16 Of The Most Famous Trombone Players You Should Know

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

The trombone is a fascinating instrument that has been recorded as far back as the 15th century, and it can still be heard today in orchestras, jazz bands, rock bands, marching bands, and more.

This blog post will explore 16 of the best and most famous trombone players in history and show how they have shaped the way we think about this amazing instrument today!

1. Glenn Miller

Glenn Miller

Born in 1904, probably one of the most famous American trombonists of all time. Glenn Miller was also a composer and arranger primarily working in swing and big band music.

He had most of his success with his band Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, who were one of the most prolific and successful big bands of the Swing Era. The group was only active for 4 years from 1938 to 1942, but they still were one of the best-selling bands of all time with 69 top 10 hits.

Sadly, Miller, at only 40 years of age, went missing at the end of 1944 and was presumed dead after his private flight disappeared somewhere over the English Channel.

2. Tommy Dorsey

Tommy Dorsey

Born in 1905, composer, conductor, and bandleader Tommy Dorsey was known for being one of the smoothest trombone players of the early 20th century. Dorsey was known for his desire to have everything be precise, which can be a big task when working with a big band.

He contributed greatly to jazz, swing, and big band music and composed intricate pieces that posthumously got him inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame three times.

Dorsey is often credited for Frank Sinatra’s success, as Sinatra did a lot of his early work singing for Dorsey’s band, and Sinatra even claims that he learned breath control from Dorsey’s trombone playing.

In his career, Dorsey had over 250 singles reach the Billboard charts, but by the 1950s, he was struggling with sleep and took sleeping pills regularly. He would become heavily sedated by the medication, which led to him choking to death in his sleep one night in 1956 when he was 51.

3. Gunhild Carling

Next on the list we have Gunhild Carling, who is a Swedish jazz musician born in 1975. While she is primarily known for playing trombone, the multi-talented musician also sings and plays ukulele, trumpet, bagpipes, recorder, harp, banjo, piano, flute, harmonica, oboe, guitar, and double bass.

Being from a musical family, Carling performed with family bands before forming her own big band.

In addition to her original music, she has also been featured on Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox on numerous occasions creating reimagined jazz covers of hits including “The Final Countdown” and “Happy.”

She’s one of the most popular jazz trombonists of the 21st century and has made over a dozen releases thus far.

Currently based in the US, she is unable to perform in venues as of the 2020s due to the global pandemic, but she is still performing live on social media.

4. Jack Teagarden

Jack Teagarden

Jack Teagarden was born in 1905 into a musical family in Texas, USA. His mother, a pianist, taught him and his siblings instruments from an early age, which is likely why all the Teagarden siblings went on to become professional musicians.

In addition to the trombone, Jack Teagarden was also a jazz singer and was known for his ability to create varying sound effects on his trombone.

His style was very unconventional both in sound and technique, which led many professionals to believe he was the best of the time because of how inventive he was.

Unlike many big band musicians, Teagarden never really found a home with any particular band for more than a few years, jumping around a decent amount, and also was featured on the music of many other great artists.

He eventually formed his own band in the 1950s, where he released dozens of albums and performed actively until his death in 1964 after contracting pneumonia.

5. Fred Wesley

Fred Wesley is a highly accomplished American trombonist born in 1943. Known primarily for performing R&B and funk music, he’s also worked in a variety of genres with countless groups over the decades.

Wesley has released over a dozen albums as a bandleader, with the most recent being in 2018. If that’s not enough of an accomplishment, he’s been featured as a sideman on well over 150 records released by other artists.

Wesley is still highly active as a modern trombonist in the early 2020s, and most recently, he worked with Scott Bomar on Dolemite Is My Name, which can be found on Netflix.

6. Curtis Fuller

Curtis Fuller

Curtis Fuller was an American jazz trombonist born in 1932. He had quite a rough beginning when he lost both parents before age 10. He ended up in an orphanage, and it was there that his love for jazz began when he started learning trombone at age 16 and began performing less than a decade later.

Fuller released countless albums both as a bandleader and as a sideman. His last album was 2018’s In New Orleans.

He was known for composing much of his own music, which really came through in 2011’s The Story Of Cathy & Me, which was a tribute to his late wife, who had passed from lung cancer the previous year.

Fuller died at age 88 in May 2021, with the cause of his death not being released.

7. J. J. Johnson

American jazz composer J. J. Johnson was born in 1924. He started studying trombone at age 14, and a few years later, he was playing professionally in Benny Carter’s orchestra.

Though the trombone is usually more noted in swing and Dixieland music, Johnson was one of the few to embrace bebop. During the mid-1940s and early ’50s, he toured in small bebop bands.

Johnson also collaborated with fellow trombonist Kai Winding. The two became widely successful during the mid-1950s through part of the ’60s. Soon after, Johnson went on a solo career, leading his own band and touring the US and Europe.

Later in his life, Johnson was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and despite trying to have a positive outlook, he passed away from a self-inflicted wound in February 2001.

8. Natalie Cressman

Natalie Cressman is a modern American trombonist, singer, and songwriter. She was born to professional jazz musician parents, Sandy and Jeff Cressman.

At age 18, Cressman joined the Trey Anastasio Band, but she is better known for being the frontman of Phish, who Cressman has also collaborated with.

Since 2012, she has primarily been working on her solo albums, but she has still done a decent amount of collaborations in various genres, including rock, pop, and jazz.

