On Roswell (by Jacob Garchik)

November 17, 1935 – December 21, 2017

Roswell Rudd’s career lasted almost 60 years and he played an astounding variety of music. It’s hard to think of another musician with his breadth of experience: late 50s Dixieland revival, swinging early 60s modern jazz, rhythmically free mid-60s free jazz, eclectic 70s loft jazz, punk bands, musicians from Mali, blues bands. Because some of his most famous recordings were with seminal free jazz groups of the mid 60s, Roswell is unfairly pigeonholed by what the jazz world perceives to be “his thing” – as an outside player. Creating and defining a career that encompasses many styles is a monumental challenge that many musicians face today, and one of the reasons Roswell strikes a chord with me.

When I was a young trombone player and trombone fanatic, from what little I could read about him, I thought I had him pegged. The story that I understood was this: Along with his compatriot Steve Lacy, he started in Dixieland bands and then transitioned directly to free playing, bypassing the innovations of 1945-1960 entirely.

But, as I was to learn, this was not so! In fact Roswell, is something of a missing link in jazz trombone playing of the 60s, capable of swing, sophisticated navigation of complex changes, abstraction, and possessing a huge, modern vocabulary.

School Days, by the Steve Lacy-Roswell Rudd Quartet, was recorded in 1963 and not released until 1975 on the tiny Emanem label. If you were learning jazz trombone from the mid 1960s until the mid 1990s, there is very little chance that you would have heard this album. It was finally released on CD on 1995 on the Swiss Hat Art label. In the early 90s I first heard tracks from it on a very fishy Steve Lacy compilation CD on some bullshit cutout label called Giants of Jazz. I am convinced that, had this group gone into the studio in 1963, and a record released widely then, it would be in every trombone player’s collection. Certainly when I heard it it changed what I thought was the story of bop trombone.

Conventional narrative goes thusly: Teenage J.J. Johnson appeared on the scene in the 1940s, revolutionizing an instrument that he said had been played in the “usual sliding, slurring, lip trilling or ‘gut bucket’ style.  J.J. was interested in what he described as “linear improvisation”: Lester Young solos, the focus on notes and advanced harmony as posited by Diz and Bird, all rendered with a stunningly clear technique that has never been equaled before or since.

As the modernist movement stripped away excessive ornamentation in architecture, design, and art, J.J. did the same for jazz trombone.

By the early 60s, in the heyday of the Blue Note era, there was a very exclusive, very elite group of slide trombone players who could hold their own playing small group modern jazz. While there were dozens of outstanding individualists on the scene, most of them made a living playing in big bands, where one or two short solos per set was the rule, or on studio dates, where improvised trombone solos were even more rare. J.J.’s influence notwithstanding, the swing era still loomed large in the trombone world, and even the most technically accomplished of this group were not focused on the mental challenges of not repeating yourself while playing 6 solos per set, 3-5 sets a night in a club in the Village.

J.J. still reigned supreme at this time and set the standard for small group trombone playing. His slightly younger disciples Curtis Fuller, Julian Priester, and Slide Hampton each took his style as a basis and moved it in their own direction. Frank Rosolino, roughly the same age as J.J., emerged in the 50s as a technically adventurous soloist who early on played some J.J.-isms, but retained a few more swing era stylistic traits like heavier vibrato and lip ornamentation that J.J. had shunned. Jimmy Knepper developed a bebop style vocabulary based on his love of Charlie Parker and paired it with a fluid swing-era based technique that had little to do with J.J.

For me this was “the J.J. Club,” and every trombone player has ideas about who exactly belongs in it: Players who played changes and had vocabulary and could deal with modernity and lines and changes – state of the art jazz as it existed at the time. They were not just featured in a big band once in a while, but could lead a small group and had a fully developed style worthy of years of study.

All of these players are incredible in the own right, were completely comfortable in “modern” settings, but none of them really could be described as “avant-garde” or enthusiasts about the innovations of Ornette Coleman, and although I maintain that J.J. is a master of “mid-century modernism” I would describe none of them as abstract.

