'Boning Up

A Boulder music festival pays tribute to the lowly trombone.

When your job title is Professor of Trombone, you get used to the jokes. Bill Stanley, the University of Colorado at Boulder instructor who holds this obscure handle, has heard them all before, and he can prove it. "What's the difference between a lawn mower and a trombone?" he asks at one point. The punchline: "You can tune a lawn mower."

For people who have yet to fall under the trombone's spell, the answer to the question "What do you call a gathering of 500 trombonists from all over the world?" would probably be another zinger--like, perhaps, "A little slice of hell." But for Stanley, the query is no laughing matter. Rather, it's the most exciting musical event to visit these parts in ages: the 27th International Trombone Festival.

Sponsored by the International Trombone Association, a group made up of 4,200 trombonists from over fifty nations, the affair, which takes place from May 26 to May 30, is a five-day orgy of all things relevant to the sliding sleeved horn. The itinerary, accessible on the Internet at www.colorado.edu/music/itf, includes workshops, how-to clinics that deal with such pressing topics as "The Non-Orchestral Life of the Bass Trombonist" and "Trombonist to Musician--Bridging the Gap," along with other activities aimed specifically at the confab's registrants. But there are also oodles of trombone-blessed performances by a who's who of the world's greatest players, including Joseph Alessi, the principal trombonist in the New York Philharmonic; John Rojak, bass trombonist in the American Brass Quintet; and Steve Turre, an extraordinary jazz player--and many of the shows are open to the public. Among the splashiest are a May 27 concert at Macky Auditorium that features Juan Pablo Torres and Robin Eubanks (brother of Tonight Show bandleader Kevin Eubanks); a May 29 airing of "Mass for Mass Trombones," a piece for 77 trombones that gives new meaning to the term "heavy metal"; and a May 30 extravaganza at the Glenn Miller Ballroom that brings together a slew of jazz experts. Moreover, each day's activities end with jam sessions at Boulder's Walnut Brewery, a location that Stanley feels is quite appropriate. "There is a connection between trombones and beer," he says.

Of course, Stanley, who is largely responsible for bringing the festival to Colorado, sees a link between trombones and pretty much everything. His office, located on the CU-Boulder campus, is cluttered with horns, mutes and mouthpieces, its walls are hung with trombone-friendly art, and the screensaver that snakes across his computer screen reads, "University of Colorado Trombone Studio...why wait?"

In conversation, Stanley is equally trombone-centric; he just can't stop himself from singing the praises of this misunderstood instrument. According to his research, the first evidence of the trombone's existence turned up in a piece of religious art circa the 1400s in which an angel is seen blissfully toodling. Over the 500 years or so since then, Stanley reveals, "it's changed very little. You've still got the mouthpiece and the bell, and the slide still goes back and forth. That's its unique quality, and that's what makes it sound so beautiful." He points out that film composers have long understood the instrument's versatility. "A great example of that is Dances With Wolves," he says, "and Star Wars is another. When Darth Vader comes in, all of those big sweepy things--those are trombones."

Stanley first kissed a trombone at an early age. "I started playing in 1966, in fifth-grade band," he recalls. "I started on clarinet and played it for three months, but when we started playing high notes on it, I hated the way it sounded. So I went to the band director and said, 'Give me something lower.'"

Since making that fateful move, Stanley has been sliding along just fine. While earning credentials from the University of Kansas and the University of Illinois, he earned his keep playing in various groups, including the Chestnut Brass Company, a traveling trombone act. "We got in a big blue van and we drove, just like a rock band," he notes. "I made a living at it, but it was hard." Fortunately for his bank account, he landed a teaching position at CU in 1985. He acknowledges that trombonists have had a tough time finding a place in academia: "There are probably only a few hundred of us. It's not a huge number when you compare it to the number of piano professors in the world."

Likewise, there are extremely few female trombonists. In Stanley's opinion, far more men than women turn to the instrument, "for social reasons. Parents ask their female child what they want to play, and if they say, 'Trombone,' they say, 'Oh, no.' I know that happens. But there are many wonderful trombonists who are women, and three out of fifteen of my students are women."

At first Stanley claims to be mystified by the trombone's relative unpopularity. "There are negative images about a lot of instruments, and I don't know why that is," he says. "But some of the finest musicians in this school are trombonists." He concedes, however, that the public at large doesn't view the trombone as a solo instrument, and composers are only now waking up to its possibilities. "Very rarely did a composer in the early 1800s sit down and say, 'I haven't written my violin concerto yet; I guess I should do that.' No, they were aware of a violinist, or knew one personally with a reputation as a great performer, and so they wrote a piece for them. Then people started saying they wanted to write a violin concerto as part of their standard repertoire--and that's what's going on with the trombone today. We're at that early stage."

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