Let’s make no bones about it: what follows is subjective, fragmentary, transitory, illusory, extemporaneous, and onanistic. Solo bone is not for the timid. Even Tommy Dorsey, the Sentimental Gentleman, although one wouldn’t suspect it from his legato style and phrasings, his haute couture and impeccable coiffure, and his wire-rimmed eyeglasses, was known for punching guys out in night clubs. Belligerence or pugilistic tendencies may not be a prerequisite for the consummate trombonist, indeed most who are referenced here had a preternatural kindness and capacity for tolerance as well as hearts as big as their sound, but balls are requisite; for what’s a bone without balls? We’d say “a French Horn”, but we have too much respect, if not awe, for Gunther Schuller. David Amram and Julius Watkins also come to mind, and therefore, come to think of it, even at this premature juncture, we offer a retraction on the “horn” joke. (And, supplant it with this one: How do you get a trombone to sound like a French horn?
Stick your hand in the bell and mess up all the notes.) Before all of this gets as circuitous as the tubing of a Wagnerian Tuba and as arcane as Foucault after he took LSD at Zabriskie Point, let’s do some Paul Auster-type overlapping of coincidences, i.e. writing.
Hector Berlioz wrote:
In my opinion, the trombone is the true head of the family of wind instruments, which I have named the 'epic' one. It possesses nobility and grandeur to the highest degree; it has all the serious and powerful tones of sublime musical poetry, from religious, calm and imposing accents to savage, orgiastic outburst. Directed by the will of the master, the trombones can chant like a choir of priests, threaten, utter gloomy sighs, a mournful lament, or a bright hymn of glory; they can break forth into awe-inspiring cries and awaken the dead or doom the living with their fearful voices.
He forgot to mention break just like a little girl or to soar upwards and carry that which is heavy up to the place where dwells the race of gods, but one gets the point. The trombone is an instrument that, kissed by the right embouchure, is attuned to interior and exterior worlds of the otherwise ineffable. This is not to diminish the esoteric qualities of the other members of the brass family. Louis Armstrong, Clifford Brown, Miles, Dizzy, Kenny Dorham, Ted Curson, Freddy Hubbard, Blue Mitchell, Clark Terry, Lee Morgan, Woody Shaw, Snooky Young, Harry Edison, et al, all created sublime and indelible music on the trumpet. And, we do not need to go through the entire orchestra to offer evidence of the uniqueness and beauty of every single instrument, dependent, as always, upon the player, of course. However, the trombone, particularly in the idiom known both honorably and pejoratively as jazz (a point to which we shall further allude), seems to have a direct link to the soul, the spirit, the human life-force, the ineffable.
As a point of departure, one could do worse than listening to a Charles Mingus recording on Candid Records (CJM-8021/CJS-9021 - Mingus - Charles Mingus  Recorded October 20 and November 11, 1960), beginning with the composition entitled MDM (which Mingus introduces and reveals that the initials stand for Monk, Duke, & Mingus) that is scored for a nonet with great trombone parts and features the great Britt Woodman and Jimmy Knepper alternating the first solos. Both of these trombonists offer a swinging bop attack, although Jimmy Knepper bops a little more, whereas Britt growls with a bit more vibrato. To hear the dialogue of ideas, the extemporaneous “composing” of ideas in the form of a passionate musical interlude, is to be uplifted, psychically eviscerated, recombined, and set down again forever changed. Mingus wrote:
Each jazz musician when he takes a horn in his hand- trumpet, bass, saxophone, drums-whatever instrument he plays-each soloist, that is, when he begins to ad lib on a given composition with a title and improvise a new creative melody, this man is taking the place of a composer. He is saying, "listen, I am going to give you a new complete idea with a new set of chord changes. I am going to give you a new melodic conception on a tune you are familiar with. I am a composer." That's what he is saying.
That paragraph begins a superb essay on music, “so-called jazz”, as Mingus refers to it, called, What is a Jazz Composer, which comprises the liner notes for Mingus’ album, Let My Children Hear Music. He references the playing of Jimmy Knepper in the piece.
And take Jimmy Knepper. One of his solos was taken off a record of mine and written out for classical trombone in my ballet. The trombone player could barely play it. He said it was one of the most technical exercises he had ever attempted to play. And he was just playing the notes-not the embellishments or the sound that Jimmy was getting.
