The trombone as we know it has been with us for around 500 years. That is, the familiarly shaped instrument with a U-shaped slide for the right hand that is connected to a bell that sits on the player’s left shoulder. The “as we know it” bit is my disclaimer to leave aside, for the purposes of this article, any discussion of precursors of the trombone -– real or imagined – such as the Renaissance slide trumpet. For this discussion, I’m talking about the trombone as a trombone, that familiar instrument that is instantly recognizable when seen on stage, in parades, and in artwork.
Well, maybe it’s recognizable.
I’ve been working on several books and in the course of my research, I’ve been very interested to see how artists – painters, sculptors, photographers – render the trombone. Because of the instrument’s distinctive shape, one would not think it would be so difficult to draw a trombone correctly, or more fundamentally, put it together correctly. But it apparently is more complicated than I think it should be. This article is a gallery of some images where artists got the trombone wrong. The point of this exercise: to remind us of the dangers of making assumptions about musical instruments from iconography alone. Imagine if a researcher stumbles upon these images 500 years from now. What kinds of assumptions would they make about the trombone and how it is held and played if they base their conclusions on these (and similar) images that are simply wrong in their depiction of the trombone? Abundans cautela non nocet! (Abundant caution does no harm!)
First, here is how most people hold the trombone while playing. That’s me soloing with the Boston Pops Orchestra in Symphony Hall, Boston, a 2011 performance of the Bass Trombone Concerto written by my good friend, Chris Brubeck. The photo was taken by Michael J. Lutch. The instrument’s bell section is positioned on top of my left shoulder with the bell extending in front of my head. The hand slide is held by my right hand and is moved in and out. This said, we must note that in history, there have been trombones where the bell has extended backwards over the player’s left shoulder; these instruments are known as “over-the-shoulder” or OTS instruments. They achieved some popularity in the nineteenth century although they are known to have existed as early as the sixteenth century. At least that’s what some iconography tells us. They were never commonplace. And, yes, there are some trombone players who have put the trombone bell over their RIGHT shoulder moved the hand slide with their LEFT hand – jazz trombonist Locksley Wellington “Slide” Hampton comes to mind. But these instances are rare in the big scheme of things.
From the beginning of the trombone’s history, artists have had trouble with the concept of the trombone’s slide. This print, above, by Esaias van Husen dates from 1616 and is an example of the problem. At first glance all looks well with the trombone player who is flanked by cornettists. But while the trombone bell is properly shown as resting on the player’s left shoulder, the instrument is being held by the RIGHT hand and the slide moved by the LEFT hand. Further, the player’s left hand is far down the slide; in this position, the player could only move the slide perhaps one or two positions before his arm would be fully extended. Seventh position would remain illusory. Readers will notice that there are no braces on the bell. This in itself is not “wrong” in that we have a few surviving historical trombones from the Renaissance that do not have any bell braces although the lack of braces certainly contributes to an undesirable flexibility of the whole instrument and would make it more difficult to hold.
To be fair, these artists probably drew the trombone from memory. They would remember the bell and the slide, but exactly how it all fit together often had them scratching their collective heads.
We should perhaps forgive our artists from the Renaissance; the trombone was still relatively new and it was not ubiquitous in culture. Still, we must be very careful when we try to draw conclusions about what the trombone looked like in its early history solely on the basis of paintings, drawings, and sculptures.
But from the nineteenth century forward, I’m a little less forgiving. I mean, who thought that THIS (above) actually looked like a trombone? Where do we begin with the problems?! This New Year’s card carries the following greeting (a loose translation):
A blaring high note from the trombone,
A greeting like the sound of thunder.
Be cheerful, and in a good mood,
And good luck to you in the new year!
Well, good luck playing that instrument, whatever it is.
Here we go again. A lovely Christmas card, probably early twentieth century, with a woman playing trombone to accompany some Christmas carolers. But look at the impossibly small size of the trombone bell, and once again, with the bell over the left shoulder, it’s the left hand moving the slide. It ain’t necessarily so.
Here is a cover of Collier’s magazine, from December 1906. “The German Band” is shown. I don’t know any German trombone players who hold the trombone like this. In fact, I don’t know any trombone players of ANY nationality that hold the trombone like this. Once again, we have a left-handed trombone player but, wow, with the bell under his right arm, it sure looks like the trombone is a weapon. I don’t like that look on his face. Better get out of the way!
Here is the famous poster made in 1894 or 1895 by Louis Anquetin; it features Marguerite Dufay, a well-known entertainer in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the cafés concerts in Paris. I think we can give Anquetin a mulligan with this portrayal of Dufay. It is a poster that is 100% caricature. Dufay was a woman of ample proportions but did not have arms like this – at all. The trombone is oversized like her personality but the fact that her trombone is held over her RIGHT shoulder by her LEFT hand was noticed by writers in 1898, shortly after the poster appeared. As an aside, this is one of the most famous images of a trombone and I’ve written an article about Marguerite Dufay, “Finding Marguerite Dufay: an iconic trombonist revealed” that will appear in the January issue of the International Trombone Association Journal. Anquetin’s artistic license was part of the success of the poster. But it is still wrong!
