Before & After: Slide Hampton

This B&A originally appeared in JazzTimes in 2003.

Slide Hampton’s abilities and  accomplishments as a trombonist, composer, arranger and bandleader make him one of the most respected active musicians in jazz.  Born into a musical family in Jeanette, Pennsylvania, Locksley Wellington (Slide) Hampton grew up in Indianapolis where he began playing trumpet before switching to the trombone. After playing in a family band, he cut his teeth in the 1950s with Buddy Johnson, Lionel Hampton and Maynard Ferguson before forming his own octet with Freddie Hubbard, Booker Little, Julian Priester and George Coleman. The 1960s found Hampton with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, Art Blakey, Thad Jones & Mel Lewis, Woody Herman, and serving as musical director for R&B singer Lloyd Price. In 1968, Hampton moved to Europe where he found musical challenges and steady work for nearly 10 years before returning to the U.S. in 1977. Since then, he’s worked with Continuum (dedicated to the compositions of Tadd Dameron), and led The Collective Black Artists Orchestra, The Manhattan Plaza Composer’s Orchestra, and The Jazz Masters. His still active brass group, The World of Trombones, has just released Spirit of the Horn, with special guest Bill Watrous, recorded during a 2002 live performance at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in Pittsburgh.  

1) Steve Turre
“Wee Dot,” from One4J: Paying Homage to J.J. Johnson (TELARC). Solo order: Steve Davis, Andre Hayward, Steve Turre, Robin Eubanks, trombones; Stephen Scott, piano; Peter Washington, bass; Victor Lewis, drums. Recorded in 2002.

Before: [after hearing all four trombone solos] Yeah, I know who the trombonists are but I can’t tell who’s in the rhythm section. That’s Steve Turre’s trombone ensemble, and the trombonists I heard were Steve Davis, then Andre Haywood, Steve Turre and the last one was Robin Eubanks. Of course the music was nice because it’s by J.J. Johnson, and this is probably Steve’s tribute to J.J. They did a very good job of interpreting the composition. Players influenced by J.J. often have a well laid-out direction in their improvisation. That’s one thing that bebop did, it gave you the experience you need to improvise in an organized way. J.J. also focused on developing the control of sound on trombone. He had a wonderful sound, and on recordings he would usually sound more together than anybody else. I must admit that when I first heard Steve [Davis], it actually sounded like J.J. for a couple of bars, because he’s very influenced by J.J. and Curtis Fuller. The other guys were good players, but in terms of tone, technique and the lines they played, they were less influenced by J.J.  It was a good rhythm section but there was a lack of the understanding of the bebop concept. The Bud Powell concept was missing. And in the bass player, I didn’t hear the Paul Chambers or the Ray Brown concept enough. Paying tribute to J.J. is very important. I enjoyed this very much.

After: [sees the rhythm section] Oh, I’m surprised.  I don’t know Stephen [Scott], but I’m playing with Peter Washington over at Blues Alley, and he has a strong Paul Chambers influence, but I didn’t hear that on this record.

2) Dizzy Gillespie
“My Reverie,” from Birks Works (Verve) Melba Liston, trombone solo and arrangement; Dizzy Gillespie Big Band. Recorded in 1956.

Before: [immediately] I know this. I played this arrangement with Dizzy. It’s Melba Liston. Is this Dizzy’s band? I didn’t know they had recorded that. She had a very sweet way of playing, very much like her character. She was a very sweet person, and a very strong person too. She played wonderfully. You can hear the influence of earlier players, like Bennie Green and Lawrence Brown, but she was more modern.  When I was in Dizzy’s band, she was the musical director. I couldn’t write anything cause it was very intimidating. I was a young guy that didn’t know much of anything at the time. I wanted to be an arranger, but when I heard these arrangements by Melba and Ernie Wilkins, Quincy Jones and Dizzy, the arrangements were so wonderful that I just couldn’t find something to write that was worthy of being played there. Melba was just a great person, a wonderful trombonist and a big influence on that band.

Did she ever give you any suggestions or tips on arranging?

I should have asked her more about composing and orchestration–I could have asked her, where am I going wrong? [laughter] I’m sure she would have told me something that at first I wouldn’t understand but later it would have been a big help to me.  I know one arrangement she did that I still remember vividly. She did an arrangement on a song called “Wonder Why.” [In] The last 8 bars, she wrote a counter melody that is just one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. I can still remember that arrangement. It had a singer named Austin Cromer. She never got the recognition that she deserved, but Dizzy understood how important her music was.

After: Yeah, this was just before I joined the band. This was when Dizzy was in great shape. He could play lead, he could play solos, he could play all up to B-flats and A’s. It was just incredible. That band was really advanced and their level of music was far beyond me. I shouldn’t have even been in that band [laughter].

