When it comes to the history of jazz, the front-line of saxophone and trumpet seem to take a lot of the glory. But one instrument which has been consistently present, from the very beginning through to the modern day, is the trombone.
In this article, we’ve taken a chronological look at some of the most influential jazz trombone players of all time and shone a light on some of their best recordings.
When jazz first took off in the early 20th Century – with Dixieland, New Orleans music leading the way – the trombone was a mainstay of most groups; albeit alongside the featured soloist.
From Kid Ory in Louis Armstrong’s Hot 5 to Al Gande in Bix Beiderbecke’s Wolverines, the trombone was there.
Similarly, as the swing and big band era was ushered in, the trombone section provided a vital role in the colours of the music – as it did in some of the most legendary cool jazz albums of all time.
Once bebop arrived, it was widely thought that the trombone’s place in this new, fast-paced and technical setting was at risk – until J.J. Johnson showed otherwise.
As the years have passed, the jazz trombone has continued to play a range of roles in this style – from virtuosic improvisational soloist through to essential ensemble player – and shows no sign of stopping.
If anything, it’s place in jazz has been more pronounced in recent years, with a number of high-profile proponents led by crossover success Trombone Shorty.
Of course, there are many more great jazz trombone players we could have added here (and you’re welcome to make suggestions in the comments section) but hopefully this list will provide an entry point to (re)discovering some of the great music that exists out there.
Born in 1898, Miff Mole was one of the earliest players to develop a distinctive style of jazz trombone soloing and was a pre-Jack-Teagarden inspiration to many on this instrument.
An influential figure on New York’s jazz scene in the 1920’s, he performed and recorded extensively with the other greats from this era, including guitarist Eddie Lang, clarinet/saxophone player Jimmy Dorsey and trumpeters Red Nichols & Bix Beiderbecke.
As a canny bandleader, he fronted Miff Mole and His Little Molers and also accompanied the popular singer Sophie Tucker on several of her recordings for the Okeh record label.
In his later years, his focus turned more to working as a studio musician and, by his death in 1961, he’d been largely forgotten by the wider jazz world. He does, however, appear in the legendary 1958 Art Kane photo A Great Day in Harlem.
Did you know… his composition “There’ll Come a Time (Wait and See)” was used in the soundtrack to Brad Pitt movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Born in 1905 in Texas, Jack Teagarden developed a seemingly effortless, lyrical style and arguably remains the most famous pre-bebop trombonist in jazz history – as well as a notable vocalist from the period.
The early part of his musical career was spent as an in-demand sideman to some of the greats of the day, including Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman & Glenn Miller. He recorded more than 1,000 tracks for legendary labels including Columbia, Decca and Capitol and can be heard on some of the biggest songs of the era, such as Basin Street Blues, Stars Fell on Alabama, Jeepers Creepers and Pennies From Heaven (to name just 4…)
A hit with fans, musicians & press alike, jazz critic Martin Williams wrote at the time, that “his creative instinct is unerring, rhythmically and harmonically, and is creatively superb.”
Off the bandstand, he also worked to progress the technical side of trombone playing, designing mouthpieces and mutes and testing out different lubricants for his instrument.
Born in 1906, American jazz trombone player Vic Dickenson established himself as an integral part of bands led by Count Basie, Sidney Bechet and Earl Hines.
Across his 50+ year career, he maintained a busy schedule of touring and recording – even as the ‘popular’ style of jazz changed from Dixieland to swing to bebop and beyond.
Highlights include spells with George Wein’s Newport All-Stars, Coleman Hawkins, Betty Carter & Lester Young – as well as the modestly named World’s Greatest Jazz Band!
Vic also appears alongside Miff Mole in the Great Day in Harlem photo.
Born in 1926 in Alabama (where he was inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame 69 years later), Urbie Green gained a reputation for being ‘the trombonist’s trombonist.
With a warm, mellow tone and an impeccable technique, he regularly appeared in the annual Downbeat critics poll, beginning in 1954 when he won the award for ‘new star’ aged 28.
As a freelance jazz trombonist, he appeared with many of the most popular bandleaders of the day, including Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Gene Krupa & Woody Herman.
Offstage, he’s been credited with progressing the design of the trombone, including innovations around the comfort of the slide, an improved water hole and a chrome-plated neck.
Perhaps the best known jazz trombonist of all time, J.J. Johnson was the first one of the earliest musicians on the instrument to play in the bebop style.
Born in 1924, his career started (as with most musicians from that era) in the 40’s swinging big bands and orchestras – most notably Benny Carter and Count Basie.
However, in the mid-40s, he was spurred on by trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie to embrace the new bebop style. He immediately decamped to New York to play in small group line ups with innovators including Max Roach, Sonny Stitt, Bud Powell & Charlie Parker.
The 1950’s saw him make his first Blue Note albums – both as a bandleader and with Miles Davis – followed by a highly successful double-trombone project with Kai Windig, for Savoy Records.
The following years saw him capitalise on his status as the go-to jazz trombonist, appearing around the world with most of the legends of the time, including Clifford Jordan, Nat Adderley, Freddie Hubbard, Tommy Flanagan, Cedar Walton, Elvin Jones, Paul Chambers and Max Roach – as well as stints with the Jazz at the Philharmonic show.
After a hiatus from playing that started in the 1960s (he moved to Hollywood to write for film and television) he returned to touring and was turning out critically acclaimed recordings well into the mid-90s.