She even had a chance to collaborate with Carlos Santana, who previously had her father as a member of his band.

Cressman is currently a highly active musician, having last released an original album in 2019. She is definitely a trombonist on the rise at this time, and there is much more to come from this young musician.

9. Wycliffe Gordon

Wycliffe Gordon, sometimes called Pinecone, is an American jazz musician born in 1967. He’s primarily a trombonist, arranger, and composer; however, he also sings and plays piano, didgeridoo, trumpet, and tuba.

He had an early start with music due to a family with a background in religious and classical music.

Gordon has released dozens of his own albums where he likes to experiment and play with instrumentation, including adding his didgeridoo on some pieces.

In 2006, Gordon founded his own independent jazz music label, which he calls Blues Back Records. Since its founding, he has primarily released his own music but still continues to put some of his albums out through other labels as well.

Gordon is very active in jazz and gospel music to this day, where he’s constantly composing, producing, and recording various works on a yearly basis, as well as being a successful music educator.

10. Bill Watrous

Bill Watrous was an American trombonist who grew up with the instrument due to his father also being a trombonist.

Watrous, who was born in 1939, was a US Navy veteran who studied with jazz pianist Herbie Nichols.

Watrous released dozens of albums between his work as a bandleader and collaborating with other musicians, primarily Kai Winding.

He did most of his work with the band that he founded in the 1970s, called the Manhattan Wildlife Refuge Big Band. Many also knew of his work from his brief time on The Merv Griffin Show.

He has often been described as a master technician by professionals of the craft. Watrous remained active in music until shortly before his 2018 death.

11. Melba Liston

Melba Liston was best known as a composer and arranger; however, she was also a virtuoso trombonist.

Liston only released one album as leader entitled Melba Liston and Her ‘Bones, but her skill landed her to be featured on various albums, including one of Ella Fitzgerald’s.

Liston was a pioneer for female trombonists in big bands in the mid-1900s where she was the first female trombonist to play in big band settings when, previously, female trombonists only played in all-girl groups.

Sadly, Liston suffered a stroke in 1985, which she survived but was partially paralyzed on her left side. This forced her into early retirement from the trombone.

She continued composing and arranging music though, and a couple years later, she was awarded the Jazz Masters Fellowship.

12. Kai Winding

Kai Winding

Kai Winding was a Danish jazz composer and trombonist born in 1922. His family moved to the US when he was a child, and then he became a professional trombonist right out of high school.

Winding spent a few years doing sideman work before being leader or co-leader in his recordings.

He was known for composing a good portion of the music he performed both solo and collaboratively. J.J. Johnson and Winding especially did many collaborations under the name Jay & Kai.

Winding died due to a brain tumor in 1983, shortly before his 61st birthday, but his legacy lives on through his son, Jai Winding, who is currently in the music industry as a keyboardist, writer, and producer.

13. Joseph Alessi

American classical trombonist born in 1959, Joseph Alessi was born into a family of professional musicians with his father playing the trumpet and his mother a singer.

Alessi entered the professional music world young, and by the age of 16, he had already graduated high school and began playing with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra.

Alessi has played with various symphony orchestras in North America throughout his career as well as being featured on recordings of varying instrumentations ranging from solo work to full orchestra.

Alessi is often regarded as one of the finest classical trombonists of all time and has been the principal trombonist with the New York Philharmonic since 1985 and a featured soloist since 1990.

He is also employed by Juilliard and gives masterclasses there twice per year.

14. Helen Jones Woods

Helen Jones Woods was an American trombonist born in 1923 who was known for her contribution to jazz and swing music in the early 1900s.

Jones Woods is primarily known for playing with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, which was a group comprised of poor teenagers, primarily orphans.

After they disbanded, Woods was briefly a member of the Omaha Symphony orchestra; however, she was fired due to the prominent racism of the time period.

Finding it difficult to find work as a female African-American trombonist, Woods spent most of her career working as a nurse.

Her musical contributions of the past got her inducted into the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame in 2007. But sadly, in 2020, Helen Jones Woods died from COVID-19 at the age of 96.

15. Urbie Green

Urbie Green was an American trombonist, songwriter, conductor, and composer born in 1926.

The virtuoso jazz musician is one of the most recorded artists of all time, having released more than two dozen albums as a bandleader and featured as a sideman on hundreds more.

He took over as the leader of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra after Dorsey passed away, but that was just one of many big band positions that Green held throughout his career.

All his work landed him an induction into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, and after a long successful career, Green died on the last day of 2018 at the age of 92.

16. Frank Rosolino

And last, but not least, Frank Rosolino was an American trombonist born in 1926. He began studying music on guitar when he was 9 and then started on the trombone in high school.

Rather than graduating, he joined the Army Band and after the army, Rosolino started playing with various other musicians and big bands. He released 11 albums as a leader throughout his career and was also featured as a sideman on nearly 100 more.

Despite his musical success, Rosolino struggled deeply with mental disturbances, and in 1978, he shot both of his sons in their sleep before committing suicide. One of the boys survived the incident but was left permanently blind.

Summing up our List of Famous Trombonists

We hope this article opened your eyes to the wide variety of trombone players from all across history.

Whether you’re a fan or not, there is no denying that these artists have made significant contributions to music as we know it today, and they deserve recognition for their talents.

If there are any other names we should know about, let us know and we’ll add them to our list.

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.