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The Bass Trombone In Jazz

In Conversation with
Sam Freeman



Sam Freeman

Sam Freeman photograph by Maria Krykov


It is thought that the bass trombone first came into any significant position in a big band when Stan Kenton hired Bart Varsalona. Bart came into the band as a tenor trombone player but in an article in the International Trombone Association’s Journal, The Trombones In The Orchestras Of Stan Kenton, Paul Bauer says that apparently Bart was on tour with the band in San Francisco when he saw a bass trombone in a shop window. ‘I had an idea,’ Bart said. ‘The band was playing a lot of heavy bottom. I went in and tried it out. It felt pretty comfortable and the price was right. I picked it up, and brought it in on the job that night. [Kenton] saw the difference immediately. He said: “Great, keep it”’. So it is possible that the bass trombone was first used in a big band, Kenton’s, in 1943.

Here is a ‘Soundie’ of the Kenton Orchestra circa 1945 playing Southern Scandal with the double bass, baritone sax and bass trombone (probably Bart Varsalona) lined up one behind the other.




George Roberts


Varsalona worked with Kenton for eight years. After he left, his place was eventually taken by George Roberts who had been playing tenor trombone in Gene Krupa’s band. George Roberts is still looked on as one of the masters of the instrument.

In Elicia Hill’s article in the ITA Journal, Roberts began exploring the role of the bass trombone, thinking: ‘Nobody has ever played a solo on bass trombone, and I could really take advantage of my [lower register]. It [will] be harder because of the pacing against the tenor, and there are more restrictions. Bass trombone is like playing an open inner tube. I’ll have to pace myself differently. I’ll go more for sound. Maybe I could play songs like Urbie [Green] only an octave lower’. (George Roberts died in California in 2014 at the age of 86).

George Roberts



Sam Freeman remembers hearing the 1959 album that perhaps most highlights George Roberts’s instrument, Meet Mr Roberts.

Here is My Romance from the album.





Sam Freeman plays bass trombone, contrabass trombone and sackbutt. Much of his work is with classical orchestras – the BBC Concert Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Philarmonia Orchestra, English National Opera (to name but a few) – but he also plays bass trombone in the London City Big Band, Pandora’s Jukebox, the Diamond Skyline Orchestra and for West End shows. Sam and Sam Freemanhis older brother, Dougie (an excellent jazz pianist), grew up in Nottinghamshire. Their father was a piano teacher, taking students for classical music lessons but with a love for Boogie Woogie.

‘There was plenty of music around at home,’ says Sam. ‘Mum sang, but not professionally, and Dougie started to play the piano early. The changes came when we moved to join the Southwell Minster choir. I think it was there that I first became really aware of harmony. The choir members were offered the opportunity of free instrument lessons and I chose the trombone. We were both very lucky that our state secondary school was very encouraging of music. There were lots of opportunities around and as a by-product of the Minster choir, there were a lot of good young musicians.


Sam Freeman
Photograph by Ian Maund


In time we began playing with local bands and orchestras; Dougie and I formed a rock band playing all genres (including Ska), and when I was around fourteen or fifteen I played my first paid gig with the Henley Farrell Big Band (now the Tony Farrell Big Band). Dance nights were very popular there in the 2000s. I also played in a Nottingham youth big band called ‘The Brassery’ with which we toured to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. I joined the county wind bands, orchestras, Nottingham Youth Orchestra, and extended my big band playing to depping in the Stapleford Big Band and occasionally Nottingham Jazz Orchestra’

As well as playing in the Nottingham Youth Orchestra, Sam continued to sing in the choir as a bass once his voice had broken. He believes that his choir work influenced his decision to get a bass trombone. ‘It is something about the depth of sound,’ he says. ‘The bass sound is very important, it fills out the music, it tunes in to feeling different colours. In a classical orchestra the bass trombone and tuba are akin to singing bass in a choir.’

In 2008, Sam went to the Royal Academy of Music on a full scholarship and then with a Leverhulme Scholarship, continued at the Academy until 2013. Along the way he won a Mark Elliott Scholarship, the Christopher Horn Award, awards from the Wolfson Fund and the Craxton Memorial Fund and a Highly Commended award at the RAM’s John Soloman Prize.

Sam and Dougie both play regularly with the excellent London City Big Band at the Spice Of Life in London.


Here they are playing September In the Rain.



The London City Big Band charts invariably have arrangements that include the bass trombone, although in the past, big band Bass Trombonearrangements have not always recognised the bass trombone part. ‘Many charts are based on established big band arrangements where the bass trombone is written for, and when band members write arrangements, the bass trombone is usually included pretty much as standard these days,’ continues Sam. ‘There are times when I will improvise, adding lower harmony points rather than playing solos, but arrangers now usually see the bass trombone as another facilitator of harmony. Adrian Drover who played with the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra in the 1970s is a great example as an arranger. He plays with a number of bands including the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and the Glasgow chapter of the British Trombone Society Trombone Ensemble. He also guests with the BBC Radio Big Band as composer/director.’

In discussing style, the bass trombone has been described as a ‘bull’ sound (Varsalona) or ‘velvet range’ (Roberts). Sam says it depends on what is needed at the time. ‘You can play either ‘bull’ or ‘velvet’. Like the lead trumpet knows when to ‘go for it’, the bass trombone can either play ‘bull’, or with clarity and ‘velvet’, but for me, the bass trombone is primarily an ensemble instrument. I am not really interested in playing solos on it. It can add a very different sound to a band, especially when you have a lead trumpet right at the top of the texture and the bass trombone highlighting the very bottom.'

'I’m not great at recalling examples, but I had the chance to dep in on the rehearsal for the Bobby Shew Concert at Ronnie’s and managed to grab a ticket for the gig – his feature Always and Forever is a great example of this underpinning. Perhaps a slightly better known example would be Quincy Jones' Soul Bossa Nova, which really features the bass trombone, not only in the opening solo but throughout, juxtaposing it against the high trumpets.’


Soul Bossa Nova - Quincy Jones





‘Look at how some bands have used the bass trombone,’ says Sam. ‘Take the tune Alone Together on the album Ella Swings Brightly with Nelson Riddle. Riddle starts with the reeds and trumpets and then uses the bass trombone to ease in to Ella’s vocal. It is almost like using different voices':





'Or my favourite ever big band tune I’ve Got You Under My Skin, with the incredible trombone solo in the middle, started by the solo bass trombone. If you listen carefully to the music of the great arrangers, when they decide to step it up a gear, they will often shift the bass trombone down an octave to increase the depth which adds to the excitement.’

Frank Sinatra singing I've Got You Under My Skin with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra from the album Songs For Swinging Lovers.





Sam has also taken the bass trombone into other scenarios in playing with Pandora’s Jukebox and the Diamond Skyline Orchestra. The Diamond Skyline Orchestra is a showband playing for weddings, parties, corporate events, etc. In both, the bass trombone adds to the textural range the band is able to produce.


Pandora's Jukebox

Pandora's Jukebox


Here's a video of Sam playing with the Diamond Skyline Orchestra including several members of the London City Big Band.




Pandora’s Jukebox is primarily a function band with both Dougie and Sam Freeman in its 8+ piece combination.

The Pandora’s Jukebox showreel.



People are becoming more aware of the bass line in bands. As Sam says: ‘Most big bands are looking for the bass sound these days. As big bands become more ‘orchestral’ in the textures they employ, the bass becomes increasingly important. Look at how popular music too these days is more and more bass orientated.’

For many listeners, the bass trombone might well go unnoticed on a big band recording – but listen carefully, you would notice if it were not there!


© Sandy Brown Jazz with Sam Freeman 2015

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