The Role of the Trombone in Early Dixieland and Swing Jazz

Original Dixieland Jass Band

The trombone’s role in early jazz music went through two stages; in Ragtime and Dixieland music it was defined as a melody instrument, but more often served as a source of counter-melodies or rhythmic accents, often linking harmonies with slurred chromatic glissandi that characterized the “Tailgate” sound.1 This dual role within the band was influenced by two major factors. The first factor was the instrument’s use in the brass band and military band tradition, where its role was largely limited to playing simple counter-melody parts to the cornets and providing a rhythmic foundation. The second factor is the possible lack of performance technique that relegated the trombonist to the playing of counter-melody parts, but also include special effect techniques unique to the trombone such as the glissandi, smear, and growling rip, an example of which is Kid Ory’s Creole Trombone.2 While the glissandi is self explanatory on a slide instrument, the technique of the growl may be unfamiliar. Mercer Ellington describes the growl as follows:

There are three basic elements in the growl: the sound of the horn, a guttural gargling in the throat, and the actual note that is hummed. The mouth has to be shaped to make the different vowel sounds, and above the singing from the throat, manipulation of the plunger adds the wa-wa accents that give the horn a language.3

While the growl was used in combination with the glissandi to produce a “ripping” effect, the use of mutes in combination with the growl happened at a latter date, during the early swing era.

The second role of the trombone was as a soloing instrument. The switch from a supporting role to a leading role began to take place in the early 1920s. The increased performing ability and the evolving swing style in New York gave the trombone the opportunity it needed to move away from the “Tailgate” style into the soloist position. Trombonists in New York at this time seemed to possess technical skills and abilities not found in the older Dixieland players, and they capitalized on the growing possibilities.

  1. Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 83.
  2. These early dance bands were often referred to as ragtime bands or orchestras; this was due to the popularity of ragtime music, and these ensembles’ adoption of this piano compositional style. Ragtime bands consisted of two sections, the rhythmic section, and the melody section. The rhythmic section consisted of the percussive instruments, such as snare drum, bass drum, possibly a cymbal, and the string bass; the melody section consisted of the cornet, clarinet, and trombone. The trombone in the ragtime band really served a dual function, as a player of counter-melodies the cornet and clarinet and as a member of the rhythm section, helping to create the syncopated rhythms associated with ragtime.
  3. Kurt Dietrich, Duke’s ‘Bones (Rottenberg, Germany: Advance Music, 1995), 24.