Tag Archives: trombone

Madonna of Silence

This drama for trombone and orchestra reflects the inner turbulence of Michelangelo’s drawing Madonna del Silenzio on which the work is based. The trombone takes on many roles: from the quiet, inner voice of the Madonna as she gazes in contemplation at the child, later singing a hymn and, towards the end of the work, lamentations. Both soloist and orchestra are equally engaged in the unfolding drama.

Madonna of Silence, by John Casken, Schott Music, https://en.schott-music.com.

Back to the Age of Swing: Working to Preserve the Big Band

Trombonist Rex Allen of Local 6 (San Francisco, CA) has been a big band leader for 50 years and has cultivated a following in the genre of vintage jazz.


Rex Allen came of age at the height of rock and roll, but he pursued more unconventional music as a teenager in the 1960s—the sound of swing. He took a serious interest in Dixieland jazz, popular from the 1920s through the 1940s. In 1968, he joined the union with an eye on a professional career as a trombone player and bandleader. After 50 years of making music and 44 years with Local 6 (San Francisco, CA), he recently became a Lifetime member.

Allen had the best introduction to the big band era. His parents owned a vast collection of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman albums. He became a member of the New Orleans Jazz Club of Northern California and the Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society.

A trombonist and vibraphonist, Allen counts among his influences legends Jack Teagarden and Lionel Hampton, the latter with whom he worked at the 1986 Monterey Jazz Festival. “I played the trombone, of course—I wasn’t going to play vibes with Lionel Hampton,” he laughs. Allen’s brass skills are well known. In a 1985 reader’s poll in Jazzology, he tied with Bill Watrous.

In 1972, he was making a name for himself when he got a call from Jimmy Diamond, bandleader in the New Orleans Room at the Fairmont Hotel. “I was young and still learning,” he says, but it turned out to be an important connection. Allen absorbed swing techniques from top-level players  who would later make up his big band and Swing Express, among them Dave Black and Jim Rothermel of Local 6.

He’s been associated with legendary bands, The World’s Greatest JazzBand of Yank Lawson and Bob Haggart, and from 1979 to 1987, he worked with Bob Crosby’s Bobcats, saying, “It was a dream come true, working with my idols!”

In 1977, Allen became co-leader of The Rex Allen/Bob Neighbor Big Band and from 1976-1977, he was featured solo trombonist for the estate-sponsored Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.

When a move to Los Angeles didn’t pan out, Allen returned to San Francisco and has made his home in nearby San Rafael ever since. He formed the all-star quintet Rex Allen Swing Express in the 1980s and led the Gene Krupa Orchestra tribute band for six years. The Rex Allen Big Band made three national tours for Columbia Artists, including the Big Band Salute to Glenn Miller, in 1993.

According to Allen, there were three waves of big band music created by the music industry to satisfy the nostalgia market. The first, in 1968, he says was a direct result of the book, The Big Bands, by jazz writer George T. Simon, a well-known chronicler of the swing era. Allen says, “It reached an audience that listened to big bands in their youth, but in the late 1940s and 1950s they were too busy raising families to buy records or tickets. Years later, they wanted to return to the music they grew up with.” Harry Connick Jr., ushered in a second wave, from 1989 into the 1990s. The last wave, in the 2000s, was less about music interpretation and more about the visual elements of jazz—artists staging an atmosphere for their shows—what Allen calls “costume jazz.”

Allen has worked alternately as a trombonist and vibist in all-star bands for jazz festivals and events around the country. Working steadily earned him a union pension which, he says, “You don’t necessarily consider early in your career—I didn’t pay attention—but it’s made a huge difference now.”

As a bandleader, Allen says, “You are emcee, musician, and manager. You end up reprogramming your best stuff because it works—the best tunes, the best variation of tempos through a set. It’s a formula you want to break, but often can’t. It’s an artistic dilemma.”

Still, through the years, he’s learned to keep it fresh—with vocal presentation and featuring his players as great soloists, creating new arrangements of old tunes—and swing-style charts on pop tunes—while staying within the idiom, he notes. He recalls Tony Bennett, whom he booked in San Francisco, telling him, “You have to reinvent yourself.” “‘A subtle evolution in packaging’, that’s how he described it. Tony definitely went with the times,” says Allen, adding, “He became an elder statesman.”

A semi-retired Allen sums up his work in big bands: “To promote, preserve, and protect the music of the great swing era.” His new show, America Swings Again, is a two-hour production commemorating the music, personalities, and broadcasts. “Most people who listen to our band know what to expect. Play it the way it was played in 1938.”

