Sam Burtis has been a stalwart of the New York studio and live music scene since 1969, specialising in the entire family of lower brass instruments. I met him when he was performing at the Barbican in London with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and he agreed to this e-mail interview on his return to New York.
How did you come to play everything from euphonium through tenor and bass trombone to tuba?
I took a hearing test in 3rd Grade matching and identifying pre-recorded pitches through the entire spectrum of sound. I did particularly well with the low pitches, and the band director started me on tuba. Later on I added trombone when I got interested in jazz and wanted to be in the school jazz band.
I actually quit playing anything but tenor trombone when I first moved to New York City. Trombone chops problems caused me to work very hard for a few years ironing things out. Every time I picked up the tuba it seemed to destroy what I was doing, so I sold it and concentrated entirely on tenor trombone for at least five years.
Later, Lee Konitz asked me to be in his Nonet with Jimmy Knepper, playing bass trombone. I didn't even have a bass trombone and had never played one, but I figured I'd give it a shot. Jimmy was (and is) an idol of mine. It worked out, and then later two guys to whom I had been giving free lessons stole an unused tuba from their high school when they graduated and gave it to me as thanks. Yeah, I know ... but you had to be there.
They were tough guys from a tough neighbourhood in a tough town; the school system was in absolute chaos in Brooklyn and once they took it, they couldn't bring it back (plus I didn't want to hurt their feelings). So I took the horn and used it in Lee's Nonet for several years.
In a typical week (if there is such a thing) what work might you be doing?
You're right, there is no such thing. I do on average two or three sessions a week, maybe sub on a couple of Broadway shows, perhaps write some music for someone, give a lesson or a class of some sort, play with Chico O' Farrill's Band every Sunday, often appear with the Vanguard Band or Jason Lindner on Mondays, rehearse with my band or Mike Longo's Band or someone else who might call (if I have the time), write some music for myself, play a Latin gig or club date or two or three on the weekend, go on the road with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Band or one of the other groups I just mentioned for a day or a week or a month, maybe do a whole week of recording a movie score, maybe have almost no work for a week or two (time to practise and write) it's always different.
Two things are constant: one is that I never (rarely, anyway) know what instrument or instruments I'm going to have to play next week, so I try to stay fluent on my small tenor, my large tenor, bass trombone, and tuba. I play each one every day I can, even if only for 15 minutes each. Euphonium and valve trombone I only practise when I know I'll be playing them, because generally I only work on them a few times a year.
The second constant is: I'm only as good as my last note, so if I'm going to continue to eat and pay the mortgage (let alone make any kind of musical progress) I have to spend not just minimal but good practice time on my horns. I do so every day I have the time, to the exclusion of some other activities I might rather be doing. Three hours minimum.
What are you trying to achieve in those 15 minutes on each horn?
If I really only have 15 minutes, I just try to get a good balance through the entire range of each horn: a good sound, good connections from pedals through the altissimo ranges. If I have more time, I usually work on extending and strengthening my extreme ranges: high on the tenor, low on the bass and tuba, and scales, arpeggios, flexibility and tonguing for velocity. I've extensively modified Carmine Caruso's approaches. I've actually just completed a method book, and they're the exercises I use.
Do you consider yourself first and foremost a trombonist?
Yes. A slide tenor trombonist. I've always chosen other instruments because of musical opportunities rather than work opportunities. The work follows the music. My uncle by marriage (one of the early white jazz drummers named Punky Allen) had a great jazz record collection. I used to visit him summers, listen to Teagarden and Dorsey, Krupa, Bechet, Goodman, Roy Eldridge, and especially Louis Armstrong before I really knew what a trombone was. At about 14, 1 heard J.J. Johnson. Revelation time! He played long lines, like a tenor sax or trumpet player: his sound was beautiful without being saccharine; his solos were compositionally astonishing; his time (and the tonguing that defined it) was so strong. He was just head and shoulders above everyone else I had (or have) heard in these regards. A genius. I wanted to play as purely as he did, without copying his licks ... still do.
At 18, 1 had more or less decided to try to make a career out of music and went to Berklee, which in the '60s was full of great musicians, great teachers: John Abercrombie, Ernie Watts, Art Baron, many more. There were so many serious players there, all discovering what the music was about. And Boston had a decent work scene. It was a great place to learn what the jazz world was about without being swamped by the demands and competition of New York or Los Angeles.
What was the jazz education scene like back then?
