13 Of The Most Famous Jazz Trombone Players You Should Know

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When you think of jazz, the first instruments that come to mind are probably the saxophone and the piano. But there’s another iconic instrument that often goes overlooked: the trombone.

Trombones have been an important part of jazz since its inception, and over the years, some amazing players have taken up this unique instrument. In this blog post, we’ll take a look at thirteen of the most famous jazz trombone players of all time.

1. J. J. Johnson

Known for his bebop style, J.J began playing trombone at 14. To many, he is the best jazz trombonist of all time due to his skills and expertise.

His professional trombone career began in the 40s with the big bands and orchestras, working closely with big names in the industry of that decade.

J.J was quite an influential trombonist who contributed a lot to the way people play trombone today. One of the best trombonists, Steve Turre, referred to him as the master of trombone at one point.

That’s enough evidence to show just how influential J.J was.

2. Glenn Miller

Glenn Miller started playing trombone in 1916 after his family moved to Grant City, but his influence and contribution to the trombone world happened in the 30s.

Besides being an excellent trombone player, he was also an arranger and composer working in the swing era

In the mid-20s, Miller joined Ben Pollack’s orchestra, playing trombone for a while before leaving. He left this orchestra in 1928 to perform as a freelance trombonist, contributing to various ensembles at the time.

Miller’s most successful years were from 1938 to 1942, playing trombone from his band The Glenn Miller orchestra.

Unfortunately, his plane went missing while flying to Paris from England in 1944 at only 40 years old.

3. Tommy Dorsey

Born in 1905, Tommy Dorsey was a great trombonist, conductor, composer, and big bandleader in the swing era.

As a perfectionist, he ensured his band ‘Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra’ reigned supreme in the 30s and 40s.

Dorsey was known for his smooth trombone style and the duo performances with his brother, Jimmy Dorsey. After splitting up with his brother, he recorded his theme song, “Getting Sentimental Over You.”

Several hits followed, ranging from smooth trombone tunes to hot swing, with most of them getting to billboards.

Only a week after his 51st birthday, Tommy died at his home after choking in his sleep after a heavy meal. Before then, he got heavily sedated from the sleeping pills he was regularly taking.

4. Jack Teagarden

Born in 1905 in Texas, Jack Teagarden was a trombone maestro and talented jazz singer.

Surprisingly, his trombone playing style was self-taught. He managed to develop many unexpected positions from the instrument, playing in a manner that no one ever matched.

For this reason, Jack became the most innovative trombone player during his era.

His love for trombone was so big that he even designed trombone mutes and mouthpieces.

Jack recorded and played with some of the biggest names in the trombone and jazz world during his time including, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Red Nichols and even Louis Armstrong.

He died of pneumonia in 1964 at the age of 58.

5. Curtis Fuller

Curtis Fuller was not only a great trombonist but also a successful composer. His performances contributed hugely to the evolution of jazz music.

He received tremendous success in the 50s and 60s, where he played on recordings by many influential musicians, including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Wayne Shorter and Jimmy Smith.

He was also part of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers

Fuller was featured on a lot of albums, both as a supporting musician and a bandleader. His contributions centered around classic jazz recordings.

6. Melba Liston

Melba Liston is perhaps the most famous female jazz trombonist. Born in 1926, Liston was a celebrated trombonist, composer, and arranger.

She was the first female to play trombone in big bands after initially playing in girls-only groups. She worked with major bands from the 40s to the 60s.

She also associated herself with great musicians, including Billie Holiday, Billie Coltrane, and Randy Weston.

Although Liston only released a single album, she got featured in several. She had to retire early from playing trombone after surviving a stroke that paralyzed her left side.

7. Bill Watrous

No list of famous trombonists would be complete without mentioning Bill Watrous.

Watrous started playing trombone as a child, learning the skills from his father, who was also a trombonist. However, he studied jazz with pianist, Herbie Nichols.

Watrous played trombone in many big bands in the 60s, including Woody Herman, Count Basie, and Quincy Jones, but formed his band, Manhattan Wildlife Refuge, in the 70s.

His album, “The Tiger of San Pedro,” received a Grammy nomination in 1975. He remained active in music until his untimely death in 2018.