Commemorative Bach Bone

In celebration of the anniversary of Vincent Bach, Conn-Selmer and Vincent Bach launched 42BOF Bach Stradivarius Centennial commemorative trombones. The model features traditional 42 bell for ultimate in tonal response; “bell-free bracing” to allow the bell to freely vibrate; and an “open-flow” valve for playability in the lower register, while maintaining the high range.


Paul Nowell

Paul Nowell: From Jazz to Hip-Hop, L.A.’s Trombone Evangelist

Paul NowellOne of the first gigs Paul Nowell landed just out of Berklee College in 2007 was a world tour with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. The repertory was straight out of the swing era and he remembers that some of the sheet music was in Miller’s own handwriting. He says, “I thought, ‘Wow, this should be in a museum. Why am I on the bandstand reading this on a gig?’”

Nowell discovered the trombone in the fourth grade when his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. “The band director told my parents my arms weren’t going to reach it. I didn’t care. When I found out the trombone could do the plunger sounds from Peanuts—the adult character voices—I thought, oh, that’s cool.”

By 17, he was making forays into the jazz scene, leading ensembles around downtown Cleveland. It was at one of those gigs that he met Ron Ellington Shy, the nephew of Duke Ellington—an unexpected opportunity that fortified his decision to make music a career. Two days later, Nowell was at Shy’s house working on music. He says, “I saw a lot of gold records! As a kid that was quite something to experience. He told me about playing with one of  my trombone idols, J. J. Johnson.” J. J. used to tell him that when you improvise, be aware of creating little melodies in your solo, rhythm first, then melody. If people can’t sing along you will lose them.

In the summer of 2008, right before he played the pit in the Broadway hit Memphis—which at the time was in a pre-Broadway run at the La Jolla Playhouse—he joined the union. He says he knew it was the right thing to do and it’s served him well. It’s about establishing lifelong relationships, Nowell says. “A lot of the people I went to school with are union members and we get the opportunity to work together now in the real world. It’s cool to see those relationships continue to develop.”

Now living in Los Angeles, 34-year-old Nowell of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA), bills himself as “Paul the Trombonist” and is a much sought-out session player for big bands. He leads a three-piece horn section, directs his own jazz combo, and does solo gigs as a DJ trombonist. For the latter, he explains, “It’s me, keyboards, looping devices, and my trombone. I’ll cover pop tunes, some of the old standards. An older audience is exposed to new stuff and a younger audience gets to hear the classics for the first time. It’s like cross-pollinating so everyone can learn something new.”

Nowell has played with 10-time Grammy winning trumpeter and Local 47 member Arturo Sandoval (with whom he created a series of online videos) and considers his Berklee professor, the virtuosic Phil Wilson, a member of Local 9-535 (Boston, MA), his mentor. He says, “Phil saw what I was doing after I graduated and he came to LA to work with me to do a video series. It was an important moment; it opened a lot of doors because he’s so respected.”

Nowell promotes his instrument with rhapsodic fervor. “I’m like the Johnny Appleseed of the trombone,” he laughs, “I want people to know about this instrument, its history, and what it’s capable of.” Now his career is four-fold: educator, producer, freelancer, and Internet personality.

“If I’m playing in a great ensemble and everyone is in the zone—reading and blending, it’s fun. There’s another feeling when you’re playing in a small jazz group and you’re letting improvisation take over and it’s going great places and you’re free,” he says. “Then when I go and play in nightclubs and I’ve got all these people dancing, who might have never heard the trombone. They’re surprised by the music, that the trombone can have that affect. It’s very satisfying.”

Whether it’s presenting an Internet program, teaching a master class, or playing a music festival, Nowell immerses himself in knowledge of his instrument. For his video series on the history of jazz trombone, he transcribed 12-bar blues from 56 of the most influential trombonists up to the bebop era, breaking down each musician’s performance so the audience could hear the different styles.

“What I’ve noticed about the people I look up to is that they’re still students. They have that drive, that thirst to learn; they constantly want to get better. In the case of Arturo Sandoval, he’s like a kid when it comes to his excitement about music. It’s infectious. He gets excited about playing, learning new techniques, and studying. He’s still inspired, has that energy. It’s an important trait if you want to do this in your life.”

On his YouTube program, Bone Masters, Nowell plays host to famous trombonists he grew up listening to. You get a lesson in articulation from Local 47 member Dick Nash, different slide techniques with Alan Kaplan of Locals 7 and 47, and a languid duet with Bill Watrous. “I have an entire wall of every trombone player I ever heard,” Nowell says. “I’d study the earliest trombone players, the contemporary trombonists, and transcribe all of them, hundreds of players, from swing to bebop. I think it’s important to know where we came from in order to gain a new perspective and find your own voice.”

Nowell likes a full-bodied trombone sound, influenced by the tones of J. J. Johnson and Clifford Brown. He says, “I don’t like to overplay. I like to use space that people can latch onto so they can sing along to the melodies.”

Good lines are a priority for him. He says, “Chet Baker used to say, ‘If you have a good sound, everything you play will always sound good.’ So, for me, sound has been key in terms of what I want to convey on my instrument. And it supersedes any technical facility or trying to impress people. Phil Wilson, my mentor, always told me, ‘Paul, good lines impress. A good sound and good lines will resonate with the audience—none of that trickery. I remember I was in a lesson with him and I had learned a technique—doota lot dooo—and Phil said, ‘Knock that off.’”

He says, “It’s your trombone and the audience—just the trombone to get their attention. If you can do that with a single-line instrument, then when you get together with an ensemble, you’re going to be way stronger as a musician.”

Journey to the World is Nowell’s first record, a mix of electro soul, hip-hop, jazz, and melodic pop. He imagined it as an exploration of different galaxies. He says, “I wanted to keep the natural acoustic quality of the instrument without manipulation.” Having grown up in the electronic world, with hip-hop, dance music, and techno, he chose to fuse the sounds.

Earlier this summer, Nowell participated in the International Trombone Festival in Redlands, California, where he conducted clinics on improvisation, home recording studio setup, making videos, how music is organized, and solo playing.

Weston Sprott

Weston Sprott Lays His Cards on the Table

Weston-Sprott-cafeWhen the curtain closes for intermission at the Metropolitan Opera, the musicians step out of the pit, put down their instruments, and take a few moments to relax—and maybe even make a little extra cash. Weston Sprott, acting principal trombone for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra describes a perfect night at work: “A Strauss or Puccini opera with a great conductor and cast, and a run of good cards at the poker table during intermission.”

But win or lose, Sprott feels lucky when he returns to the pit, working with the world’s greatest musicians, singers, and conductors. “My favorite thing about playing with the Met is listening to my colleagues in the pit and on the stage. Participating in music making at this level is incredibly rewarding,” says Sprott. “Every night provides an education in beauty of tone and phrasing.”

Up the Ante

“My first thought was, ‘Wow, this just happened,’” Sprott remembers, referring to the day in 2005 when he learned he had won the second trombone position at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. At 22 years old, it was undoubtedly a turning point. “More than excitement, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief, as though the pressure to find success in such a competitive world had been released.”

Sprott is a firm advocate for more orchestras to adopt the Met’s example of a fully blind audition process. “I have been a participant and observer of countless discussions about the need for orchestras to diversify their rosters and better reflect their communities,” he says. “In my experience, I have been the winner of numerous auditions where a screen was present from start to finish, but I have never won a professional audition where the screen came down.” Unfortunately, his experience is not unique.

“If you’re serious about diversifying your ensemble, the first of many steps is to raise the screen and let your ears (not your eyes) guide your artistic convictions,” Sprott advises. “Diversity will follow.”

His next thought on the day he won the Met position was of his parents, teachers, and mentors—all of whom invested countless hours in his personal and musical development. “I was thankful there would be something to show for their sacrifice,” he says.

Sprott spent two years studying at Indiana University before transferring to The Curtis Institute of Music, where he developed an especially close relationship with Nitzan Haroz of Local 77 (Philadelphia, PA), principal trombone of The Philadelphia Orchestra. A huge part of his education happened outside of school at Philadelphia Orchestra concerts; he was the orchestra’s biggest fan, religiously attending every week. “Curtis provided an atmosphere that was both demanding and supportive, leading me to believe, although much was required, I was capable,” he recalls. 

His instinct was correct and was quickly validated with a whirlwind of successes after graduation. “We work in an industry where the victors get the spoils,” says Sprott. “Winning the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra position opened the doors to my aspirations as a teacher, soloist, and chamber musician.

All In

Weston-Sprott-classroomSprott has taken full advantage of the opportunities he has been presented with—almost to a fault. “I’m convinced that I suffer from an overdeveloped work ethic,” he says. “It’s a characteristic that is simultaneously an asset and a weakness.”