Awful. Jazz was a dirty word. Remember, this is before the civil rights movement went mainstream. People were still drinking from separate water fountains in the south; people were still being executed on motel balconies and in the backs of limousines, hung from trees too - serious hard times here. Entirely due to the efforts of a few brave musicians (I include David Baker, John LaPorta, Herb Pomeroy and Gunther Schüller right up at the head of that list) this has all changed.
As you developed, who were your teachers?
In New York, everybody. Everyone with whom I played, everyone I went to hear. In particular, among trombonists Jimmy Knepper, Wayne Andre, Barry Rogers and Urbie Green all had profound effects on me. Generally, Thad Jones, Lee Konitz, and Gil Evans taught me a great deal.
How did Jimmy Knepper influence you?
I played with Jimmy in Lee Konitz's Nonet and in various other situations over the years. His whole approach to music, harmony and improvising was a great inspiration. His approach to sound, slide technique and alternate positions all had a profound impact on my playing.
How do you see his approach to harmony and improvisation as differing from, say, J.J.'s?
Very different physically: much less tongue, much more use of going over harmonics as an articulation device, an entirely different approach to the slide and extended positions, a much different, broader tone. Jimmy tried to do things on the horn that were impossible, managed to do them, and then immediately went looking to see if he could take it further. J.J. figured out what he could do and then made great art with it.
Jimmy used everything, vocal inflections, all kinds of slide stuff. J.J. played so impeccably, so precisely, that you'd be hard pressed to even know that there was a slide involved. Harmonically, both were great masters, J.J. more scalar, Jimmy more arpeggiated. Is one better than the other? No, they both dug deep into themselves, and both came up with something extraordinary. That's the essence of an improvising life after all, isn't it?
What impacted you so profoundly about J.J.'s sound?
I don't really know. Jimmy can play a middle range long note and it sounds like the voice of God to me. Really. How do you explain that?
How did Knepper and the other trombonists you mention help you develop your own approach to harmony and improvisation?
You listen; you hear; you observe and you experiment. Jimmy's sound resonates in my head - J.J.'s too. I try to emulate them, but I'm a different person, playing in very different circumstances and times. Eventually, if I'm lucky, I find my sound. The Latin players like Jose Rodriguez, Barry Rogers, Jimmy Bosch, taught me about the trombone as tuned drum, a much more percussive approach. The studio and Broadway players, Urbie Green, Wayne Andre, Bill Watrous, taught me about control and ensemble playing. The jazz players, J.J., Jimmy Knepper, Slide Hampton, all the greats from the '40s and before. The Ellington sections, Teagarden, Bill Harris, Trummy Young, Dickie Wells, taught me how to swing, to communicate in any environment. They all teach what is possible;'we all have to choose, figure out how they did what they did, then go on and see if anything else is possible.
Jim's use of alternate positions and slide technique (he holds the slide with his whole hand, wrist facing the player rather than perpendicular) enabled me to play a great deal more than I could before I changed, but that's not the secret of his technique. He hears the music, then plays it. That's the real secret. Everything else is just tools. He's got his, other people have theirs. His strength, and the strength of anyone who has really learned how to improvise on the trombone, lies in finding and developing the tools he has available to him. He's also transcribed and learned hundreds of Charlie Parker solos, and plays the Bach Cello Suites like God. Great sight reader too, the best I've ever seen.
How about Urbie Green?
I first heard Urbie about the same time I first heard J.J. but his range and flexibility were so far beyond my grasp at that time, I couldn't even try to emulate him. Later I played with him in many studio situations, but by that time I was already pretty well set in the direction I was to follow, so he didn't directly influence me that much. But of course, just knowing that the things he could do were even humanly possible on the instrument is an influence in itself. He had (and still has) the most glorious sound, vibrato, melodic approach strength, flexibility, ear, taste, a virtuoso who never played what I call 'stupid trombone tricks'. Just the music, always the music. A singer of beautiful songs.
Has the New York scene changed much in the last 30 years?
Not much. Substantially less recording, substantially more (and better) Broadway work, quite a few more large ensembles working. Otherwise, pretty much the same.
Have standards of technique and musicianship changed?
No. You still have to be able to play. That's it. I will say that there are more fine musicians than before, especially on the trombone. Better schools, more schools, more emphasis on American traditions as early as 7th Grade explains that, I think.
How much of an influence is competitiveness?
Some people operate on that level - I don't. I'm the only one with whom I compete. If I'm not a better player than I was last month, I'm doing something wrong.
