Two orchestras, 31 years, 11 colleagues

Two orchestras, 31 years, 11 colleagues

I’ve written many articles for many journals and magazines, but I’ve written the most for the International Trombone Association Journal. I joined the Association in 1973 during its first year of existence—the ITA was incorporated in September, 1972—while I was still in high school. I honestly don’t recall how many articles I’ve written for the ITA Journal; dozens, for sure, as well as many reviews. These articles have included tributes to great players and teachers (click on the links highlighted below and you can read the articles) including Edward Kleinhammer (bass trombonist of the Chicago Symphony, 1940-1985, and my teacher during my years as a student at Wheaton College, Illinois), Keith Brown (long time trombone teacher at Indiana University, former member of the Philadelphia and Metropolitan Opera Orchestras, and my teacher during my freshman year when I was at IU), and Russell “Big Chief” Moore (an outstanding Native American jazz trombonist who played with Louis Armstrong’s “All Stars” and many other great jazz artists). Other articles have been historical in nature, such as my photo essay about trombone players in the Boston Symphony from 1887-1986, and my article about the history of the double-valve bass trombone. I’ve also done interviews with well known players such as bass trombonists David Taylor and Denson Paul Pollard.

There have also been occasions when I’ve been interviewed for articles that others have written. A few weeks ago, my friend, Megumi Kanda, principal trombonist of the Milwaukee Symphony who, along with Matt Walley, edits the ITA Journal’s Orchestral Sectional column, asked if I would join with four other low brass players in answering some questions about what it is like to work day in and day out in a symphony orchestra low brass section. Megumi asked some good questions that got me thinking about the colleagues with whom I’ve worked over the years. At this season of life, looking back at those relationships and friendships and collaborations brings back a lot of memories of the times we shared together. After I hit “send” and the answers to Megumi’s questions were on the way to her (I don’t know when they will be published in the ITA Journal but I expect it will be sometime in 2021), I decided to write this article, a tribute to the players with whom I spent so much time making music over the years.  While I no longer play full time in a major symphony orchestra—something I did for over 31 years in two orchestras—I continue to enjoy envigorating  artistic collaborations with many people. I’m not done yet! But working with these eleven players in two orchestras changed and shaped me and helped bring me to where I am today. 

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (1981-1985)

Balto_Sym_trombones_summer_1981

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra trombone section, Harborplace, Baltimore, summer 1981. Left to right: James Olin, co-principal trombone; David Fetter, co-principal trombone; Eric Carlson, second trombone; Douglas Yeo, bass trombone. 

I joined the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in May, 1981, after two years as the band director at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Edison, New Jersey. When I joined the BSO—as it was and is still called, although a few years later, I would join another BSO, the Boston Symphony Orchestra—the low brass section consisted of David Fetter and James Olin, co-principal trombone, Eric Carlson, second trombone, and Daniel Brown, tuba. Dan left at the end of my second season and David Fedderly come on as our tubist. While just a few weeks after I joined the orchestra we were locked out in a labor dispute with the orchestra’s management—we settled our contract in January 1982; that was a very long lockout—I enjoyed a very special four years in Baltimore. David Fetter was a name I knew well from his many arrangements with Ensemble Publications. Before coming to Baltimore, he had been assistant principal trombonist in the Cleveland Orchestra. Jim Olin and I were the same age, and he had studied with Frank Crisafulli at Northwestern University at the same time I was studying with Edward Kleinhammer. Eric Carlson and I had been classmates at Wheaton College together where we played together in the orchestra, band, and a trombone quartet. When I graduated from Wheaton in 1976, Eric went on to play second trombone with the North Carolina Symphony. He joined the Baltimore Symphony in 1980 and a year later, I was sitting next to him again.

Baltimore_Symphony_program_1982

Overture Magazine (program of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra), October 23-November 12, 1982. Clockwise from top: Phillip Kolker, principal bassoon; W. Daniel Brown, tuba; Paula Sisson Francis, first violin, Douglas Yeo, bass trombone.

It was in Baltimore that I made my first recording with a symphony orchestra (the Concerto for the Left Hand of Maurice Ravel, with Leon Fleischer, piano soloist); it was where I first played a solo in front of a symphony orchestra (Patrick McCarty’s Sonata); and our second daughter was born there. During my second season, the orchestra opened its new concert hall, Meyerhoff Hall. Those were four very good years, but in May of my fourth season, after a concert in Carnegie Hall, I left Baltimore and headed up Interstate 95 to join the other BSO – the Boston Symphony Orchestra. And, as an aside, a year later, Eric Carlson left the Baltimore Symphony for the Philadelphia Orchestra from which he has just announced his retirement earlier this month.

Boston Symphony Orchestra (1985-2001)

Boston_Symphony_brass_section_1988

Boston Symphony brass section, Tanglewood, summer 1987. From center, left to right: Seiji Ozawa, music director; Ronald Barron, principal trombone; Norman Bolter, second trombone; Douglas Yeo, bass trombone. (Not pictured: Chester Schmitz, tuba)

Boston_Symphony_low_brass_section_Barron_Bolter_Yeo_Schmitz_2001_standing

 

Boston Symphony low brass section, Symphony Hall, Boston, 2001. Left to right: Ronald Barron, principal trombone; Norman Bolter, second trombone;  Douglas Yeo, bass trombone; Chester Schmitz, tuba.

I joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra in May 1985, in the middle of that year’s spring Boston Pops season. The Boston Pops Orchestra is drawn from members of the Boston Symphony, so the Pops was just part of my job as bass trombonist of the BSO. I recall that my first service—a concert—was recorded for television broadcast, the PBS show, “Evening at Pops.” I had no rehearsal. Before the concert, I introduced myself to the conductor of the Boston Pops, John Williams, and within the first minute of talking he asked me, “Have you heard from Spanky?” I right away knew who he was taking about. He was asking about George Roberts, the great Los Angeles based bass trombonist, known to generations of players as “Mr. Bass Trombone.” George and I had been friends for a long time and John had worked with George on many of his film sessions.

George_Roberts_Yeo_2004

George Roberts and Douglas Yeo, International Trombone Festival, Ithaca College, New York, 2004. That was George, always hugging and smiling.

As things were, I had recently talked with George—”Spanky” as John called him—and I could give John a report on how he was doing. But I made a note to myself: Whenever John Williams was coming to Boston for a run of concerts, I always made sure I called George first so I’d have something to pass on to John. And George always ended our conversations with, “And give John a kiss, and tell him I love him.” If you knew George Roberts, you’ll be smiling right now. George always said something like that. He was always about hugging and loving and caring about people. George died in 2014. I miss him.

Yeo_Williams_Concerto_1991_05_24_ed

Douglas Yeo performing John Williams’ Tuba Concerto, Symphony Hall, Boston, May 24, 1991. Boston Pops Orchestra, John Williams Conductor. Photo by Chester Schmitz.

At that time (1985), principal players of the Boston Symphony didn’t play in the Boston Pops Orchestra. Instead, they formed the Boston Symphony Chamber Players and assistant principal or second players in the BSO moved up to play principal during the Pops season. Norman Bolter, second trombonist of the BSO, played principal in Pops and we had several players work with us over the year to fill the second trombone chair, including Larry Isaacson, Douglas Wright, Darren Acosta, John Faieta, Hans Bohn, Alexi Doohovskoy, and Jim Nova. Oh, wow, we had fun. We made so many recordings with John Williams, and also with Keith Lockhart (and one with Leonard Bernstein), we recorded countless television shows, and we toured Japan twice with John Williams conducting. I performed several concertos with the Boston Pops during my years including the first performances of John Williams’ Tuba Concerto on bass trombone (the piece had been written in 1985 on a commission from the Boston Symphony and it was dedicated to the orchestra’s tuba player, Chester Schmitz), many performances of Chris Brubeck’s Concerto for Bass Trombone conducted by Keith Lockhart, performances of Chris’ second bass trombone concerto, the Prague Concerto, Gerald Steichen, conducting, and also performances of Simon Proctor’s Serpent Concerto with John conducting. Fun times.

Yeo_Proctor_Williams_Serpent_Concerto_1997

Douglas Yeo (left) after performing Simon Proctor’s Serpent Concerto, Symphony Hall, Boston, May 29, 1997. Boston Pops Orchestra, John Williams, conductor (right) with Simon Proctor (center). 

From 1985 to 2001, our Boston Symphony low brass section was Ronald Barron, principal, Norman Bolter, second, Chester Schmitz, tuba, and me on bass trombone. That’s 17 years we spent together and we did it all. For 17 years, I was the new guy in the section. We recorded all of the Mahler Symphonies with Seiji Ozawa and all of the Brahms Symphonies with Bernard Haitink. And dozens of other recordings of music from Bach to Gubaidulina. We took an international tour during most seasons, traveling across the United States, to South America, all over Europe, the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa, and to Japan and Hong Kong many times. Unforgettable experiences. Working together with the same people for so long allowed us to develop understandings among us. After several years, we didn’t have to talk much about how we were going to approach certain pieces; we just knew. I knew exactly how Norman would breath in, say, a Schumann symphony, or when Chester was going to circular breathe in a Bruckner symphony. Ours was a collaboration of understanding. I learned so much from Ron, Norman, and Chester. So much. Little did I imagine that an event in 2001 would set off a chain reaction of change in the BSO low brass section that would take over a decade to settle. 

Boston Symphony Orchestra (2001-2003)

A career in a symphony orchestra is not a straight line.

Following a September 2001 performance of Brahms Symphony No. 2 in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw conducted by Bernard Haitink (just a few days before the 9/11 attacks), Chester Schmitz retired. He had joined the BSO in 1966, fresh out of the United States Army Band (“Pershing’s Own”) in Washington D.C. It was the end of an era for the BSO low brass section. After being together for 17 years, our low brass section was changing. We held two auditions for Chester’s position but did not hire anyone. I know how frustrating it is for people to prepare for and come to an audition and have it end without someone being hired. “They don’t know what they want!” is a familiar cry. But the truth is we DID know what we wanted; we just didn’t hear it at those auditions. We knew that replacing Chester Schmitz was impossible. But Chester was the standard for tuba playing we all had in our mind. From 2001-2003, we had a succession of substitute tuba players that worked alongside Ron, Norman, and me. 

Boston Symphony Orchestra (2003-2008)

Barron_Bolter_Yeo_Roylance_Levine_2007

Boston Symphony Low Brass Section, Symphony Hall, Boston, 2007. Left to right: Ronald Barron, principal trombone; Norman Bolter, second trombone; James Levine, music director; Douglas Yeo, bass trombone; Mike Roylance, tuba.