On MDM, both Jimmy and Britt play extended solos that push the technical limits of the instrument, but Mr. Knepper delivers ferocious depth and range and a nectar-like, full tone that is unsurpassable. As an aside, Eric Dolphy’s playing on MDM is almost impossible to fathom in its brilliance; this is a superlative recording of nonpareil ensemble playing. (A complete discography and selected bibliography of references is offered at the end of this essay.) It was in 1959 that Knepper received accolades in Downbeat magazine as a “new star on the trombone” for his work with the Mingus bands. However, it was Jimmy Knepper who was the leader in his Debut recording (DL 101), which was only released in Denmark under its eponymous title, with Mingus as the sideman, the bassist. On this recording one can hear the hard bop and swinging intonation of Knepper’s incomparable technique and the brilliance of his ideas. Although it is Knepper and Mingus who keep this session aloft, with the fast paced help of one of music’s most underrated drummers, Danny Richmond, the pianist, Bill Triglia, and altoist, Joe Maini, a heavily Charles “Bird” Parker influenced player, more than adequately support and embellish the recording. Undoubtedly, however, it is the soloing of Knepper, Mingus’ huge bass playing, and the recording’s historical significance that give it heft.
The first Mingus album Knepper appears on is The Clown (Atlantic 1260) in 1957. His bone playing on this recording, both as an improviser and as an ensemble player, is transcendent. Further evidence of Jimmy Knepper’s genius is displayed in several recordings of 1957, from other Mingus led recordings (Tijuana Moods, Tonight at Noon, both on Atlantic), a Gunther Schuller recording under the title, Gunther Schuller, George Russell - Brandeis Jazz Festival (Columbia WL 127), that featured Mingus on vocals, and again with Charles Mingus on the Bethlehem recording (BCP 6019), East Coasting, with a young, aspiring pianist named Bill Evans. Not long after these recordings, Gil Evans orchestrated and recorded Out of the Cool (Impulse – IMPD 186) with the Gil Evans Orchestra, in which Jimmy Knepper creates one of the instruments most unforgettable and haunting performances on the composition, Where Flamingos Fly. His ethereal tone and augural incantation of thematic improvisation creates an evocative tone poem; a human voice enigmatically crying out in an imagined place of profound poignancy and ephemeral beauty.
In an interview for Jazz Professional, with Les Tomkins in 1981, Knepper said,
Music is an art, a science, a therapy, an emotion, a feeling, a swing; it’s rhythm, it’s harmony and it’s melody. You’re always able to learn; there’s always something there that you don’t know, that will be a very great revelation, and that might turn your whole playing around when you become aware of it.
He said his instrumental influences were not other trombone players but Charlie Parker, the great alto player, whom Knepper recorded in the early 40’s on a wire recorder and later transcribed the recordings. Knepper told Thad Jones, with whom he performed in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band from 1968-1974, when asked who influenced him, that he was influenced by the saxophone; players like Lester Young, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, and Charlie Parker. “Yeah, that’s what I thought,” was Jones reply.
Jimmy Knepper was not yet thirty when he joined the Mingus group of musicians who, between 1957 and 1962, would record some of the most miraculous, certainly extraordinary, music in jazz history. A careful, if not critical, listen to Tijuana Moods or Mingus Ah Um in this ever fading present, or in the ineluctable future, will surely and always fill the listener with awe and something approaching pure joy. Knepper and Mingus played together in various bands and orchestras, many of which Mingus was the leader, since 1947 (unissued titles on Columbia in 1947 with an un-named big band, and in 1949, Knepper was recorded on Charles Baron Mingus’ West Coast with the Mingus 22 Piece Bebop Band using Stan Kenton's Sidemen), and appeared on The Clown (recorded in NYC on March 12th and February 13th in 1957 - Atlantic #1260), Mingus’ first recording using Dannie Richmond on drums, that revealed the nascent sound of this musical relationship for the next several years.
As previously mentioned, Jimmy Knepper and Charles Mingus played together under the leadership, as conductor, of Gunther Schuller at the Brandeis Jazz Festival, recorded on June 18th, 1957 in New York City. Perhaps everyone has had someone in his or her life who has been both a benefit and a bane, the cliché blessing and a curse; perhaps you are that person in someone else’s existence. Mingus was that person for Jimmy Knepper. Knepper met Mingus in 1945 when he was 18 years old and Mingus was 23. Mingus sat in for an absent bass player in a be-bop band led by Dean Benedetti. It would be a few months later that Mingus would ask Knepper to join him in his band playing at a Los Angles club named Billy Berg’s. It would be more than ten year later, in 1957, when Willie Dennis left Mingus’ band, that Mingus called Jimmy Knepper to join the group. The history of these Mingus groups and recordings is delineated, all with great anecdotal quotes from the musicians, including Jimmy Knepper, in Brian Priestley’s excellent book, Mingus – A Critical Biography (Quartet Books Limited, 1982). In Priestley’s biography, the infamous story of how Mingus effectively and immutably changed Jimmy Knepper’s future with an irrevocable blow to the face is recalled by Knepper:
I was copying his arrangements, and the time got closer and closer. [This was in preparation for Mingus’ ill-famed Town Hall Concert.] Mingus was writing very slowly, and he kept adding horns to the band…Mingus called me up to go to his apartment, and he says ‘I want you to write some backgrounds for solos.’ And I said, Mingus, this is your music, you should write everything for it, and – I guess he was under a strain – he blew up and swung at me, and broke a tooth off. So we severed our relationship.
Ironically, Knepper would again join Mingus in 1971 (during a recording session of Let My Children Hear Music) and would appear on the last four albums before Mingus’ death in 1979. Further, Knepper would go on to play with a band devoted to the music of Charles Mingus (managed by Mingus’ widow, Sue Mingus) called Mingus Dynasty. In a Down Beat magazine interview in 1981 Knepper said, “It was very depressing to think that I'm linked with this guy for the rest of my life,” obviously referring back to earlier days. When Mingus hit Jimmy Knepper in 1962, Knepper’s embouchure would be ruined, adversely affecting his incredible range and tone. It would be many years before he would regain most of that ineffable sound. One can only imagine the range of emotions Knepper had to bear. Although he would perform in bands dedicated to the music of the great Charles Mingus, Jimmy Knepper eventually surmised that the true feeling of Mingus’ music came from Mingus’ interaction with his drummer Danny Richmond. In the 1981 interview with Knepper, to which we alluded earlier, Mr. Knepper summed up the Mingus Dynasty, and similar configurations this way:
The object of the group? For me, it’s to provide work. The object for Mrs. Mingus is probably to have something to do, to occupy her, and also to further his music. But you can’t get a Mingus sound without Mingus; you can’t really call it Mingus’ music—we play his tunes, but once the tune is over you’re playing the music of John Handy, Randy Brecker, Ted Curson, George Adams or whoever is taking a solo; then you come back and play the tune again. Mingus’s band was unique, in that he had a rapport with Dannie Richmond, the drummer, and the two of them acted almost as a unit.
They could do some very startling things, just by looking at each other—each one knew what the other was going to do. It was a very unique rhythm section.
In 1985 the unedited and not yet transcribed form of Mingus’ masterwork, Epitaph was discovered. Gunther Schuller would take on the task, with Sue Mingus and the help of the Ford Foundation, of scoring and transcribing the 4000+ bar orchestral work, and Mr. Schuller would conduct a 30 piece orchestra in its inaugural performance. It would have its premier performance at Alice Tully Hall in New York City on June 3rd, 1989, ten years after Mingus’ death. Jimmy Knepper, and Dannie Richmond, would not be among the performers. Jimmy Knepper died on June 14th, 2003 of complications from Parkinson’s Disease. A poignant and insightful remembrance of Knepper called, Jimmy Knepper - In Memoriam, A Personal Portrait of a Friend and Mentor, written by another great trombonist, Erling Kronor, can be found at http://kroner-music.dk/erling/knepper.html. The piece offers a rare, personal, and perspicacious look at one of the greatest bone players ever. When someone writes the necessary biography of Jimmy Knepper, references to Charles Mingus will be peppered inextricably throughout, as Mr. Knepper’s name is in any extant biography of Mingus’. Yet as interesting as their relationship may have been, their music still transcends the tether of corporeality.
To get back to the origins of jazz trombone, to the first couple of true bone soloists, we can still venture through the life of Mingus as an inverted roadmap. Mingus began his musical tutelage as a trombone player. His friend, and future band mate, Britt Woodman, one of jazz’s inimitable bone players, talked a very young Mingus into taking up the cello (closest in range to the trombone), and also exposed him to the music of Ellington. Eventually Mingus would take up the bass, and one of his first professional gigs was playing in a band that featured one of American music history’s first great trombone players: Edward “Kid” Ory. Along with Irving “Miff” Mole, Kid Ory, who reigned supreme in this regard, brought the music called “Dixieland” into the mainstream of contemporary culture of the time, and in so doing, introduced “jazz” to America.