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Top Trombones

John Robert Brown

Dennis Rollins (b 1964) began playing jazz in the Doncaster Youth Jazz Association. After a period in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra he played in the legendary all-black jazz big band, the Jazz Warriors. He is a man of many musical projects, including the attention-getting Shout Band, consisting of ten trombones, a sousaphone and a snare drum, inspired by the exuberant church music of North Carolina.

We meet for our conversation at the beautiful Yorkshire Sculpture Park, at West Bretton. Over a pot of tea, with a backdrop of several enormous Henry Moore figures reclining in the surrounding meadows, Dennis tells me about his Yorkshire beginnings.

"I started playing in the brass bands at school. At the same time I was playing in wind orchestras. Gradually, I was introduced to jazz through the Doncaster Youth Jazz Association. That consisted of a stage band, a swing orchestra and a senior jazz orchestra. What was interesting for me was the transition from playing in a brass band to learning about swing and jazz. In the brass band the musical articulation is even quavers. Going from brass bands to learning jazz interpretation was quite a revelation. In jazz it's totally different. All of a sudden you're playing swing quavers as opposed to straight quavers. A great way to develop that was to pick up recordings to hear how great masters of jazz interpreted swing.

"My earliest recollections were of Jamaican reggae and Jamaican ska, because my parents listened to that kind of music. Very popular in jazz reggae in the 1940s and 1950s was a trombone player, Don Drummond. In Jamaica they used to get jazz records from the States to copy them, but with a Jamaican twist. My first introduction to jazz was listening to the Count Basie Orchestra. I used to put CDs or LPs on, to play on top of what the soloist was playing. What is very important for anyone who is interested in getting into jazz is to find a hero on his or her instrument. If you play alto saxophone, find an album of an alto saxophone player. That way you'll hear how they interpret the jazz articulation, the jazz soloing."

"First of all, I try to listen to a recording of the song. I will work out the chord structure and the scales in each chord progression. I remember learning All the Things You Are. A popular progression in jazz is II-V-I, and on inspection of All the Things You Are there are many II-V-I progressions. Once I got close to learning it, I put up another jazz standard tune, picked out the II-V-I patterns and tried to negotiate those too.

"Another way is to learn the bass line. That way I can hear where the root notes of the progression are going. I can hear them two bars ahead. Learning the root notes, and learning major and minor chords throughout the whole song, that really helps.

"Then I try to play simple melodies. As opposed to listening to a jazz record and hearing them fly around, my approach is to try to play almost nursery rhyme-like melodies. Improvisation is improvised melody, really.

"It's an important thing, when learning to improvise, to put yourself in the listener's position. If you were sitting in an audience listening to someone improvise, would it make sense to you, musically? A big thing is to improvise a short melody for two bars, then rest for two bars, just to give that feeling of space, just to let the music breathe.

"I did this exercise in a lesson with a trombone student. I put on an Associated Board play-along CD. He played during every bar, tried to fill in every single space. I said, 'Strip it down now, play only two bars at a time.' He was amazed. He said, 'I didn't think I could play like that.'

"The beauty of jazz improvisation is that there is no one on your back saying, You have to play all of the time.' You don't. Take your time."

  Mark Nightingale (b 1967) started playing the trombone at the age of nine. At 15 he won the Don Lusher Award in the BBC National Rehearsal Band Competition. Both he and Dennis Rollins were members of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO) at the same time. Mark was with NYJO for six years, where he formed the group Bone Structure. Currently Mark works in a variety of contexts, including appearances as a member of the John Dankworth band accompanying Cleo Laine.

We meet when he is appearing with a local rhythm section in Rawtenstall in Lancashire. Mark has driven up from the home counties. One could have forgiven him had he been road weary after an afternoon of driving. On the contrary; he is kind and patient.

"The main thing is learning your instrument. The basics, the tonguing, the breathing, the tone, are the same whatever type of music you are playing. Jazz comes down to phrasing and interpretation, learning to phrase in a swing idiom.

"To deal with that, invent a repetitive exercise on one note. Then incorporate what's been heard into playing little studies or tunes to see how it fits into the music. Listening to jazz is the best way of knowing what you should do. It's one of those intangibles. You can't describe it very well.

"Improvisation is a different matter. My approach was to start from a rhythmic point of view rather than a scalic approach. I used to try to use the three notes of the triad. Maybe I'd add the seventh if I was on the chord for a long time, with time to think. I'd use one, two or three notes, but use them thoughtfully. Make some music on the safe territory of the few notes that you can really bank on. The joining up of those notes with the other notes of the scale comes later. I think I was lucky to be guided in that way. It's putting music first, rather than treating improvising as some exercise of bravado. My trombone teacher in the Birmingham area was Fred Mercer. He was great.

"I picked up improvisation as a subsidiary to playing in the Midlands Jazz Orchestra. I remember being terrified taking my first-ever stab at a solo, with very little knowledge and a great deal of pluck. I took a leap of faith trying to play Fly me to the Moon at a walking tempo. The fear of doing it is worse than anything else. Once you can leap in, bare your soul, show what you can do no matter what people think, it's fine.

"Unfortunately, the better musicians become the more awkward they find it to take that leap of faith. That's because they've got to take a couple of steps backwards. Whereas they may be quite accomplished classical players, they are going to have to begin again if they start to improvise.

"If you are an orchestral player, unless you are or of a very select group of people who is a world-class classical soloist you are at some stage going to need to know how to phrase in a jazz style. Maybe you're going to have a pops concert, or a concert with an artist that plays in that style. So the musician of the future is going to benefit tremendously from the Associated Board's jazz exams. They'll be able to experience jazz at an earlier stage. Then they won" have inhibitions later.

I ask Mark about improvising, whether he relies on having a good ear, or uses a combination of his memory and harmonic knowledge.

"It's always a mixture. I benefit from having played the tune a lot. Through the process of getting used to the sounds of the harmonies as they move from chord to chord you get to know a tune much better. You get a freedom to go with your ear, to move away from the safer territory. Then there should be a big dollop of artistic exploration, to take you into uncharted territory.

"It's all about listening, especially at the beginning. If you were a classical player and you didn't listen to any jazz you wouldn't have a concept of what you had to do. There has been such a dumbing down of the music scene. The majority of pop bands are playing things that are harmonically uninteresting. There's not a great preponderance c musical ideas. By covering a little bit about jazz in school music lessons you'd educate kids enough so that they could appreciate jazz as a good type of music that they might enjoy, rather than pooh-poohing it without any knowledge. That's going to be our audience for the future."

ABRSM exams are also available to students in Canada and the USA. marketing@abrsm.ac.uk

First published in Libretto, issue 2004:1. Reproduced by kind permission. Reproduction forbidden.
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