After a third tuba audition, Mike Roylance joined the BSO 2003. He was the first new member of the low brass section in 19 years. Mike arrived during an interim period between two music directors, Seiji Ozawa (1973-2002) and James Levine (2004-2011). Our section was complete once again. But not for long.

Boston Symphony Orchestra (2008-2010)

Barron_Bolter_Yeo_2007

Boston Symphony Orchestra Trombone Section, 2008. Left to right: Ronald Barron, principal trombone; Norman Bolter, second trombone; Douglas Yeo; bass trombone.

Ron Barron joined the Boston Symphony in 1970 as second trombonist, and then won the principal trombone position in 1975 upon the retirement of William Gibson. In that same year, 1975, Norman Bolter won the second trombone position that Ron had just vacated. Incredibly, both Norman and Ron decided to retire from the BSO in the same year, 2008. Their final season was bittersweet for me. Suddenly, the trombone section that I had known for the previous 23 years was gone. With two vacancies in the section, the decision was made to hold an audition for a new principal trombonist and after that player received tenure, then schedule an audition for a new second trombonist. That way, the new principal player could serve on the audition committee for the new second player. It made sense but it set up two years when we did not have a full section. For two years, we had substitute players fill the second trombone chair.

Oft_Yeo_2008

Toby Oft and Douglas Yeo, Symphony Hall, Boston, December 24, 2008.

Toby Oft, former principal trombonist of the San Diego Symphony, was hired as our new principal trombonist and he began with the BSO at the start of the 2008 season. I went on sabbatical from the orchestra for six months beginning in January 2009—something that had been planned two years earlier, before Norman and Ron announced their retirement—Toby received tenure in the summer of 2009, and we then held an audition for a new second trombonist. 

Boston Symphony Orchestra (2010-2012)

Lange_Yeo_Oft_2012

Boston Symphony Orchestra Trombone Section, basement of Symphony Hall, Boston, 2012. Left to right: Stephen Lange, second trombone; Douglas Yeo, bass trombone; Toby Oft; principal trombone. Photo by Randall Hawes.

In 2010, we hired Stephen Lange as second trombonist. Steve, who had played for the previous 10 years with the Saint Louis Symphony, completed our low brass section that had been in flux since Norman and Ron’s retirement in 2008. But yet another change was on the horizon. I decided to retire from the BSO in 2012, after over 27 years of occupying the bass trombone chair. But my final two seasons were very special to me as the oldest, most experienced member of my new section, and a carrier of the flame of the BSO’s long performance traditions.

Yeo_Haitink_Sym_Hall_final_bow_2012

My final bow on stage at Symphony Hall, Boston, May 2012. Behind me are BSO concertmaster Malcolm Lowe and conductor Bernard Haitink.

During my last season with the BSO (click HERE to read an interview I gave for the Boston Symphony Program Book in 2011 where I looked back on my long career in the orchestra)—my final concert in Symphony Hall in May 2012 was Beethoven Symphony No. 9 conducted by Bernard Haitink.

Yeo_Final_Bow_Tanglewood_BSO_2012

My final bow on stage at Tanglewood, the summer home of the BSO—my last concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra—August 5, 2012. 

When I played my final concert with the orchestra at Tanglewood in August 2012—Berlioz Symphonie fantastique conducted by Loren Maazel—a page was turned in the history of BSO low brass playing. The last vestige of the Boston Symphony trombone section that came together when I joined the orchestra in 1985 was no more. When James Markey began as the BSO’s bass trombonist the day after I retired, a new tradition with an entirely new section was born. Toby Oft, Steve Lange, Jim Markey, and Mike Roylance are making their own mark as the BSO’s low brass section. Already they have been at it for eight years. Will the four of them play together for 17 years as Ron, Norman, Chester, and I did? Will the trombone section stay together for 23 years as Ron, Norman, and I did? Time will tell.

But there is this: All of us—Ron, Norman, Chester; Toby, Steve, Jim, Mike, and I—are part of a long stream of low brass players that goes back to the Boston Symphony’s founding in 1881. From George Stewart to Leroy Kenfield to Joannès Rochut to Eugene Adam to Kilton Vinal Smith to Jacob Raichman to Kauko Kahila to William Gibson, all of us were touched by those who came before us. And the same can be said for my colleagues in the Baltimore Symphony; David, Jim, Eric, Dan, David, and I  were part of a long stream of low brass players that came through that orchestra, including John Melick Jr., Ted Griffith, Philip Donatelli, John Marcellus, Douglas Edelman, Charles Vernon, and John Engelkes. Touched, influenced, inspired, changed. I’m glad that Megumi Kanda asked me those questions about working in an orchestral trombone section. It gave me the opportunity to dig out some old photos, recall some old memories, and offer gratitude to God for the life in music that He has given me, a life shared with many others. Thirty one years in two orchestras, sitting amidst 11 colleagues. Thank you, all of you.

[Header photo: Boston Symphony Low Brass Section, Symphony Hall, Boston, February 1992 (performance of Dvorak Symphony No. 9, “From the New World”). Left to right: Ronald Barron, principal trombone; Norman Bolter, second trombone; Douglas Yeo, bass trombone; Chester Schmitz, tuba.]

Beautiful voices

Beautiful voices

During my long career as a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, I had the great joy of performing with some of the greatest classical music singers of the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries. Jesseye Norman, Mirella Freni, Thomas Quasthoff, Renée Fleming, Kiri Te Kanawa, Ben Heppner, Anne Sophie von Otter, Hildegard Behrens, Kathleen Battle, Barbara Hendricks, Ian Bostridge, Dawn Upshaw, Susan Graham, Thomas Hampson, Frederica von Stade. The list goes on. There is something about the human voice—the first musical instrument—that speaks to all of us. Literally.

