Jimmy Knepper (1927–2003)
Jimmy Knepper was an American trombonist born in Los Angeles, California, who performed and recorded with many of the most popular big bands of the 1950s and 1960s, including the bands of Charlie Barnet, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman, and, most famously, Charles Mingus in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
While a pupil at a military boarding school, his first instrument was alto horn. His first teacher persuaded him to switch to trombone because, he said, he had a ‘trombone mouth’. He played his first professional gigs at just 15 years old.
In 1959, Knepper joined a US State Department-funded trip to Africa with bandleader Herbie Mann. (He wrote home to his family about this gruelling 14-week tour and Knepper’s daughter is hoping to publish these letters.) In 1962, Knepper toured the Soviet Union with Benny Goodman’s Big Band, as part of a cultural exchange in which the Bolshoi Ballet came to the United States. On his return, he spent some years working on Broadway in the pit bands of a number of hit shows, including the entire run of Funny Girl, with Barbra Streisand.
Although Knepper worked with some of the most notable jazz musicians of the 20th century, he is best known for his collaboration and stormy relationship with bassist, composer and bandleader Charles Mingus. Following Mingus’ death, Knepper led the Mingus Dynasty Orchestra, and toured the Middle East and Europe.
Knepper received Best Trombonist award from Downbeat Magazine Reader’s Poll from 1981 to 1984 and was awarded first place in the Downbeat Critics’ Poll for five years running from 1983 to 1987.
Biography by Mike Rose
My approach to the trombone
In three interviews by Les Tomkins trombonist, Jimmy Knepper discusses his early life, his extensive playing career both in the US, the UK and across the world. In this second interview from 1981 he talks about becoming a trombone player, his influences and technique.
Jimmy Knepper: Interview 2
|1st January 1981
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How did I become a trombone player? When I was about six years old, I was in a private military school, and I used to hang out around the band–house, which was a separate building. The bandmaster called me in, and gave me an alto horn, which he taught me to play at a kind of a collective lesson; later I switched to baritone horn.
When I left that school, my mother wanted me to play an instrument that I could play both in the band and the orchestra—whatever that means.
Baritone horn was considered a bad instrument; somebody said: ‘Oh, he’s got a trombone mouth”, and it was the same mouthpiece—so I switched to trombone. I’ve been playing it ever since.
I’m still trying to master it—if I live long enough, I’ll learn how to play it to my satisfaction. People may say: “You’re a wiz”, and all that—but I know what I’m doing, I know the limitations, and what I have to do. I know the things that don’t please me about my own playing. If I live for another forty years, maybe I’ll start to be a little pleased with it.
I had lessons, of course. About the last one I studied with was a remarkable teacher—Dr. Edward Hei-ner, in Los Angeles. And I’ve studied Charlie Parker with Dean Benedetti; we transcribed a lot of the commercial records that had been released up to that time, and I learned a lot about playing from him. Lately, in the last ten years or so, I’ve found out some more things about playing, that I wish I’d have known thirty years ago, and disciplined myself to play them. A lot of improvement is self–discipline; you know what you have to do, and you spend the time doing it—getting it in your unconsciousness, so that you can do it without really putting a lot of effort or concentration into it.
You have to free your concentration for other aspects of music than the technical requirements of playing in tune, and playing right notes, scales and whatever.
I’ve played bass trombone too, for money—I play it every now and then in New York, when a date comes along where I’m hired to do that. In fact, I even have a tuba (blasted horn!). A bass trombone has a kind of a baritone–like quality to it; if I play that, you can tell the difference in the tone. But the first thing that Dr. Heiner emphasised was the sound that came out of the trombone—or trumpet; he taught that also—and all his students were very conscious of sound, the tone, warm quality, bigness, richness, and no dead air coming through the horn.
I still go through his routine, of playing long tones every day: first thing I do is play a series of long tones and try to get them better. If you do that for thirty years, and know what you expect or have some kind of ideal in your mind, then something’s bound to happen.
Most of my influences are Charlie Parker; I learned more technical things by what Bird played.
And the earlier influences than that were Lester Young, Harry Edison, Ray Nance. My influences aren’t from trombone players at all, I don’t think. I listened to Dickie Wells, and I was always kind of disappointed in him. Obviously he could play, but from the records I heard of him with Count Basie and those little bands, he didn’t take it seriously—it was almost like a joke. He’d play funny–sounding thlngs, and I’d say: “Jeez, why doesn’t he play like Lester? Why doesn’t he have that kind of musical approach?” Not to denigrate Dickie Wells, because he’s a fantastic player—and he was then, too. It was just that he didn’t seem like he was very serious about it. Then I was very respectful of Vic Dickenson—what a player he is, and was.
