The Jazz.com Blog
March 10, 2008 · 4 comments
We can’t let our tribute to Bix Beiderbecke pass without giving a passing nod to his closest musical associate, saxophonist Frank Trumbauer.
Tram (as he was sometimes called) never captured the public’s imagination the way Bix did. But musicians took notice. His early recordings, such as ”San” and ”I Never Miss the Sunshine,” helped define the saxophone vocabulary and were widely imitated in the 1920s. Trumbauer could count many musicians with more fame than he enjoyed (including Benny Carter, Buddy Tate and Lester Young) among his admirers.
To his credit, Trumbauer contributed the key elements that Young used to forge his own path-breaking style. “Trumbauer was my idol," Lester explained years later to Nat Hentoff. "When I had just started to play, I bought all his records. I imagine I can still play all those solos off the record. He played the C-melody saxophone. I tried to get the sound of a C-melody on the tenor. That's why I don't sound like other people. Trumbauer always told a little story."
Not everyone shared Young's enthusiasm for the unconventional horn - even Tram admirer Richard Sudhalter has claimed that the C-melody saxophone producers a bovine "moo, achieving neither the muscularity of the tenor nor the unique singing quality of the alto." Yet, in Trumbauer's hands, this unpopular sax, was (paradoxically) both muscular and singing.
Given this linkage to Young, one could make the claim that Trumbauer had more impact on later music (although not necessarily on jazz) than even the legendary Bix. How's that? My friend and former bandmate John O’Neill once made a convincing case to me that Lester Young exerted more influence on commercial music than any other saxophonist – because Young’s “cool jazz” sound was more malleable, more melodic, and thus able to influence popular styles in a way that Hawkins, Coltrane, and other hotter players could not. In later decades, everything from bossa nova to pop ballads, soundtracks to background music, borrowed from this cool aesthetic. Lester’s sound offered just the right mix of jazziness and melodic intent to make this possible. As such, Prez and his "school" were better role models for those who were outside of the jazz idiom, but wanted to draw on its power. Lester found this balance between hot and sweet in the early 1920s, primarily through the recordings of Frank Trumbauer.
From this perspective, a recording such as Trumbauer’s ”I Never Miss the Sunshine” is vitally important to the history of American music, even though Bix Beiderbecke doesn’t appear on it. Tram’s first session with Bix was still more than a year away at the time. But even on this early outing, Trumbauer shows that jazz phrasing could be relaxed and swinging, bluesy and beguiling. This performance was recorded exactly ten weeks after King Oliver and Louis Armstrong undertook their first session, and it is sobering to think that the cool style was already coming to light such a short time after those great pioneers of the hot were discovered by the music industry.
During the 1920s. Trumbauer was almost as famous for his slick sax technique as for his cool stylings. His diary presents a telling entry, inspired by teenager Tram’s landing a gig at Cicardi’s Café and learning that he needed to be able to sight read. “I made up my mind that I was going to study. I worked at the café every night and spent at least eight hours on my instruments. Study! Study! Study! I lost weight. I had very little sleep, but in nine months I could read and transpose any part. Flute parts – trumpet parts – trombone parts – clarinet parts – cello parts – anything at all!” How different from the cavalier Beiderbecke, who preferred to let music come to him through the inspiration of the moment, rather than via an arduous practice regimen. Yet, as a result, Trumbauer could dish out fancy, ornamental passages on the horn at a time when many sax players were still struggling to get through the charts.
Later recordings with Bix, such as “I’m Coming, Virginia” and ”Singin’ the Blues” built on these earlier contributions, and helped solidify Tram’s influence on saxophony, as well as further the legend-in-the-making of his colleague Bix Beiderbecke. But even without Bix, Tram's place in jazz history would be a significant one.
Yet not a flashy or romantic one. Tram did not lead the kind of troubled, tragic life that made Bix a mythic figure. Trumbauer married at age twenty, and spent all his life with his wife Mitzi, who survived him. He was a responsible family man, not a spendthrift or a drinker, not a bohemian or counter-culture rebel. When he focused on music, he put in hours and hours of practice. But when other responsibilities beckoned, he didn’t hesitate to lay down the horn and shift gears completely. Tram put his country first during both World Wars, serving in the navy in WWI, and as a test pilot during WWII. After the latter, he gravitated more toward the field of aviation, and worked for the Civil Aeronautical Authority. By the time of his death in June 11, 1956, his contributions to American music were all but forgotten. Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” had spent most of the last two months at the top of the charts, and nothing could be more passé than the Whiteman and Goldkette bands of the 1920s, and their star saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer.
There's nothing here to inspire a novel or a movie. And the jazz world has penalized Trumbauer for being such a fine, upstanding citizen. He has never garnered much recognition from jazz insiders, and now that he has been dead for more than a half-century, this is unlikely to change. His name does not appear among the more than 100 musicians enshrined in the Down Beat Hall of Fame, and I can safely predict that neither the readers nor the critics will ever vote him into this pantheon. More than 200 musicians have been honored by the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame, established in 1977 to celebrate the music’s pioneers, but Frank Trumbauer will not be found among them (athough other Bix collaborators, such as Adrian Rollini, Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti have made the cut).
But what Tram may have lacked in flashy behavior, he made up for in his horn-playing. And his influence, especially through his impact on Lester Young, has changed the sound of popular music. So in the midst of our Bix Beiderbecke Birthday Bash, we stop to give a toast – albeit a non-alcoholic one – to this sober and true father of cool jazz saxophony. Thank you, Tram!
This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia