Jazz Professional               


Jiggs with Milt Bernhart
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1988

After working with Stan Kenton in the Ďsixties, I went to New York for a while, and played with different people. I then came over here in Ď65 to play with Kurt Edelhagenís band; my intention was to come for one year and that turned into whatever itís been. When the Edelhagen band broke up, I freelanced, and in 1976 I went on staff at the radio in Cologne, where I spent four years. I was given my Professorship in Ď79 at the College of Music in Cologne—Head of Jazz Department. So Iíve been doing that, and then since Ď79/Ď80 Iíve been doing a lot of work as a soloist, playing with bands, and things like that. I go to the States a lot now four, five or six times a year.

The good thing about the last eight years is that I got out of the studios; Iíd been doing a lot of studio stuff—radio work, back-ups for singers, and so on—that was okay for a while. Since I started teaching, it gave me an opportunity to actually make more music less commercial music I have a chance to play, and thatís very rewarding. I feel a very good balance between teaching and playing—I love both of them.

I teach the instrument, and improvisation; I lead their big band and their combo; I run the department—a whole bunch of stuff all mixed up together. There are a hundred-and-ten full-time jazz students at the Cologne school. Itís a good school—a very high level too. And I travel all over the place doing clinics and master classes; in this way I hear the competition at different schools, and this confirms how high the level is at Cologne. I hate to boastóbut that really is true.

Certainly, thereís no lack of trombone studentsówe turn a lot of them away, in fact, because we only have so many places. In two weeks from now we have the entrance exams for the Fall semester; we have two-hundred-and-forty applicants, but we have room for eight kids. So you can see how hard it is to get into the school. Yes, the interest in the instrument is keen, and there are some very good students.

The problem with the trombone is thatóunlike any other instrument, I think—in order to get just a plain and simple Bb major scale, it takes a long time to play it in tune, to get a good sound and all the rest of it. On a piano, obviously, you can play a scale in a couple of seconds. The reward is not instantaneous as it is on a saxophone, for example. Look how many saxophone players there are, compared to trombone players. Not that Iím saying that saxophoneís any easier to playóin the end it has its different demands—but itís a quicker reward. So a lot of people will start to play the trombone and give up, because itís so hard.

The other thing is that there hasnít ever been, aside from Tommy Dorsey, a trombone image. I mean, thereís been Harry James, Maynard Ferguson and people like this for the trumpet; for saxophone thereís been Coltrane, Charlie Parker and a whole pile of them. But as for a real star like Tommy Dorsey was—he was the last one, and thatís a long time ago. The people who have played what we consider creative jazz music, like J. J. Johnson, Jack Teagarden, Frank Rosolino, Lawrence Brown have been wonderful players; they all had their own voice, and showed the diverse approaches to the instrument, but none of them were ever really recognised as household names. You ask most people on the street over thirty years old who Harry James was, theyíll know he used to play the trumpet, but ask them about J. J. Johnson and theyíll have no idea.

But itís a funny thing with trombone players . . . I belong to a group called the International Trombone Association an organisation of about two or three thousand trombone players from all over the world; we have a convention every year—in fact, itíll take place in London, at Eton College, in July . . . these meetings are wonderful, because the mentality of the trombone players is really different from anybody else. Itís a brotherhood that really is very special. Theyíre not really as competitive as drummers, say, or trumpet players—they kind of like each other a lot. A different breed.

The convention, up to now, has usually taken place in Nashville. Jimmy Knepper and I were invited to be guest performers on this one thing; I was sitting next to Jimmy, and he said: ďCan you imagine three hundred oboe players getting together at a convention? Whoíd give the A?Ē

With the time it takes to get to play the instrument itself to my way of thinking, there havenít been that many Ďcreativeí jazz musicians on the trombone; there have been a lot of melody players. And just recently there have been guys like Albert Mangelsdorff that have come out and tried to experiment with sounds multiphonics and stuff like that. In a way, itís very good to try new things on the instrument. On the other hand, the tradition of the instrument for me is that its sound is so beautiful. Very often, when I hear a trombone solo, the musical content is secondary to whether a person plays with an impressive sound. Itís such a beautiful thing and itís all individual too.

When I play, Iím trying to express myself and to fit whatever the music is. If I feel the music calls for some excitement, then Iíll try to play in an exciting way; if itís tender, Iíll do that. I think this is where the tromboneís capabilities come in. Itís the range of the instrument not particularly from high to low, but its range of expressiveness: itís possible to bring out many different kinds of emotions and colours.

See, the thing which you can also do on the tromboneówhich is very difficult, or impossible, on the piano is to play between the half-steps. Something I like to do, if itís a glissando, is play between the notes, to give a different colour. It changes the colour and the character of what youíre doing if you play below or above a pitch, for tension and release and so forth. I do a lot of experimenting with those kind of things. And also dynamic range: I like to try to play with a lot of dynamics, and play very, very softly—and then sometimes you play very loud too, depending on whatís happening. Also you have to be spontaneous, try to listen, not play too many clichťs, and let the music flow where it has to go.

As far as imparting this to a student first of all, I never force a student to do something that he, or she, doesnít feel. I will recommend they do this, because I feel itís important to know the various facets of trombone playing. Itís important to know how to play with vibrato, how to play in a Tommy Dorsey style, in a bebop, Dixieland or Swing style, and to be able to master those styles as much as possible. So the students will have to learn how to play these ways—these are the tools of the trade, rather than the personal voice.

Itís almost a schizophrenic way of teaching, maybe, but I try to have the student be aware of people like Trummy Young, Lawrence Brown, Jack Teagarden and all the terrific trombone players out there, and in addition to this try to have them find their own voice. So I say: ďLetís have you transcribe some solos. Who do you listen to? Okay, do that.Ē And they are often not trombone players. One of my students just transcribed two Miles Davis solos; one just did a Chet Baker solo and thatís fine, because thatís the kind of music theyíre hearing in their heads. So we go from that—let them develop out of it.

Although the trombone has become very much of a solo instrument, itís still fun to play with a section of four or five good players. In fact, at school I have a Trombone Workshop; youíve got anywhere from twelve to twenty trombones, and theyíre playing harmony—itís a marvellous sound. Two or three bass trombones on the bottom, and somebody playing up high—you get a range of three or four octaves, which is very beautiful.

Yes, Stan Kenton loved that brass sound. Itís strange that you mention him: it was twenty-five years ago that I played with the band, and somebody sent me a tape of the Jean Turner record we did and I hadnít heard that for a long time. It sounded terrific, and brought back to mind how Stan was at the time, and that special sound without any vibrato. Five trombones was a rare thing, because most big bands have four, or even three; Stanís was the only full-time road band that had five. A great sound. At that time we had bass trombone and tuba, or sometimes two bass trombones, with the three tenors; and the mellophoniums were there—so there was fourteen brass; thatís a lot of brass. With the bass saxophone and baritone there also, the range of the band was really big–sounding.

Have I played with any comparable bands in Europe? Well, I still play now with Peter Herbolzheimerís Rhythm Combination and Brass, and Iíve been on a lot of the records—thatís fun, and a very good band. One of the times I was here at Ronnieís was with the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band—that was exciting and interesting music.

Interestingly enough, thinking of bands that are interesting to play with as well as to listen to—just a year ago we did a tribute to Thad Jones; we had Mel Lewis on drums, and Hank Jones came over and played piano, and I led the WDR radio band in Cologne. I was made aware again of how Thad used coloursóthe wonderful sounds he could make, just through the voicings. He had a very special way of using the instruments and the chords and making them sound different. That was very good.

So my aim is to continue to teach and play a lot, and to do the master classes, workshops and solo things. I also do quite a lot of guest conducting with various bands. Itís a wonderful life.

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