Tailgate trombone

Feeling the urge to return to writing the occasional composition-teacher post! Some time ago I made a list of titles for posts I had ideas to write. Here’s one…

“Tailgate trombone” is a term that applies to a typical trombone part in “Dixieland” jazz or traditional jazz in tutti sections (tutti, Italian from Latin totus, “all,” is where everyone is playing at the same time). This “tailgate” part sort of follows its own course, outlining often descending chromatic lines inherent in the harmonic progression of the tune being improvised upon.

The reason for titling this post with that designation is that in “Dixieland” jazz or traditional jazz (I’ve never been absolutely sure to what extent those two styles are mutually exclusive) each instrument has a set role and melodic character that’s unchanging in the tutti sections.

Those are typically as follows:

  • trumpet plays embellished tune melody
  • clarinet plays arpeggiated harmonic structure
  • trombone plays tailgate part
  • tuba plays bass part
  • banjo plays harmony rhythmicized

Having these set roles in tutti sections helps clarify the texture, keeping everyone out of everyone else’s way while madly improvising in “le jazz hot.”

My purpose in raising this topic is that all too often, as useful as this device is, too many student composers do the same thing to their classical compositions, never allowing the parts of the texture to deviate from their set roles.

I do the same thing myself for certain reasons, especially when I’m wanting to create a static atmosphere.

For, that’s the danger: the music becomes static.

It’s definitely true that as great a composer as Mozart utilizes static texture, sometimes called mono-textural music. But, it’s worth your effort to take something like a Mozart piano sonata that definitely falls into this category, and see how even he breaks the texture from one phrase or group of phrases to the next into contrasting textures of different characters.

Then, take a look at someone like Beethoven to see how even the seams between contrasting sections are disguised so you start with one texture and miraculously discover you’re in a different texture without noticing how you got there.

This is even more true with someone like Mahler!

Mono-texture isn’t “bad” and multi-textural “good.” The goal is to become adept at handling texture freely without being forced to being stuck when you don’t want to be.

Author: Hilton Kean Jones

Composer and performer, retired college music professor, lyricist.

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