Do you think that jazz trombone is still terribly neglected?
No. Neglected is the wrong word. I think it's been played very well, but not well enough to get listeners' attention. Record companies and the music business in general don't 'neglect' an instrument or a style - they just don't record or promote it -if it doesn't make money. The trombone's hard to play, hard to play well, and very hard to record. It tends to occupy an almost subliminal part of most listeners' consciousness - they know something's happening, but they don't really know what.
Only Teagarden, Green, Dorsey and Johnson have really had recording careers that weren't aimed primarily at musicians, because they didn't indulge in those 'stupid trombone tricks' to impress other musicians. They were just great musicians with particularly attention getting (and pleasing) sounds.
What do you mean by 'stupid trombone tricks'? Are they always invalid?
Not if you're into stupid trombone tricks. Really, I don't want to hear how well somebody can trill, how high or fast somebody can play, unless it serves the music. Are they invalid? No. If that's what you want, then have a good time. Are they invalid to me? Yes. Always.
There have been hundreds of saxophonists, trumpet players, pianists, and so on who have sold records, and really only four trombonists. It isn't because of neglect, it's because people like to listen to Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis more than they do Slide Hampton and Jimmy Knepper. This doesn't mean Sonny and Miles were better than Slide and Jimmy; it's not a plot to neglect the trombone, that's just the way it is.
So why do you think people like to listen to Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis more than Slide Hampton and Jimmy Knepper? Are you saying it's because people aren't attracted to the sound of the trombone as much because the trombone has not been played as well as other instruments?
I think the trombone is harder to play in a communicative manner than the trumpet or saxophone, and harder to record as well. We put such effort into just getting around the horn, sometimes there's not much left for the music. Slide and Jimmy, particularly, have never been, to my knowledge, recorded with the care that would be necessary to capture their sounds. Imagine if Miles, who for most of his career communicated mostly by the timbres he could produce, was recorded so he was half covered by the bass and drums? Yet that's what you hear more often than not when trombones are recorded. And why? Because the record label thinks they're not going to make any money, so why spend the extra thousands. And why? Because the last trombone record didn't make any money. And why? Because it wasn't recorded well. And so on - a self fulfilling prophecy. The trombone's a bitch to play well.
Are the young players out there?
Again, yes and no. Lots of young players can get all over the horn, but most are very derivative and few that I've heard communicate on a direct level to non-musicians.
You mentioned that Carmine Caruso helped you get over early chops problems. How did that come about?
Carmine was a brass teaching genius. I had mistreated my embouchure in various ways to the point where I suddenly could barely play. When I switched from tuba to trombone, I managed it by playing what I later found out was an 'einsetzen' embouchure - lower lip trapped between the rim and my lower teeth. Worked great - lots of range, flexibility, but not much endurance, not a really big sound. After a while, as I got into real professional work, the limitations began to show. Playing long loud Latin gigs really blew me out. One day, the lower lip simply disappeared out of the embouchure. No notes. I had never been very analytical about it all nor had I been lucky enough to find a teacher who recognized the problem (plus being a very stubborn person by nature), and it had been working. So there I was, in the middle of a bolero with Larry Harlow's band (a big time NYC salsa band at that time), and no middle B flat. Nada. Nothing. (Only one lip, y'see.)
Without any 'Do this, do that, move your embouchure, hold your tongue just so, sit this way, breathe that way' talk, solely by the application of certain very specific exercises and an almost superhumanly calm and forgiving spirit, Carmine helped me rebuild (and understand) my embouchure my way and at the same time sustained my confidence in my own abilities during some very dark times - two, maybe two and a half years. Only after that did I begin to realize what had happened. Not just a brass teaching genius, a life teaching genius.
What do you do with your own band?
Rehearse and look for money. The music and the musicians are there ... just can't afford to float it myself right now, so I write, we rehearse, then I write some more. I hope to make a small group record some time this year, big band in about 1 1/2 years. The great baritone player Gary Smulyan said it sounds like a combination of Machito, Mingus, Gil Evans and Ravel.
What is it you love most about the trombone and playing it?
Makes me feel good. Always. Whenever the music's really happening, and I'm a real part of it, I'm fulfilled. Writer, soloist, section player, band leader - if it's happening, I'm always happy. My biography: born; still practising.
The American Trombone ($49.95), a new method book by Sam Burtis.
P.O. Box 194
Hastings on Hudson