As a trombonist, I’m very aware of the connection between the human voice and my instrument. Frank Sinatra famously said that his sense of phrasing was heavily influenced by the trombone playing of Tommy Dorsey. The great bass trombonist George Roberts, “Mr. Bass Trombone,” told me that his sense of phrasing was heavily influenced by the singing of Sinatra.

I have many, many recordings of singers. Classical singers, jazz singers, rock and pop singers, folk singers. Trained and untrained singers, young singers, old singers. During this time of the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve been listening to a lot of singers from my collection of recordings. Here are four I’ve been enjoying lately that have been a real encouragement to me. Four very different kinds of singers: an opera singer, a Flamenco singer, a folk singer, a pop singer. Beautiful voices—some very smooth, others a bit rough hewn—exceptional musicianship,  superb—and sometimes unexpected —accompaniments, and deep, heartfelt messages. Poignant messages of grief and loss but also of hope. And we do need hope. They all seem very timely right now.

Claudio Monteverdi: Si dolce è il tormento. Guillemette Laurens, voice; Michel Godard, serpent; Fanny Paccoud, violin, Bruno Helstroffer, theorbo; Steve Swallow, bass. To view this video on YouTube, click HERE.

Vidalita. Mayte Martín, voice; Katia & Marielle Labèque, piano. To view this video on YouTube, click HERE.

Ah! Vita Bella. Lucilla Galeazzi, voice; Michel Godard, tuba; Pino Minafra, trumpet; Jean-Louis Matinier, accordion; Gianluigi Trovesi, clarinet. To view this video on YouTube, click HERE.

Paul Simon, American Tune. Paul Simon, voice and guitar; Bobby James, keyboard; Bob Cranshaw, bass; Grady Tate, drums; strings arranged by Del Newman. To view this video on YouTube, click HERE.

[Header photo: sunrise over the Sierra Estrella, Arizona, 2012. Photo by Douglas Yeo.]

A few famous trombone players—Holton catalog, c.1920

A few famous trombone players—Holton catalog, c.1920

We live in an age where endorsements are a big part of advertising. For all kinds of products. When you pick up an issue of the International Trombone Association Journal, you see many endorsements of trombones and trombone-related products. A look through the April 2020 issue of the ITA Journal finds advertisements that feature endorsements by many well-known trombonists: Denson Paul Pollard (Courtois trombones), Steve Turre (YAMAHA trombones), Peter Ellefson, Joseph Alessi, and Jay Friedman (ChopSaver), John Fedchock, and Megumi Kanda (Greenhoe trombones. Go back to the January 2020 issue and you find Nathan Siler (Courtois trombones), and me (YAMAHA trombones) added to the Journal endorsement mix.

The products advertised in the ITA Journal and the people that endorsed them have changed over time. The ITA Journal was an annual publication from 1973 (Volume 1) to 1981. In 1982, the Journal began to be published quarterly. During those early years of the ITA when the Journal was published only once a year, the ITA Newsletter, which was published two to four times a year, was also published. It was in the May 1976 issue (Vol. 3, No. 2) of the ITA Newsletter that advertisements first appeared in an ITA publication. In its pages you found endorsements by  Ashley Alexander (Holton Superbone), George Roberts (Olds trombones), and Phil Wilson (Conn trombones).

Now, everyone knows that using ChopSaver won’t make you play like Joe Alessi any more than playing a YAMAHA trombone will make you sound like me or playing a Holton Superbone will make you sound like Ashley Alexander (I sure wish it did; Alexander was a truly remarkable player on the Superbone and euphonium). But celebrity endorsements have been with us for a long time and if that endorsement is credible—if the person actually uses the product that’s being advertised—that’s all the better for the manufacturer.

A few years ago, I acquired an original copy of a trombone catalog issued by the Frank Holton Company around 1920. The catalog is full of celebrity trombone endorsements. Holton and C. G. Conn ruled the world of trombone endorsements in the early twentieth century; that was an indication of their place as the leading American trombone makers of the time. Frank Holton was an accomplished trombonist himself; he was the trombone soloist in John Philip Sousa’s Band in 1892 and 1893. Then a young kid named Arthur Pryor joined the band and Holton, deeply impressed with the young player’s talent, told Sousa that Pryor should be the band’s soloist. Holton subsequently left the band (under good terms with Sousa) and Pryor went on to be one of the greatest trombone soloists of all time.

Here are a few pages from the Holton c.1920 trombone catalog with a little commentary about some of its famous players.

Holton_1920_Sousa_trombones_01

An endorsement from members of John Philip Sousa’s band carried weight. Holton’s c. 1920 catalog shows he scored a major coup: six members of Sousa’s trombone section with Holton trombones.

Holton_1920_Sousa_trombones_02

One page later, the Sousa band’s trombone players are named (dates of service with Sousa are taken from Paul Bierley’s fine book, The Incredible Band of John Philip Sousa (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006):

Ralph H. Corey. He succeeded Leo Zimmerman as the band’s principal trombonist. Corey played with Sousa between 1906 and 1920.

Louis Schmidt. He played with Sousa between 1916 and 1917, and later in radio broadcasts the band gave in 1929 and 1931.