8. Frank Rosolino

Although he began as a guitarist, having learned the skills from his father, jazz trombonist Frank Rosolino decided to take on trombone at age 14 after joining high school.

He would play in the school band before joining the army during World War II. Frank later joined the army band and continued with his trombone career.

He contributed so much to the way musicians could use the trombone in their jazz music, making him one of greatest jazz trombone players.

Things didn’t stop there as Frank also worked with renowned musicians of his time and released several records.

Unfortunately, his story ended tragically in 1978 after shooting his two sons and taking his own life. But still, he remains to be one of the most influential jazz trombonists due to his contributions to this industry.

9. Trombone Shorty

The youngest jazz trombonist on our list Trombone Shorty is still very much active today. Born Troy Andrews was born in 1986 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

He got his nickname, Trombone Shorty, from his brother, who would always tease him as a kid for being shorter than his horn.

Shorty has brought modern jazz to a whole new level with his funky style of playing trombone. His style and flair are what most people love about him.

Not only does he excel as a trombonist, but Shorty is also an excellent trumpet, tuba, drum, and organ player.

He released several albums both as a bandleader and a sideman. His two most successful albums are “For True” and “Backatown.” These two remain the top sellers in modern jazz, making Shorty a household name in music.

10. Slide Hampton

Born in 1932, Locksley Wellington Hampton better known as Slide Hampton came from a large musical family that played various instruments. All 12 of his brothers and sisters in fact!

A left-handed musician he was only one of a few trombonists that were left-handed.

His professional trombone career began when he was only 20, playing at Carnegie Hall.

He went on to play as a sideman in many different bands and associated himself with influential musicians like Thad Jones,  Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard, and Max Roach.

Slide recorded and released several albums in his musical career, one of them winning the Grammy Award in 2005.

11. Bob Brookmeyer

Bob Brookmeyer was a legendary pianist, trombonist, arranger, and composer. As a teenager, he started playing piano but would later concentrate fully on playing trombone in the 50s.

In the 50s and 60s, Bob played on televisions, New York Clubs and recorded in studios. He also worked with respected musicians in these eras, including Ray Charles.

Unlike most jazz trombone players using the traditional slide trombone, Brookmeyer preferred valve trombones. He remains one of the best jazz valve trombonists to date.

Bob received several Grammy nominations during his active days and was named a national endowment for the arts jazz master in 2006.

He died in 2011 due to congestive heart failure, but his contribution to the jazz trombone world still lives.

12. Urbie Green

Urbie Green contributed to the evolution of jazz music and the incorporation of trombone into this genre. Born in 1926 in Mobile, Alabama, Green started playing trombone at 12 years.

He got influenced by top musicians, including Lester Young and Charley Parker. He aimed to master this instrument, which he did incredibly well.

His professional trombone career began when he was 15. Known for his warm, mellow tone, Green worked and toured the world with Tommy Reynolds, Jan Savitt, Gene Krupa, and Frankie Carle.

He played trombone in over 250 recordings and released over two dozen albums as a solo artist.

For these reasons, Urbie Green deserves to be on this list of the most famous trombone players.

13. Carl Fontana

Carl Fontana had the most incredibly smooth and soothing tone while playing trombone. His technical skills were also top-notch, which is why he played in the big bands that ever existed during his time.

Such big bands included Lionel Hampton, Stan Kenton, and Woody Herman.

Besides playing in those big bands, he also spent most of his time performing in Las Vegas clubs for the big names in the industry. These included the likes of Sammy Davis Jr., Wayne Newton, and Tony Bennett.

After struggling with Alzheimer’s disease for a while, Carl died in 2003 in Las Vegas at 75 years.

Summing up Our List of The Greatest Jazz Trombonists

There you have it, our list of the most famous jazz trombonists.

These legends contributed a lot to how jazz evolved with their creativity and dedication towards the trombone instrument.

Jazz enthusiasts will forever cherish their works. We hope you found it helpful and let us know who to add next.

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Written by David Walker
David is primarily a trumpet teacher and performer based in PA, USA. He's been playing for over 40 years and in that time has taught over one thousand students to play the trumpet.