3) Rex Stewart & Dickie Wells
“Little Sir Echo,” from Chatter Jazz (RCA). Rex Stewart, cornet; Dickie Wells, trombone; John Bunch, piano; Leonard Gaskin, bass; Charlie Masterpaolo, drums. Recorded in 1959.

Before: Hmmm. That’s a real mystery. The trumpeter could be either Joe Wilder or Roy Eldridge. This is the first time I’ve heard this tune done like this. Playing with a plunger is a big thing, it gives you a different pressure in the instrument and you‘ve got to have a good embouchure to do it. A lot of the pitches of the notes change because of the plunger. For example, on the trombone one note may be at one position, but if the pitch changes with the plunger, you have to play that same note at another position. It takes a long time to develop that skill-it’s very difficult to do but some guys make it sound easy, like Butter Jackson and Al Grey and those guys. These two were some of the good guys, whoever they were.

After:  [with admiration] Oh, no wonder. Oh yeah, okay. I heard them both a lot in person and with different bands. I love the way Dickie played. And when he took the plunger out and played open horn, you could hear he was one of the guys that really played the trombone. They played fantastic, man. The young players today can’t imagine how great these guys were. They had the range and the sound and all of the things that we tried to accomplish, but for them it was really natural. Dickie played this with a lot of ease and sounded like he had good control of the airflow through the instrument. Even with the plunger it sounds like it was natural and easy for him to do it.

4) John Allred & Wycliffe Gordon
“Cottontail,” from Head To Head (Arbors). John Allred, Wycliffe Gordon, trombones; John Sheridan, piano; Charlie Silva, bass; Eddie Metz, Jr., drums. Recorded in 2001.

Before: Wycliffe? The other guy I don’t know just yet. Wycliffe is one of the greatest trombone players I’ve ever heard. His knowledge of the trombone and his ability to play it is incredible. I’ve worked with him a couple times recently and I just really admire the guy. He’s put in a lot of work on the trombone, and he can play just about anything that he wants to. As I was listening there, I was wondering what bass trombone player has the ability to play what he was playing in the first chorus? But I think it was Wycliffe playing in the low register. It’s fantastic. The other guy had a lot of technique also. They both have great range and a lot of facility and they keep control of their embouchure in every register.  It’s inspiring to hear guys who can do this because it makes you work on this aspect of your own playing, and it makes you stronger in whatever style you play. That’s one of the things I get from being around Wycliffe; it makes me work a lot harder to play better myself. Is the other guy John Allred? I played once with John and he’s someone that can play the trombone too. There’s only a few guys that can play that. These guys are really fantastic trombonists, both of them. Very impressive, I liked this very much.

After: That’s a heck of a CD. I’d love to have that.

5) Gil Evans
“Where Flamingos Fly,” from Out of the Cool (Impulse). Jimmy Knepper, trombone solo; Gil Evans Orchestra; John Benson Brooks, composer; Gil Evans, arranger. Recorded in 1961.

Before: Sounds like the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. It’s got a little of the Ellington influence, but it’s more modern. It could also be the Mingus big band. I don’t know who it is but it’s interesting. I heard some Ellington and Gil Evans, very strong influence from those two guys. I can’t tell who it is because the sound and intonation throws me a little bit. I might have liked to have heard this played by another group of musicians. This kind of writing requires a certain level of experience, and with this modern concept of music, the pitch needs to be exact. You’ve got a lot of close intervals here and they don’t really work unless you’ve got precise pitch.

After: It’s Gil? Oh. This is Gil’s arrangement? When was this recorded? Jimmy [Knepper] was a great trombone player. I used to listen to him a lot with Mingus. Jimmy knew the trombone very well and had a great sound, but this recording doesn‘t capture his sound the way it really was. Yeah, Gil was the guy who opened us all up to the different textures you can get out of the combinations of instruments. He was the guy who used as few notes in the chord as possible, which makes a lot of sense. He might use only three notes in a chord, where others would use five, and he’d have instruments doubling the notes. For example, he would use the fifth, in a case where most people might use the 9th or a major 7th, and he would use that as the root of the chord. And over that root you might have all these dissonant intervals which sets up a different harmonic system. He actually took arranging and the whole idea of the theory of orchestration onto another level. I used to ask Miles questions about Gil, and Miles would say Gil was off somewhere for the last week trying to work out two bars of music [laughter].

6) Carla Bley
“Old MacDonald Had A Farm,” from Looking For America (ECM). Carla Bley Big Band with soloists Gary Valente, trombone; Wolfgang Puschnig, alto sax; Lew Soloff, trumpet; Andy Sheppard, tenor sax; Steve Swallow, bass guitar. Recorded in 2002.

Before: [chuckles] Is it Wynton? [listens more] Mingus? [long pause] Maynard? No, I guess I don’t know who the band is. That concept of playing is good but it’s a concept that’s in the past. There’s some humor in this, but there are a lot of ways to be humorous. I would never find myself having to go that far. Those are good players, that’s for sure. That actually required great musicianship. But a lot of the things that we try to utilize as our guides in what quality music sounds like today wasn’t really a part of that musical concept.

After: Oh. Uh-huh. I’ve heard about her but I’ve never heard her music. Maybe there’s something else more interesting on this record.

7) Lawrence Brown
“Where Or When,” from Slide Trombone (Clef/Verve). Lawrence Brown, trombone; Sam “The Man” Taylor, tenor sax; Leroy Lovett, piano; Lloyd Trotman, bass; Louis Bellson, drums. Recorded in 1955.

Before: Is that Lawrence? Once you hear that sound you never forget it. I heard him so many times. You don’t even have to think about it, you feel it, you know? He had his own individual sound and that‘s how you always know it‘s him. He doesn’t use much vibrato, which I like. He had such a great ear that he didn’t have to use vibrato to play in tune. The horn that he was using probably wasn’t the greatest horn in the world because you can hear a little nasal quality, but he made it sound great.

After: When you hear him on recordings it sounds very much like he sounded in person. He didn’t sound like anyone else. Lawrence was one of the models we used when learning to play, along with Tommy Dorsey, Trummy Young, and of course J.J.

Your favorite Lawrence Brown solo?

“I’m Just a Lucky So and So” with Al Hibbler. He played a solo on that that was just beautiful, and I still remember it like I  heard it yesterday.

Can you play it?

No, but I’d like to be able to play it [laughter].

8) Oliver Nelson
“Patterns For Orchestra,” from Oliver Nelson, Jazz Masters 48 (Verve).  J.J. Johnson, trombone solo; Grady Tate, drum solo; Oliver Nelson, composition and arrangement. Recorded in 1966.

Before: I know who this is. Is it after he changed [trombones] from the King 3-B to the Yamaha? He sounds great all the time, but on the King he was just unbelievable. He changed it somewhere in the 1960s. Is this Oliver Nelson? He’s one of the only guys who could write all that shit [laughter]. It’s just incredible. Oliver had an ability to write some very involved music, and he was always making the effort to become more and more modern. Part of the reason for that may have been John Coltrane, and maybe Eddie Harris. All those perfect intervals and things; Eddie Harris developed that even further than Coltrane, and Eddie probably had a big influence on Oliver. Yeah, that was J.J. playing, but you couldn’t hear him the way he really sounded. I was at a lot his recording sessions and when he played the King, he was unreal. When he played the King, he often played fewer notes because he was more interested in the sound and not going over the people’s heads, and all of that. But the sound he had at the time was inhuman, he just played so well. J.J. could play as much as he wanted to.

After: Yeah, J.J. played a great solo on this. There probably wasn’t a lot of preparation or rehearsal, but he was always able to come up with ideas inspired by the music and the arrangement. You could hear right away it was Jay. And the patterns of the perfect 4ths made me think of Oliver.

9) Slideride
“The Jeep Is Jumping,” from Slideride (Hat Hut). Ray Anderson, Craig Harris, George Lewis, Gary Valente, trombones. Duke Ellington, Johnny Hodges, composers; Ray Anderson, arrangement. Recorded in 1994.

Before: [chuckles]. These guys can play. Damn! [laughs with delight]. Well, that was a lot of trombone playing, I’ll tell you that. Sounds sort of like a head arrangement that was really well done. It was written but they played it very free. It sounded like an improvisation, but a well organized improvisation. Guys used to do this, but never four guys on trombone playing this technical or this interesting.  I liked it, I really liked it. I think to be able to play like that calls for a lot of work. You got to have good chops to do that too. They had a good rhythm going and they sounded like they were enjoying what they were playing. I’m not sure who this was but they were great trombone players, whoever they were.

After: Oh boy. I just heard Ray about a week ago with Wycliff. There are things that he does that I definitely can’t do. He’s a guy that likes to play free and you’ve got to have courage to play like that. George is a very fine trombonist. He can play in all different styles. I remember he came and played some rehearsals with World of Trombones and he played lead for us. He was very good. I know Craig-I’ve never played with him, but I’ve heard him play. Valente I don’t know at all. I tell you, that kind of playing is hard on your chops. You’ve got to play all the time, there’s nothing to spell you. It’s a hell of a thing to be able to do that.

Your three favorite records of all time?

Dizzy’s big band doing Things To Come on Music Craft, Miles Ahead, and any of those Coltrane quartets with McCoy, Jimmy and Elvin. Oh, one more: Charlie Parker With Strings.

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