Ernest E. Gentile. He played with Sousa between 1916 and 1917.

Marcus Charles “Marc” Lyon. He played with Sousa from 1892 through 1917.

Athol John “A. J.” Garing. Garing played euphonium with Sousa from 1909 through 1917, but also sometimes played trombone with the band.

Edward A. Williams. He played bass trombone with Sousa from 1891 through 1917.

As we look at the dates when each of these six players were members of Sousa’s band, it’s clear that the only time that they all played together was between 1916 and 1917. So, while Holton’s catalog dates from around 1920, he was all too happy to hold on to the photo from a few years earlier that shows the Sousa band trombone section playing his trombones.

Holton_1920_Kuss

In the center of this page of endorsements (above) is a photo of Richard Kuss. He played bass trombone in the Chicago Symphony from 1912 to 1918. It’s interesting to note that several later trombonists of the Chicago Symphony, including Jay Friedman, Frank Crisafulli, and Edward Kleinhammer, all played and endorsed Holton trombones for a time in the 1960s and 1970s.

Instruments & Equipment

Jay Friedman Holton trombone advertisement, 1974

 

Kleinhammer_Holton_ad_1962

Edward Kleinhammer, Holton bass trombone advertisement, 1962

 

Now, back to Holton’s c.1920 trombone catalog. . .

Holton_1920_Hampe

Carl Hampe played principal trombone with the Boston Symphony from 1886-1891, 1892-1914, and 1920-1925. In 1916, Holton also published Hampe’s Hampe Method for the Slide Trombone With an Appendix for the Trombone with E Valve. The cover of the Method features Hampe with his Holton trombone; it’s the same photo of him that’s in the Holton trombone catalog.

Hampe_Trombone_Method_Holton_1916

As an aside, my copy of Hampe’s Method was given to me by my teacher, Edward Kleinhammer. Have a look at this page from the book, below, with Mr. Kleinhammer’s hand-written aphorism at the bottom of the page. And look at the date: June 26, 1947. By that time, he had been a member of the Chicago Symphony for seven years. He was a supremely accomplished player. But in his Hampe Method, a book he told me he used every day for many years, he wrote a reminder of the value of the disciplined life, of how slow and steady wins the race:

By the Yard • Life is hard

By the Inch • Life’s a cinch

Hampe_Method_01_Kleinhammer

Carl Hampe was not the only principal trombonist from the Boston Symphony to be featured in Holton’s c.1920 trombone catalog. Fortunato Sordillo (below) played principal trombone in the BSO from 1918 to 1920. He was fired during an ill-fated strike and Carl Hampe came back to the orchestra to fill the principal trombone position for five more years. Sordillo also played euphonium and trombone with Sousa’s band in 1912 and 1913.

Holton_1920_Rochut_Sordillo

It’s notable that on the page with Sordillo is another person who would play principal trombone with the Boston Symphony: Joannès Rochut. Yes, THAT Rochut, the one whose name is on the book of Melodious Etudes for Trombone Selected from the Vocalises of Marco Bordogni that, if you’re a trombone player, is probably sitting on your music stand right now. [By the way, if you haven’t read my article about the first etude in Rochut’s Bordogni Vocalise book, you might find it interesting. Click HERE to read it.] Rochut played principal trombone with the BSO from 1925 to 1930, but in this photo, he is shown in his uniform of the band of the Garde républicaine. How Rochut came to play a Holton trombone when he was living and working in France is not known to me, but it’s interesting that when he joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra, he brought with him—and played in the orchestra—two trombones by the French maker Lefevre, and when he left Boston to return to France in 1930, he left his Lefevre trombones in Boston and took with him Bach trombone serial number 6. I will be writing more about Rochut and his time in Boston here on thelasttrombone.com very soon.

And here’s something else. Sordillo published a book in 1920 titled Art of Jazzing for the Trombone (Boston: Oliver Ditson Company). This was a treatise about the slide glissando, and how to employ it—trombone glisses at the time were known as “smears” or “jazzes,” and the technique was called “jazzing”—in ragtime and early jazz music. Here are three interesting things about Sordillo and his book. First, shortly after the book was published, Sordillo was fired from the Boston Symphony. Second, the photo of Sordillo on the cover of his method book shows him wearing his Sousa band uniform. Finally, the trombone on the cover of the method is put together backwards. Alas.

Sordillo_Art_of_Jazzing_cover_1920

One final thought on this. Holton’s trombone catalog is undated but I’ve been saying it was published around 1920. Why? Look at the endorsement by Hampe. It says he was “For 28 years first trombone player of the Boston Symphony.” Then look at Sordillo’s endorsement. It says he was “Formerly First Trombone” of the BSO. Sordillo was fired in 1920. Hampe played principal trombone in the BSO for 28 years (1886-1891 and 1892-1914) before replacing Sordillo and playing a further five years from 1920-1925. From connecting these dots, it seems that Holton’s catalog was probably published in mid-1920, after Sordillo was fired (March 1920) and before Hampe began his final stint as principal trombonist with the Boston Symphony (fall 1920).

 

A path forward from Henry Fillmore’s “Lassus Trombone”

A path forward from Henry Fillmore’s “Lassus Trombone”

by Douglas Yeo

NOTE: This article contains offensive material of an historical nature that is presented in an effort to inform the trombone community of a regrettable vestige of racism that continues to be a part of the trombone’s concert repertoire since it first came to light over 100 years ago. It is my hope that this article will lead trombonists around the world to make important, needed changes in the repertoire we choose for our recitals, and rid our concerts of music that is rooted in racial stereotyping and racist portrayals of African Americans.

