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Transition into Bebop: Bill Harris

Bill Harris, pictured center to the right, is noted as a transitional figure between swing and the next style period of jazz, bebop. Born in 1916, Harris is best known as the featured trombone soloist with Woody Herman's big band, off and on from 1944 to 1959. He also co-led groups with Charlie Ventura and Chubby Jackson. Harris died in 1973.

Although Harris' style was a swing era approach, he was one of the first trombonists to acquire the technical command of the trombone that allowed him to play in the breakneck tempos associated with bebop. Harris constantly surprised the listener with his variety of stylistic attributes. He was fond of varying his articulations between legato and staccato and playing first simply and then more complex. His use of vibrato also differed between the terminal vibrato - used by most swing era horn players - and a straight tone as well as combinations of the two. Harris also had an irrepressible sense of humor that showed not only in his soloing but in the way he performed as well. One story tells of an effect that left his leader mystified:

When he was on Woody Herman's band, Harris had a little right-angle crook of tubing made to fit between his mouthpiece and his trombone. One night on his way to the front mike to take a solo, Bill surreptitiously slipped the crook onto his horn. This allowed him to play with his horn at right angles to its normal position. When Bill finished his solo he put the crook back into his pocket. Woody had been standing behind Bill where he couldn't see the gimmick, and he couldn't figure out how Bill managed to play with his slide pumping sideways.

Bill told section mate Eddie Bert that he wanted to have these crooks made for the whole trombone section. "Then we could spell out dirty words with the slides while we play." (Crow, 167)

It is very difficult to typify Harris' style. Harris would play each solo differently, depending on the piece and his mood. His solos varied from romantic to flamboyant.

And there are others. . .

Since the Swing Era was the most popular period of jazz and most big bands utilized three to five trombonists, many important and influential trombonists who deserve mention are left out of this article. Some other important trombonists include Bobby Byrne, J. C. Higgenbotham, Will Bradley, Vic Dickenson, Sandy Williams, Glen Miller, and Claude Jones. Many more trombonists warrant mention, but due to the scope of this article, they have been left out. Readers who are interested in learning more are referred to the annotated bibliography.

This concludes this installment of articles covering the historical evolution of the jazz trombone. The next article will deal with the Bebop Era and the important trombonists who played in the Bebop style.

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