Lawrence Brown, of course, though he isn’t really a jazz player, has a beautiful sound—his approach was highly individual. I wasn’t particularly crazy about his vibrato, but he had that energy and he was such a smooth player. Some players fall into a certain pattern, but the ones that do stand out are the individuals.
You can probably pick Vic Dickenson and Lawrence Brown out as soon as you hear them play—it’s very evident from the stylisation with which they play.
As for breath control having supposedly advanced—the early players probably had as much breath control as any player nowadays.
Throughout the years, the trombone hasn’t been expected to play very fast passages or anything like that.
It’s been more like the cello section of the dance bands; sweet solos a la Tommy Dorsey or Bobby Byrne have been one of the roles that it’s expected to play. Actually, trombone’s a utility instrument, and can blend with practically any instrument that’s played. It’s capable of a wide range of expression—it can be barking or very soft; it can sound like an elephant or be very sweet.
Maybe I’m chauvinistic, but, as a trombone player, I feel that it’s an asset to any band that it’s in—especially a small band.
If trombone players play silly or very limited music, there just isn’t a place for them in the modern jazz bands. You might have noticed that a lot of bands have no trombones at all in them—there’ll be trumpet and tenor, trumpet and alto, alto and tenor, or whatever, but the trombone is one of the last to be hired. Even if they have four horns. Like, the Savoy Sultans, an excellent little band—they didn’t have a trombone with them, and their band would probably have been given a different dimension if they’d had one. I think they had three saxes and two trumpets—something like that; I’m not exactly sure. But if they’d had a trombone, that would have provided another aspect, in terms of colours, impact, intensity and everything else.
For myself, I really don’t feel that the trombone has any limitations in the small band context. I really don’t listen to a great many records, and I haven’t heard a large number of trombone players, but I do know that most of them imitate J. J.—even if they can play more smoothly than he does. It’s probably due to the fact that he was the most publicised and most recorded, and he’s the only one that other trombone players considered as modern and something to imitate. So—what can you say? As I said, I really wasn’t impressed or influenced by many trombone players at all; they didn’t seem to develop the instrument as a flowing, smooth producer of music the way that Lester Young, Ben Webster or Charlie Parker did. They all played very much different from tenors, altos and trumpets. It seemed like a world apart; it was kind of embarrassing, really, to hear some trombones play. So I just go my own way, and try to make music as best I can. Thad Jones asked me one time who I listened to, or who influenced me, and I said: “Saxophones.” He said: “Yeah, that’s what I thought”.
The trumpet players are influenced by piano players; I don’t know who the saxophone players are influenced by—probably pianos too.
Well, it’s not too good to be influenced by something that you don’t really like. You might be called upon to play in the style of Tommy Dorsey or whoever, but that’s one of the things that is part of professionalism. If that’s what the maestro wants, then you do your best to satisfy that.
It’s important to try to improve your technique. In the last few years, I figured out a way to hold the slide hand that may be different from the way most players do it. The wrist should bend the way it bends naturally, and not sideways; the slide technique should be done more with the wrists and the fingers, rather than the whole arm making that log–sawing motion. Then everything becomes much more smoother, if you can do it like that, and you can play faster. You can play one note and be set to play the next one, instead of getting so physical about it.
Also, there are what they call alternative positions that are very important. The fifth partials and the seventh partials are different positions than one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. You have to learn where they are, and get so that you can find them without too much uncertainty, and use them as “momentum positions”, you could say—as long as you’re going that way, play the motes that are available going to and fro, or different combinations of the notes. And you learn the advantages and disadvantages of staying on the same partial series for the different positions.
Another factor is articulating every note. Don’t shuck at all; don’t rely on any crutches. I’m aware when I rely on crutches. Every note should be articulated—not particularly staccato, because that doesn’t have a very musical effect. I know a lot of players use that, but it sounds kind of silly to me—unmusical, and it detracts from the smoothness of whatever is possible. There are teachers who have various routines to go through, with the articulation buoyed up by a steady air–stream, so that every note is separate, but they flow into one another with a good legato style. Or less legato. And there are ways of tonguing or placing notes that give the desired effect.
Actually the trombone is capable of playing very fast. If somebody can keep their wits about them, and know their instrument very well, they can play at a remarkable speed—and if I live long enough, I will too.
Copyright © 1981 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.