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Music On A Sliding Scale

Music on a sliding scale
By Scott Martelle
Times Staff Writer

April 3, 2007

LEN WICKS stands at a lectern inside a Santa Ana union hall and mulls what he has just heard: 22 trombones playing a bossa
nova version of "Fly Me to the Moon."

He chooses his words carefully.

"I heard two different things going on, and neither was winning," Wicks says, his wry delivery drawing scattered laughs from the Saturday-morning gathering of the BonesWest trombone jazz band.

Rodolfo Garcia, left, rehearses at a Santa Ana union hall with BonesWest, a trombone jazz band. No other such ensemble in the country has the look, feel and consistent heft of BonesWest, which for the last 27 years has drawn amateurs and professionals
alike to what could be world's largest weekly open trombone jam.
(Glenn Koenig / LAT)

"Let's go through the key change one more time, just because I like to hear thingsgetting slaughtered."

Even without Wicks' cracks, there's something inherently funny about the notion of all those trombonAs the brass slides carve the air like so many swashbuckling pirates, you expect a choir of muted belly rumbles, like something from an old "Tom and
Jerry" cartoon.

But the sound is surprisingly mellow and full, like a men's chorus, with multiple harmonizing parts. As the group picks up where Wicks tells them to start, the effect is magical, a burst of classic bossa nova filling the air. The joke turns into art before your very ears.

There are other trombone choirs that come together around the country for special concerts. But none have the look, feel and consistent heft of BonesWest, which for the last 27 years has drawn amateurs and professionals alike to what could be the world's largest weekly open trombone jam.

Such is the group's standing among fellow bonesmen, as they're called, that BonesWest has collected sheet music for well over 1,000 tunes, nearly all specially charted by arrangers drawn to the challenge of turning, say, the folk classic "Scarborough Fair" into a trombones-only piece with the occasional addition of a drums-bass-piano rhythm section.

"They'll take, say, a Count Basie tune they really like and they'll rescore it for a trombone group using six pieces," says Wicks.

"Of course, we play it with probably 45 trombones.... It sounds like the funniest thing. 'What's the worst thing that can happen to an orchestra? Trombones.' So you wind up with way too many of them."

Trombones have always filled an odd spot in the musical spectrum. Whenever a trombone "got into the orchestra, everyone thought it was too loud," notes David Guion, author of "The Trombone: Its History and Music, 1697-1811." Skeptics included composer and conductor Richard Strauss, who once reportedly said, "Never look at the trombones. You'll only encourage them."

The odd-looking instrument's reputation has waxed and waned since it first evolved in Europe during the late Middle Ages. "It was part of an ensemble of loud instruments that was kept by the highest nobility, including the duke of Burgundy," Guion says. Used primarily for ceremonial occasions, the trombone faded by the end of the 17th century but came back into musical vogue at the end of the 18th century, and assumed key roles in military and dance bands.

The trombone has managed to force its way onto the modern stage, from orchestras to Latin groups to jazz bands, and it is especially integral to big bands. The trombone forms the dark matter around the stars — trumpets and saxophones — and despite its odd design evokes senses of grandeur, angst or foreboding.

SOME of the BonesWest regulars are household names, at least in the households of trombonists. "You hear them every day," says Wicks, who steps in as conductor when the regular musical director, Pete Fournier, can't make it. "Every time you go to the movies you hear these guys playing in the orchestra. Any horn you hear on a CD, it's one of these guys. So they're famous — to us."

The troupe plays about a dozen concerts a year, often at senior centers or civic-sponsored gatherings, which they refer to as their "community work." They're working on expanding the group's community involvement into a program to help augment jazz education in schools.

But most of the players join BonesWest for more personal reasons. They are drawn to these Saturday-morning jam sessions for the mix of serious musicianship and old-style community building, a kind of sewing bee for trombonists.

The sessions are open to the public and no trombonist is turned away, though the less skilled get assigned the least-difficult parts. Ages range fromteenagers to retired pros in their 80s, and under the guiding ethos of mutual support, inexperienced players are seated next to veterans for a little learning by osmosis.

"The lure is that the pro players that perform with BonesWest feel it is necessary to encourage amateurs because we are all in the same place as just loving the trombone and its music," says John Marcellus, trombone professor at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., who has made annual trips for more than a decade to play big-band jazz with the group. "And I'll continue to do it to enjoy making music with trombone players that love the instrument and music."

It has been the breeding ground for deep friendships. William B. "Skip" Freely, 69, tells of laying his trombone aside for some 45 years and then picking it up again in 2001 after Wicks invited him to a BonesWest session.

Freely sat down a stranger at his first session — and the man next to him greeted him by name. It was George Faye, with whom Freely had played in a Santa Ana pickup band in the early 1950s, and who also had played with Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and other big-band icons.The two old friends picked up where they had left off half a century before — with an allowance for a certain amount of atrophy.

"We had a few warmups, and he said, 'Skip, you're not as good as you used to be,' " Freely recalls. "He ragged on me for weeks. It was wonderful."

For avid trombonists, the chance to meet and play with some of the big names — such as BonesWest founder George Roberts, Marcellus from Eastman, and arrangers Frank Comstock and Grammy-winner Harry Betts — has led to moments of giddy awe and the fulfillment of musical dreams. Out-of-towners have been known to schedule vacations around the Saturday sessions, hoping to play among the greats and the devoted.

Regular player Greg Pate, 45, is still moved when he tells the story of being selected last year to play a solo in an arrangement of "MacArthur Park" written by Betts for Roberts, whose bass trombone was a staple of Nelson Riddle's charts for Frank Sinatra. Both the veterans were at the jam session.

"George did five or six solos and Harry wanted to do one more and George wasn't quite up for it," Pate says. "Len Wicks comes over and points at me and says, 'You got it.' Talk about pressure; here's Harry Betts conducting and George Roberts sitting over on the other side of the room. My knees were just knocking.... George came up to me afterward and put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'You're right on.' ... It was just really cool having a legend ike that give me what was almost a stamp of approval."

For Pate and Tom Bridges — two regulars in the back row — the Saturday sessions evolved into a tight friendship. So tight, in fact, that when a condo went up for sale last fall a few doors from Bridges' unit in Anaheim, Pate and his wife, Dianne, bought it and moved in with their two dachshunds.

"To have two nutty trombone players living 50 yards apart from each other is an experience for the neighborhood," Pate says.
"I've had my share of 10:30 at night, knocking on my door, 'Sounds lovely, I gotta get up at 5, knock it off or we'll kill you,' " adds Bridges. BonesWest helps some reclaim their own past. Many, like Pate, let their playing fade away as they sought to establish careers — in his case, working as an emergency medical technician and now operations manager for an Orange County ambulance service. Freely, now retired, similarly gave up a UC Santa Barbara music scholarship to study engineering "because engineers ate and musicians did not."

Brad Lundberg, 57, set his trombone aside too, "because I needed to make a living." But in 1995 he took in a brass festival at Cal State Long Beach and the music led him to dust off the trombone.

"I started to practice, and when I got to the point where I could make a sound" he looked up Bill Tole, leader of the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra and occasional BonesWest player, for some tune-up lessons. Tole then steered him to the group.

"It was kind of intimidating," Lundberg says during a break in the recent Saturday session. "But there are no egos. There's a humble vibe here."

And familial. After the break, Lundberg is tapped for a solo in "My Funny Valentine," one of dozens of songs arranged for the group by Comstock.

"This is your big opportunity," one of the players shouts out as Lundberg makes his way to the soloist's microphone. "Don't screw it up."

He doesn't.

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