I loved later developments as well – Grachan Monchur’s stripped down, J.J.-Influenced minimalism, Julian Priester’s more space-out solos in Herbie Hancock’s 1970s sextet, George Lewis’s and Ray Anderson’s return to maximalist expressionism in the 70s free scene.

And I loved Roswell Rudd, whom I knew from the New York Art Quartet and Archie Shepp’s albums – he played with a great spirit, exuberance, and melodicism. He played with basically no-J.J. influence, and loosened the constraints that the J.J. disciples had put on trombone technique. Lip trills, slide glisses, letting the tone get brassy at times, wide vibrato, plunger mutes, and other swing-era techniques were back in, and put to use in an vivid expressionist style. He had a singing style (he even referred to it as this) that could be lyrical even when atonal.

As is common knowledge, the trombone is a technical beast, which has conquered many foes. The list of amazing musicians who started out as jazz trombone players, only to quit and go on to other things, is shockingly long. You are never going to be Johnny Griffin, churning out long fast legato lines, as is the staple of post-Bird horn playing. Instead you have to use all of your powers of musicianship to craft a complete vocabulary in the absence of what jazz musicians of a certain era call “snakes”. J.J.’s solution to this problem was to have an elegant style based on restraint, clarity, and motivic development, an unprecedented technique, and, when he needed it, a set of bebop “snakes” tailored to the trombone, which he played immaculately with a minimum of slide movement.

Roswell is not a player of “snakes,” From a 1998 interview he said: “The saxophonists then made possible a translation that other horn players could pick up on and I think that’s why I was really attracted to the saxophone players. I would take what the saxophone players were doing and distill it even further to where I could handle it. I found ways that I could participate in what they were doing but maybe without 10 fingers on a pipe. “

Which brings us to School Days. A few ways he “distilled” their vocabulary can be seen in his solo on “Skippy,” a Monk tune with enough chord changes to make any horn player nervous, let alone a 60s trombone player.

• Rhythmic displacement

On “Skippy” at 0:50, he plays phrases in groups of 3 eighths, or groups of 3 quarters, followed by a continuation of the phrase in 4, which gives a feeling of alternately compressed and elongated time. This is especially useful on a tune like “Skippy,” with chord changes every two beats. Playing the harmonic rhythm strictly becomes monotonous and the 3s against 4s break it up. He also loves to set up the expectation of a repetition by playing a phrase twice, but when the third phrase comes, it lands a beat early (1:48). He does this again on “Monk’s Dream “at 0:54, but here the third phrase lands an 8th note early.

• Purposely “folksy” type of playing

If Ornette helped to reintroduce a country twang and Texas drawl into jazz, Roswell picked up the torch. The lick at 1:48 in “Skippy” sounds less to me like Dixieland vocabulary and more like say, Southern hillbilly singing. I don’t know if in 1963 Roswell had started his decades long association with Alan Lomax yet but he certainly sounds like he was spending his days cataloguing recordings of shape note singers. (Tellingly, the record is live in the “Phase Two Coffee House” in 1963 Greenwich Village, the epicenter of the folk revival.) Sometimes he plays with an exaggerated bouncy 8th note feel, like at 0:59 when he cycles cheekily through the circle of 5ths. Surely this was jarring to jazz fans used to the smooth laid back swing of the late 50s and early 60s. Within the same solo you can find him playing even-out 8ths. He’s toying with us. The appearance of “folksy” licks and hokey swing feels alongside bebop harmony, whole tone scales and a 60s modern rhythm section, on a Monk tune, is to me post-modernism – purposeful juxtaposition of anachronistic styles. This was an innovation which is contrary to the streamlined modernism of, say, Miles’s 60s quintet, and looks ahead to the more stylistically free 1970s jazz and a 1970s aesthetic in general.