A week ago, I published an article on thelasttrombone.com, Trombone players: It’s time to bury Henry Fillmore’s “Lassus Trombone.” I subsequently wrote two short followup articles, A statement from Wycliffe Gordon: Will Things Change This Time? and It matters—in music, politics, sports.

Since the publication of my article, it has been viewed over 64,000 times on thelasttrombone.com. It has been republished on several other websites and blogs, and various online fora have featured threads of discussion. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms have circulated the article and a vigorous discussion is taking place.

I’d like to follow up with a few thoughts, answer some questions, and propose a path forward in light of what we know.

Over the last week, I’ve been contacted by many trombone players, trombone teachers, and band directors from around the world. These include many members of major symphony orchestras, professors at some of the world’s top music schools, and directors of some of the most respected bands in the United States. I have already posted links to the statement by Wycliffe Gordon, one of the most respected jazz trombonists of our time. The support of Wycliffe and so many musicians is very gratifying.

But there are others who are not supportive, who for various reasons, want to hold on to Lassus Trombone. To those, I offer a few thoughts:

Some take exception to my phrase, “It’s time to bury Henry Fillmore’s Lassus Trombone.” They have a problem with my using the word, “bury.” To be clear: I am not suggesting that we should forget The Trombone Family. I am not suggesting that we burn Lassus Trombone. If all copies of The Trombone Family suddenly disappeared from the earth, we and the next generations could not learn from them. I have an original copy of several of the pieces and I plan to keep them in my library so I can show them to students and others and talk about them. By “bury” I mean “put away.” As I said in my article, we do not need to play these pieces today; we do not need them. When people are buried, they are still remembered; we place a grave marker over them, we continue to talk about them. That is my hope for Henry Fillmore’s The Trombone Family. Bury, but remember. We need to remember The Trombone Family because we need to remember why a cover like this (below) was socially acceptable to a portion of white America, and why such a cover should never be considered acceptable again.

Fillmore_Trombone_Family_cover

Some assume I am calling for a boycott of all of Henry Fillmore’s music. I did not call for this; to say that I said this is false. Fillmore wrote a great deal of fine music, including several excellent marches including Americans We and Men of Ohio. Those pieces were not marketed using the kinds of racist stereotyping and demeaning language of the pieces in Fillmore’s The Trombone Family. In fact, I can find no other work in my brief survey of Fillmore’s compositional output that was conceived and marketed using racist tropes. [NOTE: Some may point to the title of Fillmore’s rag/march, Little Rastus (1920), composed under his pseudonym Harold Bennett. But the piece contains only the subtitle “Characteristic march” and was advertised in Fillmore’s The Musical Messenger as “A dandy, easy number. Just the thing for young bands.”] I don’t have a problem with anyone playing Fillmore’s fine music that does not carry that heavy baggage of a regrettable, racially insensitive past.

All of us do wrong. You, me, everyone. The Bible uses the word “sin.” In using racist tropes and stereotypes to promote and inform Lassus Trombone, Henry Fillmore did wrong. He was on the wrong side of right. He was on the wrong side of the judgment of history. He demeaned African Americans.  Whether or not he did so just to sell music or it reflected his personal view of African Americans I do not know. I do not know his heart and neither do I judge his heart. He was not alone in using racial stereotypes to sell music. For instance, Henry’s father, James Henry Fillmore Sr., was a devoutly religious man. The music publishing company that he and his brother, Charles, founded, The Fillmore Brothers Company (later Fillmore Music House) published many hymnals. J. H. Fillmore Sr. is remembered for the many hymn tunes he wrote, including that for “I Am Resolved No Longer to Linger”:

Fillmore_I_Am_Resolved

This hymn, with its noble aspirations, is still sung in churches today. But the same J. H. Fillmore Sr. who wrote the music to this inspirational hymn also published  Fillmore’s Prohibition Songs (1903), a book with over 200 songs on the theme of temperance; the song book also includes several hymns. Among the songs in Fillmore’s Prohibitions Songs for which J. H. Fillmore wrote the music is “It Am Come to Stay.” The dialect language and use of the n-word in this song, the first page of which is printed below, is hardly inspirational.

I_Am_Come_To_Stay

The same can be said for another song published in J. H. Fillmore’s Prohibition Songs.  I Draws De Line Right Dar has music written by Charles H. Gabriel, the noted composer of gospel songs that include”His Eye Is On The Sparrow” and “Since Jesus Came Into My Heart.” But “I Draws De Line Right Dar” is yet another example of a song written by whites that uses the n-word and parodies the black experience and dialect. And, incredibly, more than 35 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the song makes reference to “de Mastah.”

I_Draws_De_Line_Right_Dar

These songs are despicable. They were despicable in 1903 when they were published and they are despicable today. We don’t sing them today. We buried them. But we do still sing other songs that J. H. Fillmore and Charles Gabriel wrote. With The Trombone Family, Henry Fillmore showed that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Racial stereotyping ran in the family. But the good news is that Henry did not continue to write music that had racial stereotyping at its core. So, I’d prefer we not play Lassus Trombone today—just like we don’t sing his father’s racially insensitive songs today—but I have no problem with people who play other music by Henry Fillmore and others that does not include racist tropes and the denigration of African Americans (or any other people or culture).

Some ask why we should not play Lassus Trombone while we still play the music of the avowed racist composer, Richard Wagner. See above and think through what I said carefully. But there is this: Talking about Wagner in a discussion about The Trombone Family is deflecting from the issue, what some scholars call “centering.” If we want to talk about Wagner, let’s talk about Wagner. It’s a big conversation. But right here I’m talking about The Trombone Family. The parallels between the two men and their music are not all analogous. Let’s not get off point here.

Some refer to me as one who is “woke,” engaging in “cancel culture” and “virtue shaming.” The applying of such labels to people is unfortunate. I am none of those things. I am a trombonist, teacher, historian, and writer. I bring up topics and use my platforms to let people know about them. And discuss them. Name-calling doesn’t help any conversation. One of the reasons society struggles to tackle difficult issues is that some people have trouble engaging in a civil conversation, one that does not devolve to name-calling and epithets. You may not agree with me or like that I brought up the uncomfortable origins of The Trombone Family. I get that. But calling me—or others—names or insulting me because of my views doesn’t change the historical record and how I choose to respond to it. I hear the insults but I won’t take the bait.

Some say they never knew about the origins of The Trombone Family in the dark swamp of white minstrelsy and racial stereotyping. They like the pieces and because they never played them with any racist intent, they want to keep playing them. They say it’s too late to bother with dealing with the pieces’ racist beginnings, that they are by now so firmly entrenched in the repertoire. There was a time when I didn’t know about racist roots of The Trombone Family, either. But I learned, and now I know. Now you know. Now that we know, I’m arguing that we ought to have a conversation with ourselves and act in light of what we now know. At one point, we were ignorant of the racist origins of the pieces. Since we now know about them, we can no longer claim ignorance. As to whether it’s too late to deal with the racist origins of The Trombone Family, a driving principle of my life has always been that it’s never too late to do the right thing. It’s never too late.

Some believe that because Carl Fischer changed the image of the blackface trombonist that appeared on the original cover of the pieces and also removed the dialect subtitles that we should just forget about the original racist images and language and move on from them.

In 1978, Carl Fischer published all 15 of Fillmore’s trombone rags in a single collection. At that time, they discontinued selling the individual pieces with the blackface cartoon on the cover. Fischer colorized the cartoon, but it kept the trombonists’ large blackface lips, exaggerated eyes, and floppy shoes. His face became white. Fischer was trying to change the blackface trombonist into a clown. It didn’t work.

Fillmore_Lassus_Fischer_1978

Then, in 2010, Fischer republished the collection with a revised caricature which removed the trombonist’s blackface eyes and lips and the dialect subtitles found on each piece. It seems clear Fischer was aware of the racist nature of the original cartoon and the subtitles. So we give them credit for removing them. But that was a whitewash; it didn’t erase the history of the pieces. Four generations of trombonists and conductors played the pieces with the original racist cartoon on the cover. Other publishers still sell The Trombone Family with the dialect subtitles today.

FIllmore_Lassus_Fischer_2010

Some argue that they’re not racists and that if they play Lassus Trombone, that doesn’t make them a racist. They want to keep playing Fillmore’s The Trombone Family and don’t see the pieces as being offensive. When I read comments by people who hold this view, I’m struck by an obvious fact: Such comments are usually made by white men. Here’s a suggestion. Michael Dease, associate professor of jazz trombone at Michigan State University has been engaging on Facebook with some people who are discussing my article. He told me that he finds it unfortunate that some people “equate education and empathy with censorship.” When he engages white people who say they will keep playing The Trombone Family, he says (reprinted here with his permission):

As a Black American musician, I would ask defenders of “Lassus” to show and discuss Yeo’s article with a black friend or colleague, and listen to their reaction.

Should white people decide if representations of black people are racist? “The lady [or man] doth protest too much, methinks,” is what Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, and the quotation seems apropos to this discussion. Take Michael Dease’s suggestion. Before your next performance of Lassus Trombone, show this advertisement (below) to one of your black friends. Don’t just talk about it with your white friends. Show your black friend this:

Fillmore_Trombone_Family_ad_1919.1

Then show your friend the cover of the music.

Fillmore_Lassus_cover

Finally, show your friend the dialect subtitles.

Fillmore_Lassus_solo_incipit

Explain as much as you want; justify as much as you want. Make your best case. Then listen to what your friend has to say about this. And, after listening, decide if you still want to play it. I can say this: Much of the outpouring of support for my argument has come from African American players, teachers, and conductors. What African Americans say about this matters.

So, where do we go from here? I have a few suggestions.

First, it is important to acknowledge the troubled history of Lassus Trombone and similar pieces. It is important to learn how these pieces were originally conceived and marketed. It may make us squirm today but if we ignore their origin, then we are ignoring history. And we cannot ignore history.

Second, we need to have a broad conversation about music that has racial stereotyping at its core. In my recent articles, I’ve been talking about Fillmore’s The Trombone Family. I will leave it to others to initiate and continue discussions about other pieces with a troubled, racially stereotypical past. If white trombonists and conductors talk about Lassus Trombone with black trombonists and conductors, and all trombonists and conductors inform themselves about how these pieces came about and were marketed for most of the 20th century and even today, the ensuing conversations and the actions that flow from them can help us learn from the past and do differently going forward.

