is no zip-gun, it is no outsider
thrill; it is the last cigarette before the firing squad. It is a gesture of defiance. It is an economy.
JJ Johnson, Kai Winding, Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Watrous, Bruce Paulson, or the Terrible Tempered
Trombones are or were all trombonists who could afford food. They may never have installed a
shower in their basements; but most artists, like Rakoto Fra, a sudina player pictured on Malagassi
currency when he didn't have a Malagassi dime, are honored by their culture but not rewarded by it.
So some of them teach. And kids like me show up in their basements.
But now I know: the teachers who watched my feet coming down their stairs every week illustrate an
existential fact: gifts (theirs) are often obscured by ignorance (mine) but knowledge can reveal them.
My teachers?... I was a plague on their houses, and not the hero I thought I was, but they charged
only a small fee for admitting my sullen evasions to their basements; and they taught me not only
music, but also ABOUT music, and about corn, and about patience-- theirs, mostly.
I am looking at my trombone-- which is all I can do with it. It is the same trombone my teachers saw
coming down their basement stairs. It is a Bach #10, an instrument with a different diameter to each
parallel of its slide. This innovation was to have increased the speed of the slide by decreasing its
resistance... a virtue, had the design worked, that would have been entirely lost on me. I'm intrigued,
though, by the semblance of tone I might have produced had the diameters been equal.
Just maybe....
But those showers have collapsed by now... you can't step in the same basement twice. You can't go
back; even Mt. Everest is a little shorter than it was when I played "Down Home on the Farm;" but
because of my performance in Tahlequah, I got to hear the chortle in its natural environment and to
watch my trombone career go down the drain... ploink, ploink.
Any fool would know that I was a lucky kid. I got to play, so I get to play. I was guided by
trombonists, note by note, toward home.