I’ve been thinking lately about how I am doing in Radio Daze. I have been playing lead trombone with the band for at least 4 years now (can’t remember when I started), and doing a competent job I believe. We have a pretty large book of music that we know and perform, and as a band and as a trombone section, we do justice to most of it. My weakness is in making up solos on the spot, but I know our book well enough now that I have an idea or two in the back of my mind for every improvised solo that’s likely to come up, and for several I have essentially worked out an entire solo in my head ahead of time (is that cheating?).
I’ll focus on the solo stuff because it was really the Tommy Dorsey bone solos that got me thinking. We do Sentimental Over You on a fairly regular basis (in a lower key, check out this video, although it’s really dark). We’ve done Song of India (in the original key) a good bit. Lately we have been rehearsing I’ll Never Smile Again as well, and performed that one a couple times. Those tunes are great fun for a trombone player (we also have Marie in the book, but almost never play that one).
The US Postal Service issued a stamp with Tommy Dorsey playing trombone and his brother Jimmy (on sax)
Dorsey used a mute throughout these solos, usually a solotone mute shown below. Mutes fit into the end of the trombone and change the sound, making it softer but also making the tone different. The notes can sound smoother with some mutes (there’s one called a bucket mute which is like strapping a bucket full of cotton balls on the end of the horn) or sharper and buzzier with others. I don’t have a solotone, like the one Dorsey used to get his signature smooth sound. They aren’t popular today and I gather they’re a little hard to find. I have tried using a cup mute on the Dorsey solos, but damnit I just don’t like it! It feels stuffy to play (and makes the horn a little more unpredictable in the high range), and I end up thinking about getting the notes to come out much more. Maybe I better way to say it is that with a mute stuck in the end of the horn, I feel like I am trying too hard.
Humes & Berg Cleartone (solotone) mute
Deciding whether or not to use a mute for a solo that is famously perfomed with one leads me to the question at the top of the post. Are we trying to create music, or trying to recreate music. Are we trying to express something about how we feel about a song, or are we trying to get it right? Like any good question, the answer isn’t just one or the other, but it’s good to think about.
From the audience perspective, let’s face it, we’re not the Beatles… nobody is playing recordings of Radio Daze backwards trying to figure out what we really meant in a song. We should try to be professional and, in performing a tune the right way (as it was done in the day when this music was the popular music), we can bring back memories of well-loved songs. In a very real way, that’s the point of what we’re doing — bringing back the experience of hearing Big Band songs in a live audience setting. We’re also providing music for dancing, and dancing swing music to a live band is another experience for people that we are keeping alive.
There’s also the experience for the band of playing these great tunes for a live audience, and feeling a sort of connection to the original bands from the 40s and 50s. And maybe that’s the expression I am looking for — that people hear us playing and they can tell we have a great respect for the music and love playing it. Part of that respect is playing the tunes the way they were done back then… and getting them right. Part of the love is taking the tunes and putting a little of ourselves into them — playing them in a way that we think sounds good! So we’re recreating a day gone by, but also creating something new. Wow, that’s pretty cheesy. I should shut up!