• Harmonic Glissandos in one position

Described by Stuart Dempster in his extended technique guide The Modern Trombone: “If one were to play the harmonic series in first (or any other) position by slurring from the fundamental to the top register, one would be playing one of the extreme versions of the harmonic glissando.” The harmonic glissando in one position first starts to appear as an effect in contemporary classical music at the same time this recording is made. It is a trombone-specific way of playing lots of notes very quickly. You can do it on the trumpet, it’s less dramatic than the trombone, and I don’t know of any other trumpet player doing this in the early 60s. It’s also perfectly suited to Monk’s love of parallel dominant 7th chords, as Roswell illustrates on Skippy at 1:19. What better way to play on Bb7, A7, Ab7 than giant, lightening fast, rip-roaring arpeggios on the harmonic series based on fundamentals of Bb, A and Ab? Take that, saxophone players.

• Harmonic Glissandos while moving the slide out aka “back-sliding”

One of Monk’s signature moves is the fast, downward, whole tone scale, Roswell found a trombone-specific way to hang. While moving the slide in combination with a harmonic glissando in the high register, one can play a very fast whole tone scale up or down, as Roswell does to great effect throughout this solo, for instance at 1:35.

• The Anti-J.J.

Roswell breaks nearly all the unspoken rules of the J.J. Club. Everything from the free spirited days of early jazz trombone that had been stripped away by the beboppers is now back, but placed over modern chord changes – growling, glissandos used in every which way, extreme timbral variation, using the entire range of the trombone without being afraid of getting messy, more variety of attacks, using a plunger at times, allowing the volume to swell after inception instead of insisting on a clear attack followed by a controlled decay, in short, everything J.J. identified as the “sliding, slurring, lip trilling or ‘gut bucket’ style.” None of the other “elite” 60s trombone players took this approach. Even Frank Rosolino and Jimmy Knepper, while not direct disciples of J.J., nonetheless approached the trombone in a more or less orderly, post-J.J. Fashion, with a clear, controlled, even tone, and staying mostly in the high register. Roswell is an outlier, although his approach was adapted in the 70s (indirectly I think) by George Lewis and Ray Anderson and other freer players like Paul Rutherford.

• Piano-less quartet

Steve Lacy and Roswell were not alone in their adaptation of a quartet without a harmonic instrument but the only other trombone player who did this that I know of is Bob Brookmeyer’s buttoned-down classicist approach with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet.  Lacy and Roswell go one step further, playing “Bye-Ya” and “Pannonica” without even a bass player, forcing them to keep the form. Who else in the early 60s was playing some of Monk’s hardest music, like “Skippy,” and nailing every chord change? The members of “the J.J. Club” shied away from this type of tune.

• Quoting the melody

The old adage about how Monk tunes lend themselves to playing off the melody is demonstrated to great effect here. In fact on nearly every one of his solos on School Days he quotes the melodies. When Monk’s bridge turns rhythmic or repeats one note, as on Monk’s Dream, he does the same. If Monk’s harmonic movement is chromatic, so might be Roswell’s, although he may be going in the opposite direction.

• Vocabulary

Paradoxically Roswell had a great grasp of bebop vocabulary. He spoke in interviews about being versed in Miff Mole and Duke Ellington but ignorant of bebop and modern jazz until about 1960, when he started hanging out with Herbie Nichols and very quickly soaked it all up. But as School Days demonstrates, he deftly makes every chord change. To my ears, his playing is so creative that he transcends bebop vocabulary on this album. Linked more to Monk’s aesthetic (was Monk bebop?) than to Charlie Parker’s. A few years later, “Suh Blah Blah Buh Sibi” from Flexible Flyer (1975) or “Mysterioso” from Inside Job (1976) shows Roswell really playing quite inside, with a more grounded vocabulary, but still with his characteristic bravado and inventiveness.

In addition to his work as a sideman, Roswell did go into the studio for a big label in the 60s as a leader, for the album Everywhere on Impulse!. You will hear plenty of great playing on this record and on his work with Archie Shepp. “Lady Sings the Blues” from Live in San Francisco is a highlight for me, and perhaps the closest record to the style of School Days. But you won’t often hear him letting loose on complex changes with a swinging rhythm section in the rest of the decade. It was the turbulent 60s, and he was at the forefront of the expressionist free jazz style – more often he was featured in freer contexts. In the ears of many, the die was cast, and he became known as an “out” player. By the 70s, his style had changed – it was stripped down, more elemental, with a powerful tone. Still playing Monk, he might use fewer notes but each note had gravitas. On “Epistrophy” from Regeneration (1982), you get fewer nimble whole tone flourishes but more massive glissandos, rendered with a sound that could tear a hole in the fabric of reality.

Meanwhile, J.J., Frank Rosolino, Curtis Fuller, Slide Hampton, Julian Priester, and Jimmy Knepper made dozens of the type of records that you might find in a college trombone player’s iPhone, and set the standard for “classic modern jazz trombone.”

There was a time in the 90s when Slide Hampton started playing a very large trombone with a bass trombone mouthpiece (a “bathtub” in trombone parlance). Soon there were a dozen guys showing up to jam sessions in the Village with similar setups. Certainly they could all sing back to you a few of their favorite Slide Hampton solos. Roswell has no such “school.”

Perhaps these comparisons are unfair. After all, Roswell’s career trajectory is a feature, not a bug. He was a creative spirit! Why would you expect him to stand still? Does one need to devote 60 years of a career to a single style? Why are Roswell’s amazing soulful albums like Malicool any less valid then School Days? This is an artist with a serious love for small group swinging jazz but who also saw the wider world of music as essential to explore, to commune with, to reach out to, to participate in. (There are striking parallels to one of Steve Lacy’s other 1960s front-line pairings: Don Cherry, who could masterfully play “inside” with a rhythm section but devoted decades to far reaching explorations.)

In this, Roswell was ahead of his time, because this is exactly how I feel and how many of my generation feel. We may have the impulse to do a record with the classicism and intention as School Days, recorded by a working, small group jazz band playing fresh, swinging renditions of familiar music by a master. Stretching out but within a framework, following the rules of the game, but finding a new way to do it. This is the jazz musician’s version of “playing a masterful game of chess.” This is a worthy pursuit! Chess is endlessly fascinating.

But we also may want to do heavy metal, an orchestra piece, a woodwind octet, a Mexican brass band, or an unaccompanied recital. This is the jazz musician’s “inventing an entirely new game.” It seems to me that this is the path Roswell chose. Inspired by people like Roswell, this is the path that looks best to me. Perhaps this wandering curiosity comes naturally to trombone players – by both necessity and tradition, we are more likely to be the ones doing a salsa, klezmer, or parade gig on a weekend.

Why not choose both paths? Well, remember, Roswell only released two albums of his own in the 60s, only one in the 80s, and none in the 90s. He didn’t exactly have Blue Note beating down his door, begging him to sign a contract. Meanwhile he was extraordinarily creative. While researching this essay I heard for the first time Jazz Composers Orchestra Plays Numatik Swing Band (1973), which Roswell composed and conducted. Fascinating writing for a 25 piece large ensemble, another one of his under-explored talents! And consequently another obscure, impossible to find record, his third as a leader. Perhaps in a parallel universe we would be reverentially talking about him as a big band composer.

Regardless, thanks to his late career resurgence, we do have plenty of Roswell to commune with. Apart from his albums, you can browse youtube and find him with Sonic Youth, with a trombone choir, in Siberia, or performing a rap at his upstate house.

I first saw Roswell play in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unitarian Church in Chicago in around 1995. He seemed to not warm up; from almost the moment he started he was at full volume. He was playing a student model trombone. He almost blew his chops out. It was as if he couldn’t help but give the audience 150%. It’s very difficult to decently record a trombone cranked to the max, and many Roswell recordings suffer because of this. Perhaps this is why many trombonists can’t take his playing on record – they find it too brash. But hearing it live, you are enveloped by the sound, the emotion, the commitment to connecting with the audience.


Jacob Garchik website.