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Steve Davis’ Advice for Aspiring Jazz Trombonists

Steve Davis’ Advice for Aspiring Jazz Trombonists

Do you have any advice for aspiring jazz trombonists?

Love your sound on the instrument and develop that. As trombonists, that’s what we have going for us more than anything; the instrument’s sound is so pure and beautiful, so never forget that. And then I would say, as much as we love the instrument and need to address the technical aspects of the instrument, don’t make that first. Play the music, play the musical language, and that can come from any source. Anything you hear which makes you say, “Man, I like that,” try to play it yourself and figure it out. It could be from singers, of course — that’s what we’re trying to do… is to SING through our horn. We’re trying to do what singers do in an unimpeded fashion, all of the time — we’ve got to translate it through this piece of metal (which we love).

The end-all isn’t how high and fast I can play and how many notes I can play, so try not to get caught up in that. Play the music and when you’re improvising, try to be melodic and play with a good sound, good beat, good time, and good pulse.

Choose your notes wisely. Think about the placement of your ideas rhythmically. Try to start your phrases in different places than right on “1.” Your approach will vary slightly. You’ll achieve these things in your playing if you’re a devoted fan of the rhythm sections you play with or listen to on all of the great recordings that we love. Be a fan of the bassists, pianists, and drummers and try to understand their language. I’ve grown so much over the years listening to Cedar Walton Trio records or Hank Jones, and you can just go on and on. There’s no trombone in there, not even a horn. You’re taking in the melodic, rhythmic, harmonic flow of what a jazz trio feels like when you listen to those greats and many others.

I would suggest this to trombone players: listen to everybody — Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, all instruments. Just try to play the language and don’t necessarily be stuck on just trombone stuff. That’s what has served me well over the years, and has (hopefully) helped me find my voice, so when people hear me, they say, “Ah, that’s Stevie-D; I know his sound, and I know his style.” Believe me: there are so many great trombonists, and they’ve paved the way for someone like me to come along and try to do it my way. Of course, you’re going to listen to the master trombonists and learn and appreciate them. You appreciate all of it, but the way you find your voice is to play the language.

One thing I like to tell students is, “You’re a human being every day of your life.” That’s No. 1: What kind of person are you? Are you considerate, are you thoughtful, are you a good listener? Hopefully, you’re not selfish, and hopefully, you’re not a jerk. What kind of person are you? That’s going to affect how you sound and play more than anything else than all of the practice and knowledge and theory and everything else. Who are you? A lot of times, people forget to think about that.

No. 2: Are you walking and talking music 24/7 without the horn in your hands? Can you embody the music? Can you transmit the music and just be it without your instrument. Usually, when I have a room full of trombonists when I get here, they all are like, “What the heck is he talking about?” I try to remind them that No. 1 is the person, the human being, and then, No. 2, what kind of musician are you without the horn in your hands. Part of No. 2 is, can you play the piano and know some harmony and chords? That’s a huge one for non-pianists; you’ve got to sit at that keyboard because ultimately, you’re playing the piano on the horn when you’re playing all of your improvised ideas.

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No. 3: When you hold your instrument in your hands, you deal with all of the technical aspects that any musical situation presents. If you’re playing the music, you will have to deal with the technical aspects, no matter what it is. That’s going to happen, but that’s No. 3. Many trombonists forget about that; they start with all chops all the time, which tends to take away from anyone else being able to hear what kind of musician you are.

In closing, I want to mention some of the great trombonists I’ve had the pleasure of playing in the section with or collaborating with over the years, all of whom I greatly respect and admire as musicians, trombone players and human beings: James Burton III, Michael Dease, Jason Jackson, Andre Hayward, Vincent Gardener, Isaac Smith, David Gibson, Jay Ashby, John Hasselback, Emmett Goods, Max Seigel… and legendary greats Benny Powell, Bill Watrous, Bob Brookmeyer, Douglas Purviance, Clifton Anderson, Steve Turre, Frank Lacy, Robin Eubanks, Conrad Herwig, John Fedchock, Wycliffe Gordon.

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Full Interview: “Just Try to Play the Language… Don’t Necessarily Be Stuck on Trombone Stuff”
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