Bill Watrous R.I.P.


Bill Watrous, who has died aged seventy-nine, was a trombonist who gave the instrument the same status as a solo voice as the trumpet had been given by Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis and the saxophone by Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.


Other trombonists had led bands but few played with just a rhythm section and with his highly developed technique that earned him wide recognition as the finest trombonist of the late 20th century, Watrous opened the trombone up to previously undreamed of possibilities.


William Russell Watrous was born in Middletown, Connecticut. His father, whom Bill idolised, was a trombonist who had worked in vaudeville during the Depression and had played for a time with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. As a child Bill discovered his dad’s trombones in a cupboard and became fascinated with them. His dad began teaching him to play at the age of six and from then on Bill was determined to become a professional musician, although he might also have become a pro baseball player as he could apparently swing a bat as well as he could swing a tune.


Around the age of eleven or twelve, Bill and some friends, with one or other of their parents, began making the one hundred and fifty mile round trip to New York at weekends to listen to jazz. He remembered hearing Charlie Parker playing with Thelonious Monk on one occasion and on another hearing Charles Mingus. When he left school he joined the US Navy where he took little interest in becoming a sailor but made good use of his time by learning to read music (he’d previously memorised everything by ear). Along with his already well-developed facility, partly inspired by listening to his early favourite, J.J. Johnson, his sight-reading ability helped Bill to find work in New York after he completed his Navy service.


He played with Quincy Jones, Woody Herman and, briefly, Count Basie, joined Kai Winding’s trombone group, which featured four trombonists and a rhythm section, and as a busy session player he appeared in the house band of the popular TV series The Dick Cavett Show. Watrous also toured with pop singers including Paul Anka before, in 1969, he formed his own band, Manhattan Wildlife Refuge, which was signed to Columbia Records by legendary talent scout John Hammond.


Manhattan Wildlife Refuge didn’t enjoy the popularity of some of Hammond’s other signings, which included Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, but it did redefine people’s perception of what could be played on the trombone. Thereafter, anyone looking for someone to play the seemingly impossible would call on Watrous’s skill, speed of articulation and wonderfully rounded tone. Having moved to Los Angeles in 1976 his adaptability found him working on sessions with trumpet star Freddie Hubbard and Brazilian singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento as well as on recordings with Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. He also worked in quintets alongside saxophonists Phil Woods, Buddy Tate, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims and Londoner Peter King and in 1980 he recorded an album for a Japanese label with alto saxophonist Art Pepper.


Around the same time, Pepper, who had made a successful comeback after years of drug addiction, recorded one of his greatest triumphs, Blues for the Fisherman, live at Ronnie Scott’s in London for the small independent jazz label Mole Records. Two years later, on his first ever trip to the UK, Mole recorded Watrous at Pizza Express in London and gave Watrous similar exposure. Featuring a local rhythm section of pianist Brian Dee, bassist Len Skeat and drummer Martin Drew, the recording showcased Watrous’ ability to deliver technically challenging solos while also playing with soul and melodic sensibility. 


As much as Watrous enjoyed playing live – as a soloist with rhythm section, with big bands or in trombone summits with fellow trombonists Kai Winding, Jiggs Whigham and Albert Mangelsdorff – he was also deeply committed to passing on his skills to college students, as his father had done with him, and to sharing his passion for the trombone. For twenty years he taught at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and he had a long-running jazz festival named in his honour at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. He was also an enthusiastic advocate for the annual National Trombone Workshop at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, which he enjoyed telling people had begun with exactly seventy-six trombones but went to cater for many more.


He is survived by his wife, Maryanne and his son, Jason.


Bill Watrous, trombonist, born June 8, 1939; died July 2, 2018.


From The Herald, July 9, 2018. 

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