In addition to the demanding schedule at the Met—on average performing four-hour shows seven days a week—Sprott has held positions with the Zurich Opera and Philharmonia, Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra, and Delaware Symphony Orchestra; performs in The Philadelphia Orchestra with his musical idols from his Curtis days; plays chamber music at venues like the 92nd Street Y; has been a soloist on four continents, making his Carnegie Hall solo debut in 2007; has recorded a solo album; and is on faculty at Mannes College (The New School for Music), Bard College, Rutgers University, and Juilliard Pre-College. He even helped design the “New Yorker” Weston Sprott Model trombone for the Antoine Courtois Instrument Company.

Sprott’s intense dedication started early. “When I started playing as a child, I immediately fell in love with the concept of sound creation,” he says. “My parents never had to encourage me to practice. In fact, they sometimes had to encourage me to come home from the band hall, or to put the instrument away and do something else.”

His friends shared his passion—Tim Higgins of Local 6 (San Francisco, CA), for example, who is now principal trombone of the San Francisco Symphony, was a high school classmate. The pair was in constant competition, battling for bragging rights and pushing each other to be better.

“We were the perfect depiction of iron sharpening iron: Who could play louder, faster, higher, softer?” Sprott remembers. “We went to symphony concerts on weekends and listened to Joseph Alessi’s recordings on the way to Sonic after marching band practice. Some people see spending the entire day with your instrument as discipline. We saw it as enthusiasm.”

These days, Sprott still wants to do it all—“play all the music, teach all the students, go to all the festivals”—but he’s striving to find a balance between work and rest. “Once or twice a year, my body sends me a firm reminder that I’m still only one person and there is only so much time in the day,” he says.

Even so, Sprott makes time to serve on the orchestra committee for the Met Opera Orchestra, a task that reinforces the value of AFM membership. “Beyond benefits related to collective bargaining and contract enforcement, AFM membership connects musicians of all levels and genres across the continent,” he explains. “Membership is a reminder that the work we do has value and we are not alone in our artistic pursuits.”

Pay It Forward 

Weston Sprott image1-2Knowing that his work has value is of the utmost importance to Sprott, who, above all, loves helping people. (“I think many of my friends would say that I’m someone they seek out for advice. In private, they might say that advice is sometimes unsolicited,” he admits.) Teaching, he finds, is the perfect outlet to positively influence the lives of others. Plus, he sees it as a way to “pay it forward” after being the beneficiary of great teachers throughout his training.

Some of his most rewarding teaching experiences are at the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival in South Africa, which hosts talented young musicians—many of whom don’t have access to regular high-level training or don’t own their
instruments. Sprott continues his relationships with these musicians long after the festival has ended, teaching via Skype or even sponsoring them to visit New York City and get a glimpse into the lives of full-time professional musicians.

Beyond bringing a wealth of knowledge to impart on the students each summer—this year will be his sixth—Sprott also brings donated instruments with him. “Here’s my shameless plug: If you have a decent instrument that you never use and that would be better off in the hands of an enthusiastic young musician, please contact me!” he implores.

Sprott puts a great deal of thought and energy into helping his students, and he advises them that it is paramount for any aspiring musician to have incredible enthusiasm for the craft. “Enthusiasm fuels work ethic,” he says. “John Wooden once said that work without joy
is drudgery.”

He also encourages students to be multi-dimensional. “In addition to being a great player, work to be a great writer, speaker, teacher, historian, or recording engineer,” he suggests. “Even for those who are fortunate enough to make a living from playing alone, great satisfaction can come from having multiple outlets of expression.”

Outside of performing and teaching, Sprott reads nonfiction (he leans toward books on self-improvement, interracial relations, and interpersonal skills). He is an avid sports fan (rooting for the Philadelphia Eagles and the Indiana University Hoosiers), with a passion for travel (the vacations he and his wife take every year are preceded by a lengthy discussion about whether or not he is allowed to take his trombone along!). He’s also perfected his response to the comment that he looks like President Obama. “I’m a big fan of Obama … so, when I’m told I resemble him, I chuckle and take it as a compliment,” he says.

And, of course, there’s poker—lots of poker. “We play at every break of every [Met] performance and rehearsal,” Sprott says. “It’s tons of fun and a nice income supplement, often times courtesy of select colleagues who, for this article, will remain unnamed.”

Sprott is lucky at the poker table and is certainly having a great run in his career. “In my experience, there is no shortage of worthwhile opportunities available to those who work hard, treat people with dignity, and keep their focus on generosity of spirit and being good to others,” he says, noting that he is content to let his next steps unfold organically. “What I know for sure is whatever comes next will be done with these values in mind.”

We can bet on it.