Trombone has been a figure of fun down the ages, with its big loopy image and droopy clownish sound. Donald Duck had Trombone Trouble in 1944, Music Hall comic Jimmy Edwards spoofed in 1966 before the Jack Parnell Orchestra, and of course there was Douglas in a certain Danish butter advert. But listen again, as the trombone has an unsurpassed grace and elegance in jazz. Tommy Dorsey’s plaintive and muted control on ‘Song of India’, Curtis Fuller’s drive on Art Blakey’s ‘Caravan’, or Robin Eubanks’ defining presence in the Dave Holland Quintet, to give a few examples.
One of the finest British jazz trombonists of his generation is Mark Nightingale, who returns in October with the Andy Panayi Quartet at Dereham Jazz. This monthly Norfolk session is now firmly re-ensconced at the town’s golf club.
Mark Nightingale came through the youth jazz orchestra route in the early 1980s, starting with Midland YJO and progressing to the national NYJO (who you can see in their present line-up at Saffron Hall this month). Nightingale has since contributed to the BBC Big Band, and maintained his own eponymous large ensemble, while also leading a funk-oriented Quintet (Out of the Box LP) that both features the mercurial alto saxophonist Nigel Hitchcock and pays a nod to Eubanks’ M-Base origins. As it happens, Mark Nightingale was hosted last month at the occasional music and dinner invitations at Tithe Barn in Needham, near Harleston (see the Music 2016 page at gilllevin.wordpress.com).
Trombonists are however becoming a rare breed; and the trombone is not an instrument you can just pick up later in life for a bit of busking. Compared with playing the saxophone (or trumpet, for that matter) school pupils are half as likely to be taking up the trombone – according to a national survey in 2005 (going back a bit I know) – in spite of most local school services offering lessons in the instrument. There is also a gender issue here: as with guitar and drums in the jazz line-up, trombone has a presumed blokeishness.
Thankfully therefore we also have in Annie Whitehead an inspiration not just across British jazz and large-ensemble projects but also through her earlier pop, folk and African ‘new wave’ musical connections. A Lancastrian, Whitehead also came through an YJO (Manchester’s) but brought to her sound past experience in brass bands and a 1940s-style institution by the name of the Ivy Benson All Girl Orchestra.
Among the current generation of modern jazz trombone leaders is Cambridge-born Tom Green, who studied under Mark Nightingale. He’ll be back for the Cambridge Jazz Festival in November but let’s hope he and other exponents of the less-favoured ‘bone will be showcased at some of our venues soon.