Jazz Institute of Chicago

Britt Woodman

Britt Woodman
by Steve Voce

Duke Ellington always claimed that whenever he needed a musician he simply hired the best player available locally. He certainly made an exception when Lawrence Brown gave two weeks' notice, and Ellington cabled the young trombonist Britt Woodman in Los Angeles to come out to join the band for a season at the Thunderbird in Las Vegas in February 1951.

"Thank God I've got a fortnight to learn the book," Woodman said to Lawrence Brown when he arrived. "To hell with that," said Brown. "I'm taking off in the morning."

Ellington's musicians were notorious for turning their backs on a newcomer. The sheet music in the band's library was in tatters with large parts missing.

I felt lonely and insignificant. A kind word from someone would have made all the difference. Fortunately, the first night went well for me. I had no difficulty in sight reading the scraps of parts, for which I had to thank my years of study. When it was over Duke sent for me and thanked me.

Britt Woodman first astonished Duke Ellington fans at the same time that another trombone virtuoso of similar stature, Frank Rosolino, was dazzling audiences at Stan Kenton concerts. Both men set new standards of technique, and jazz trombone was never the same again. But despite the prodigious bravura of his playing, Woodman never became a major soloist in the way that Lawrence Brown had been. His playing was full of fire but favoured technical display over emotion and beauty.

When he wasn't working regularly Woodman used to practice trombone for three hours each day, soaring from the pedal tones at the bottom of the instrument to the altissimo tones at the other extreme. He frequently played solos that would take him through the four octaves of the trombone. Since his tone was full throughout the whole range of the instrument, he must have had lips of tungsten.

In 1955 Ellington and his band were playing a week at New York's Birdland. Never one to waste time, Ellington used to compose during the intermission. One night he wrote a brief four bars of a theme on a piece of paper and asked Britt Woodman to play it.

Ellington came back the next night with the piece written out, handed it to Woodman and had him play it for the audience without any rehearsal. It was to be called "Hank Cinq" and it was played and recorded as the third movement of Ellington's Shakespearean suite "Such Sweet Thunder."

It was a minefield of a piece that took advantage of Woodman's ability to leap through the octaves, and was thought to be beyond copying. But, in a tribute to Ellington, Cleo Laine recorded the piece using Woodman's solo in what must be one of the most extraordinary vocal performances by this amazing singer.

As a boy in Los Angeles, Woodman had a vital role to play in the development of his lifelong friend, the jazz composer Charlie Mingus. Unlike Mingus, Woodman came from a thoroughly musical family. His father, once a well-known trombonist in New Orleans, taught his son to play piano, trombone, clarinet and tenor saxophone. The young Britt played in the family band with his two brothers.

Throughout his life, Mingus was a man both violent and sensitive, who was never able to come to terms with his surroundings. As a child Mingus was taught trombone and cello (badly) by his church choirmaster. With a false confidence that was to persist he took on the more accomplished Woodman in a cutting contest on trombone. Woodman, two years older than Mingus, didn't ridicule the boy, but took him under his wing. It was the beginning of a friendship that lasted until Mingus died in 1979.

The kids in grade school used to take his lunch. He was very timid then. And very bowlegged. I was an expert at gymnastics and athletics. So I showed him all that. I liked to play him Ping-Pong with my left hand because he could never really play. He used to get mad at me and say "Play with your right hand," and I'd say, "You got to learn."

"Charles," I told him, "everything you do, there's an art to it." I never showed him what it was for arm-wrestling, so I could beat him twelve times with my right hand and nine times with my left. I didn't weigh but 125, but I had lifted weights, and I was pretty strong.

The Woodman family soon absorbed Mingus, who had an unhappy home life. Woodman played with the Les Hite band at the end of the Thirties until 1942 when he was called into the army. On his release in 1946 he, Mingus and the saxophone players Buddy Collette and Lucky Thompson formed a co-operative band in Los Angeles, which they called The Stars of Swing.

This had a promising run at the Downbeat Club on Central Avenue, the city's jazz street. But it broke up and, on Thompson's recommendation, Woodman joined the "progressive" band led by Boyd Raeburn. He played on Raeburn's avant-garde recording "Boyd Meets Stravinsky". Later in the year he moved to the Lionel Hampton band and managed to persuade Hampton's wife Gladys, who did the hiring and firing, to bring Mingus into the band. By now Mingus was composing as well as playing bass.

I warned him not to write, because he wouldn't get paid. Nobody who wrote for Hamp got paid. That's how Gladys worked it. So Charles said okay. But he wrote "Mingus Fingers" and they recorded it and he had to get a lawyer to try and get paid.

Woodman came off the road to study music for two years at Westlake College in Los Angeles before the call came from Ellington in 1951. He stayed with Ellington for the next nine years, finding time in 1955 to record with Mingus in a quintet led by trumpeter Miles Davis.

Tired of travelling, he left Ellington and settled in New York. Work proved hard to find, although he eventually worked in several musicals on Broadway, including "Half A Sixpence", starring Tommy Steele. He played for Mingus, now an established leader in New York, and made more recordings with him. He was a player at Mingus's notoriously anarchic and disastrous Town Hall concert in 1962. Another Los Angeles friend, Eric Dolphy, found work for him with John Coltrane and during the Sixties he joined bands led by Quincy Jones, Johnny Richards, Oliver Nelson, Chico Hamilton, Ernie Wilkins and even the Benny Goodman Sextet. He played at the Newport Jazz Festival several times with Ellington and then in 1961 with Quincy Jones and in 1967 with Lionel Hampton.

In 1970 Woodman returned to Los Angeles to live and starred in the Bill Berry L.A. Big Band, the Capp-Pierce Juggernaut and the Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Band. He found regular jobs in the film and television studios and for a time worked for Nelson Riddle. It was the first time in his life that he and his wife Clara could afford a car, by then considered essential for American families. He recorded with his own octet in 1977 and toured Japan twice with the all-star group led by Benny Carter that year and again in 1978. Woodman played on recordings by Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Smith, and Oscar Peterson amongst others.

Returning east in 1979 he joined the New York Jazz Repertory Company and came with it to England—he'd last been here in 1958 with Ellington. In New York he befriended another ex-Ellingtonian, baritone saxist Joe Temperley, and the two played in the Broadway revival of Ellington's songs "Sophisticated Ladies". Like Temperley, Woodman played on some of the jazz cruises to the Caribbean.

Woodman's health began to fail and eventually he had to take an oxygen cylinder with him wherever he went. Last year he returned to Los Angeles to be with his family and lived there with his brother Coney. A widower who had no children, Woodman is survived by his three brothers.

"He was always one of my inspirations, a good friend," said the trombonist Steve Turre, a contemporary trombone star, who featured Woodman on two of his albums. "As far as playing the trombone goes, he was top shelf. His chops were ridiculous. He was a grand master, and just a sweetheart."

Britt Bingham Woodman, trombonist: born Los Angeles 4 June 1920; died Los Angeles 13 October 2000.

Steve Voce is a British jazz presenter and writer. This obituary originally appeared in the British national newspaper, The Independent, October 2000.

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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