Although they have been an integral part of jazz bands throughout the music’s history, great jazz trombonists are often overlooked by jazz fans and historians. This omission, however, is not due to the lack of amazing music made on the lanky brass instrument.
Despite being burdened by an awkward instrument, trombonists have applied virtually every jazz style to the instrument—from Al Grey’s bluesy inflection to Albert Mangelsdorff’s multiphonic free improvisation. Since jazz pioneers such as Kid Ory and Jimmy Harrison began recording in the 1920s, trombonists have been making their mark on the jazz tradition.
I have selected twelve of my favorite examples of trombone excellence; they span the entire course of recorded jazz and reflect a variety of approaches. From the 1920s through the 2000s, each decade is represented by at least one recording. As you will see, there is not one linear progression of jazz trombone evolution; instead, each musician uses the instrument to express his own musical personality. Styles range from Jimmy Harrison’s rambunctious swing to J.J. Johnson’s virtuosic bebop to Fred Wesley’s impeccable funk. Each has been emulated by trombonists since—and as they say, imitation is the highest form of flattery.