Thursday, April 10, 2008

Part One: 20th century trombone

Two weekends ago I had two experiences that really showed me what it means to be a trombonist today. My write-up of them is LONG, so if you don't have the attention to read it all, the conclusion is: I'm sad the 20th century is gone, but I'm hopeful about the 21st. This is part One.

On Saturday, I went to Charlie Small's monthly invite-only trombone group (usually 8-12 of the better local trombonists), which mainly plays Charlie's arrangements of classical works. I've been many times, and I knew that Charlie used to be a trombonist with a TV station in New York, but didn't really know what he'd done. On Saturday, he was asked to tell his life story as a trombonist, which follows:

Charlie grew up in New York City, a Jewish kid on the lower East side in the 1930's. At night, he listen to the radio and hear live broadcasts of dance bands from around the country, often with beautiful trombone solos, so when his parents asked him to learn an instrument, he chose the trombone. He played well enough in high school to get a gig with a local dance orchestra that payed him $125/week, which at the time was a decent salary. Through that gig, he was asked to sub with trombonist Tommy Dorsey's band when they played a New York theater. The gig was sold out, and Charlie read the Dorsey book well enough that they offered him the chair, which he accepted as soon as he graduated high school.

Charlie made lots of money playing with the Dorsey band, but he didn't enjoy being on the road, so after a few years of touring he returned to New York. A local contractor quickly put him to work as a substitute trombonist with the NBC New York television orchestra, and after a short time he was hired as a permanent musician. At that time, each broadcasting TV station in major cities had an staff orchestra to record music for all the shows produced there. He would arrive each morning to find a schedule of recording sessions for the day- a mystery show one day, a drama the next day, etc.

Charlie stayed at NBC for most of his career, until broadcasting stations began making producers rent their own sound stage and hire their own musicians, which made recording musicians into freelancers. In his last working years, he made a living playing trombone in Broadway shows. He retired to Phoenix, and now leads this very informal monthly group.

I was really, really depressed by hearing his story. I think this is because some part of me wanted to take him as a role model- after all, he's been successful as a trombonist in a way I often imagined being, when I was in college, and in the years after, as I tried to figure out what I could possibly do with my musical ambitions. I was depressed because almost no part of his career could exist today. There are no trombone solos on popular radio. No one can make a living gigging one night a week with a dance band- if they can find such a gig at all- and certainly, young players don't "just stumble into" such a band. Big bands are a small niche market, few rock bands tour with horn sections, and there certainly aren't any trombonist/bandleaders like Dorsey that sell out major venues. Sample libraries have replaced most recording work, and what's left is much more geographically focused and competitive, with movie and TV scores being recorded almost exclusively in Los Angeles (or overseas). Even Broadway shows now use mainly pre-recorded music.

And there's a professionalism that comes from experience, from steady work and regular opportunities, and I don't think that professionalism can be imitated or learned any other way. I was envious that Charlie got that, as a trombonist, in a way that I never will- and mainly I was just sad that I had missed the 20th century.


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