Also, we can seek out other pieces to play that are not mired in racism. Fillmore’s pieces in his The Trombone Family are not the only pieces written in the ragtime/trombone glissando genre that are worth playing. They might be the most famous but it doesn’t mean they are the only or best exemplars. And if there are other fine examples available of the same kind of piece, why is it necessary to play pieces with an embarrassing, ugly origin story?

In my first article in this series, I suggested a piece like Chris Sorensen Jr.’s Trombone Sneeze that was recorded by Arthur Pryor and John Philip Sousa’s Band in 1902. The music for the band version of this piece is available for free (it’s in the public domain) and you can download it HERE. There’s no racial stereotyping Trombone Sneeze.

Sorensen_Trombone_Sneeze_trombone

I also mentioned Mayhew Lake’s Slidus Trombonus (1905), a piece that I think that has more musical interest than Lassus Trombone. You can download the trombone and piano version of that piece for free (it’s also in the public domain) from my website by clicking HERE. There’s no racial stereotyping in Slidus Trombonus.

Lake Slidus Trombonus

And here’s something else you might not know. Fillmore’s was not the only “trombone family” composed in the early twentieth century. Nathaniel Cleophas “Shorty” Davis was an African American trombonist, band leader, composer, and publisher. Between 1915 and 1921, he composed five trombone ragtime/glissando features that were all part of a “family” just like Fillmore’s pieces. They were published by Davis’s own Nashville-based company which he ran along with his brothers Otis and Clarence, as well as C. G. Conn. And also Carl Fischer, publisher of Fillmore’s The Trombone Family. Clearly there was a market for more than one trombone family in the early twentieth century, although Fillmore’s works, with their connections to blackface and racial stereotyping, went on to be famous and Davis’ trombone family, which had no racial stereotyping, has largely been forgotten.

Davis_Mr_Trombonology_tbn

Here are Nathaniel Davis’ trombone pieces. I’ve been able to find subtitles that Davis gave to a few of his pieces both from the pieces themselves and some advertisements Davis’ company took out in 1917 in The Musical Messenger, a monthly publication of Fillmore Music House.

Oh Slip It Man (1916) — Trombone novelty. That heavy dose of thunder on parade. [NOTE: The word “slip” derives from a late nineteenth and early twentieth century slang word for the trombone, sliphorn, that referred to the trombone’s slippery slide.]

Mr. Trombonology (1917) — A characteristic trombone smear. The son of Oh Slip It Man. One great flash of lightening on parade.

Miss Trombonism (1918)—A Slippery Tune. The granddaughter of “Oh Slip It Man” and daughter of Mr. Trombonlogy.

Master Trombone (1919) [NOTE: The word “master” is an honorific title for boys and young men, a male equivalent in some quarters to “Miss” for females.]

Trombone Francais (1921)—Trombone novelty.

The band music to all five of these pieces is available for free (they are all in the public domain) by clicking HERE.

By the way, if you’ve heard of or played Tommy Dorsey’s composition Trombonology (1947), now you know where he might gotten the name for his piece’s title.

And now a few questions, ones I’m hoping might capture the imagination of some enterprising arrangers.

Is there someone out there who might take up the project of arranging Sorensen’s band version of Trombone Sneeze for trombone and piano? At this time, there only seems to be an edition of the piece for band. As one of the earliest known pieces in the ragtime trombone ragtime/glissando genre, it’s an item of some historical importance and interest. After all, it was performed by Arthur Pryor and John Philip Sousa. Not a bad endorsement.

Davis_Miss_Trombonism_trombone

And is there an arranger who would be interested in taking Nathaniel Davis’ trombone family pieces as we have them for band and arranging them for trombone solo with piano? Don’t you think there might be a market for a set of works written by an African American composer 100 years ago that have real charm? Works that are new for most of today’s audiences? Works that never stooped to racial stereotyping in their marketing? Works that provide us with an attractive alternative to the racially baggage-laden Lassus Trombone and others in The Trombone Family? I have to believe there is someone out there who would take up the challenge and provide us with something interesting to play if one wants to include a work from the trombone ragtime/glissando genre on a concert or recital. And here’s an added incentive if you’re inclined to make these arrangements. My friend, publisher Gordon Cherry, founder and owner of Cherry Classics, has told me that he would be thrilled to publish the best arrangement of Davis’ pieces that is submitted to him. So there you go: A publisher wants to publish your arrangement of Davis’ ragtime trombone works. Your arrangement has to be the best that Gordon receives, and he gets to decide if he thinks it is good enough. So, here’s a challenge—and a reward. You can contact Gordon Cherry directly through his website at www.cherryclassics.com. Thank you, Gordon.

UPDATE (July 12, 2020): Gordon Cherry has announced the publication of Nathaniel Davis’ Miss Trombonism in an arrangement for trombone and piano by Aaron Hettinga. Hettinga plans to arrange the other four of Davis’ trombone works and Cherry plans to publish them as well. It is great to see these coming into print. Click HERE to see and order this new publication.

When I wrote my article about Lassus Trombone last week, I was hoping to inform the trombone community of the history of a popular piece in our repertoire, ask some questions, and make some suggestions. I wasn’t trying to start a “movement.” I just wanted to bring it up. So I did. And look what happened. Thanks to many people who read my article and felt it resonated with them, it got passed around and an important conversation is going on around the world.

Whether or not you agree with my premise that it’s time to put Lassus Trombone and the other members of Henry Fillmore’s The Trombone Family to rest, at least you know more about the pieces. And when you know something, it just might lead you to do something. And doing something is important.

It matters.