Born in the Danish town of Aarhus in 1922, Kai Windig is perhaps best-known for his long-term collaboration with fellow jazz trombone player J.J. Johnson.
Despite this, the musician (who relocated to New York age 12) featured on many acclaimed albums across a 30+ year career, both as a bandleader and sideman.
Following World War 2, Windig performed with Benny Goodman and Stan Kenton’s orchestras and also appears on 4 tracks of seminal jazz album Birth of the Cool.
Recording right up to his death in the early 1980s, Windig’s recording credits include Quincy Jones, Zoot Sims, Sarah Vaughan, Mel Lewis and Chuck Mangione, as well as more than 30 albums as a bandleader.
Born in 1932 and touring the American mid-west by the time he was 12 years old, jazz trombonist Slide Hampton’s career has spanned more than 70 years, well into the 21st century.
Citing J.J. Johnson as an early influence, he joined Lionel Hampton’s band at 20 and, soon after, Maynard Ferguson.
In the 60s, as one of the most famous musicians on his instrument, Hampton performed and recorded with greats such as Art Blakey, Tadd Dameron, Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, Freddie Hubbard and Max Roach – as well as gaining a reputation as a fine composer and arranger.
1968-1977 saw an extended stay in Europe where he became an integral part of the jazz scene there and toured with other high-profile expats including Kenny Clarke, Art Farmer and Dexter Gordon.
As the decades passed, Slide continued performing (and, later teaching) at the highest level and, since the turn of the century, has added another Grammy Award (Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album) to his collection, been named 2005 NEA Jazz Master and been inducted into the Indianapolis Jazz Foundation Hall of Fame.
“In the late 60s, early 70s, Slide Hampton pushed the borders of the instrument to a new level. The agility he shows on the full range of the horn combined with his tremendous musicianship are the blueprint for the modern jazz trombone amongst others” – Simon Petermann, Swiss jazz trombonist & bandleader
Born in 1934, Curtis Fuller is a true jazz pedigree: school friends with Paul Chambers and Donald Byrd, he started out – before moving to New York – playing with Cannonball Adderley and Kenny Burrell, amongst others.
He is perhaps best known for his recordings on the legendary Blue Note label during the late 1950s/early 1960s Hard Bop era when he was ‘discovered’ by label boss Alfred Lion performing with Miles Davis.
During this period he appeared on a huge number of recordings led by some of the most famous musicians at the time, including Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, John Coltrane (Blue Train), Sonny Clark, Lou Donaldson, Joe Henderson, Blue Mitchell, Jimmy Smith and Stanley Turrentine.
Awarded an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music in 1999 and named NEA Jazz Master in 2007, Curtis continues to tour and teach well into his late 80s.
Jazz trombonist Steve Turre was born in 1948 to Mexican-American parents and grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. He was exposed early on to jazz and Latin music, including mariachi, blues and salsa – something which has influenced his playing ever since.
His big break came in 1972 when, still in his early 20s, he was booked to tour with the late, great, Ray Charles. Shortly after that, he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (at the request of Woody Shaw) and his career took off from there.
Over the last 50 years Turre has played with a ‘who’s who’ of the jazz world, including Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner, J.J. Johnson, Herbie Hancock, Roland Kirk, Pharoah Sanders, Horace Silver and Max Roach.
Alongside his touring and recording schedule, he’s active in the jazz education space, having had long-standing associations with Julliard in New York.
Born 1955 in Philadelphia, Robin Eubanks is widely considered the premier jazz trombone player of his generation.
Coming from a musical family (his brothers are trumpeter Duane Eubanks and guitarist/The Tonight Show musical director Kevin Eubanks) he rose to prominence in the 1980s, playing with fellow trombonist Slide Hampton, Geri Allen, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Sun Ra, and Elvin Jones – as well as for Stevie Wonder.
Aside from his own projects – which include Mental Images and EB3 – his most long-standing and critically acclaimed gig is perhaps as part of the Dave Holland Quintet with Chris Potter, Steve Nelson and Billy Kilson. He also won a Grammy for his part in the late Michael Brecker‘s acclaimed Quindectet project.
In 2014, Eubanks won the Jazz Times Critics Poll for Best Trombonist and is a multiple winner of Downbeat’s Readers and Critics Polls for Trombonist of the Year.
As an educator, he has held the position of Professor of Jazz Trombone and Jazz Composition as well as hosting workshops internationally. His encouragement of ‘the next generation’ is visible in his recording work, too, appearing as a guest or sideman on various rising star projects, including with Italy’s Arcadia Trio.
Trombone Listening Tips (2020)
Of course, there are more and more killer musicians releasing music all the time, so we wanted to finish this article by asking some current jazz trombone players on the scene to recommend some additional names to check out, to provide you with some fresh listening material…
“To me, his music feels and sounds organic, and his band, Catharsis, has an identity and vision that transcends individual compositions. The organization of a group like this, with personnel that fit so well within an ensemble but also shine individually, is something that has made a lasting impression on me. Add in his complete control of the instrument and his ability to improvise in such a captivating manner and you have, in my eyes, a complete artist and musician.” Brian Scarborough, trombonist, composer & bandleader out of Kansas City
Check him out via ryankeberle.com
Thanks for checking out this guide to some of the best jazz trombone players in history and we hope you listened to some great music along the way.
If you’d like to learn more about some of the musicians and styles mentioned here, you can head over to our Discover Jazz page.