Remember those Valentine’s Day cards you used to give out to classmates in elementary school? OK, maybe you’re not old enough to remember those days where such a thing wouldn’t be met with a lawsuit, but I remember that time well. It was a very 1950s and 1960s thing. We used to give out valentines that had the look of this one, above. But, wow, what in the world is THIS? It’s actually a pretty fancy valentine. The player’s right arm moves; you can see the little hinge pin on his shoulder. Now, I THINK it’s a trombone. At least it has enough pieces to make a trombone. But who thought this instrument could work at all? Is he holding the instrument with his right hand or moving the slide? I thought that perhaps the mechanical aspect of the card might make it right. But. . . noooooo. Here’s what you can do with it:
Yikes. The only thing this boy can do is launch the trombone like a javelin. A new Olympic sport! Play it? No way! Where’s the mouthpiece (among other problems)? I’m always particularly disappointed when the trombone is misrepresented for children. They ought to see the instrument as it really is, and see it in a way that can help them understand what it can actually do. As they say on Monday Night Countdown before each Monday Night Football game, “C’mon, man!”
Speaking of valentines, here’s another one. Such a nice young man. But since his trombone is all out of whack – once he toots his horn, I’m not sure he could actually move the slide since the slide tubes are not parallel, among other problems – I’m not sure he’d be such a good valentine after all. Why is it so difficult to get this right?!
When the trombone intersects with fictional creatures, anything can happen. I picked up this mug at McDonald’s many years ago. It shows the character Grimace playing the trombone. At first glance all looks well but as you look closely, there’s a problem: where is the back end of the trombone bell? It appears to go over his left shoulder. But the bell/slide receiver appears to go right into Grimace’s chest. I don’t know, I can’t figure it out. But it is a cool mug (if you like to hold purple creatures who play the trombone while you’re drinking your coffee).
This late nineteenth century advertising card for Smith’s Umbrellas – I have several of these cards, all featuring different merchant names – shows a trombonist solving the proverbial problem of getting condensation out of his slide. But look at the inner slide – it appears to be only a few inches long. I don’t think this player could have gotten past third position before his outer slide came off in his hand. So much for the seven position trombone. . .
Speaking of trombones with truncated slides, here is an advertisement for an appearance by Homer Rodeheaver in Buffalo, New York, in 1926. Rodeheaver was the trombone-playing song leader for evangelist “Billy” Sunday in the first third of the twentieth century. He is the subject of a biography that I’ve recently co-authored with my friend, Kevin Mungons, that will be published by University of Illinois Press. Rodeheaver’s trombone was part of his personal brand and I’ve come across hundreds of photos of him with his instrument. I assure you, he played a standard seven-position slide trombone. But look at this advertisement; it looks like he’s playing a very short slide. The bell is the right size but the slide – what happened?
It’s not difficult to figure out. Here is the original photo that was used in the ad. As you can see, the end of Rodeheaver’s trombone slide is cut off in the photo. For the advertisement, the copy editor obviously knew the photo was not complete and to use it in the ad, the trombone slide needed to have its bottom crook. So he just added one where the slide ended in the photo, ignoring the fact that the slide was actually much longer. Whoops!
More recently, we find advertisements like this one for Macy’s. Cool looking guy. But I don’t know any trombone player who would buy a leather jacket from Macy’s based on this photo. We’ve got an impossibility here. Just try to think through how far the player’s LEFT hand can go before it slams into the bell. That could get very expensive. And painful. And speaking of money, lot of it went into this photo shoot. You would have thought they could have gotten the actor to hold the trombone correctly, you think? EPIC FAIL!
And there’s even more to the Macy’s story. Here’s another, fuller version of the advertisement. This woman may be smiling on the outside, but I have a feeling that when her trombone playing dude goes fast for sixth position, she’ll be calling 911 for an ambulance to come and take care of his broken wrist. Nothing funny about that. What in the world was Macy’s thinking? [ANSWER: Macy’s probably was NOT thinking.]
Here’s another one, a snapshot of a television advertisement for the GAP that I saw last night while watching a football game. Now, maybe this young woman really IS a left handed trombone player. But I don’t think so. It’s a rare thing when an advertising agency uses an actual musician in an advertisement. Besides, I didn’t hear any trombone playing in the ad’s soundtrack. She sure looks like she’s having a great time. But the trombone put together backwards? Uh-uh.
These kinds of examples are legion, on and on we could go. We can chuckle when we see the trombone portrayed in a goofy, or even impossible configuration. But it really shouldn’t be so difficult to get it right. And it is important. Just beware when you look at iconography for ANYTHING. Artists take their liberties, and we should always check twice before trusting any image!