The Evolution of the Jazz Trombone, Part One: Dixieland

By David Wilken • September 01, 1996 • • 6 min read


Although the trombone is less often heard as a solo instrument, many legendary performers have left distinctive marks on the history of jazz. Each of these trombonists is indebted to earlier trombonists and other musicians who influenced the styles of jazz trombone. This line of development can be traced from early Dixieland trombonists, such as Kid Ory and Miff Mole to today's original sounding trombonists Ray Anderson and Craig Harris. Throughout the history and evolution of jazz, important trombonists influence the musicians who follow with developments in harmony, melody, rhythm, and technique. This is the first part of a series of articles that will cover this line of influences from the earliest years of jazz to the present day. Since it is impossible to cover all the great jazz trombonists, this document will instead focus on the most influential players. As many trombonists influenced more than one generation of new musicians, while performing in more than one style of jazz, a strict line of development is impossible.


In the early 1900s to the 1920s a style of music developed in New Orleans spread to other parts of the country, particularly Chicago. This new music, often labeled as Dixieland, was the first example of what is generally classified as "jazz." Dixieland jazz was performed by smaller groups, usually for dancing purposes. The band--usually a trombonist, cornetist, clarinetist, bass instrument (either a tuba or double bass), chordal instrument (either a banjo or piano), and a drummer--would advertise their dance by marching in parades or playing in a wagon pulled around the street of New Orleans. The trombonist, in order to have enough room to maneuver his slide, would sit at the back of the wagon, giving the name "tailgate trombone" to this style.

Dixieland was primarily improvised music. The trombone would either outline the chords by playing something similar to a tuba or bass, or--more likely--play a countermelody to the cornet. The most striking feature of the countermelody was the glissandos and other raucous effects that could be produced with the slide trombone. While the trombonist was improvising a countermelody, the clarinetist would play an obligato line above the cornet melody. The rhythm section supported these three separate lines with a march-like beat. Trombone soloists in these early jazz bands used lots of glissandos and growls, with less subtlety than the cornet and clarinet solos.

Edward "Kid" Ory

Perhaps the most well known of the tailgate trombonists was Edward "Kid" Ory. Born in Louisiana in 1886, Ory began his musical career around 1910 in New Orleans. His style and large rough tone became the epitome of a good Dixieland sound. Ory attacked his notes percussively and often utilized glissandos, growls, and smears. His solos were simple melodically and harmonically--most often just a few repeated notes--but he played with a raw and energetic quality that made him one of the most feared musicians when it came to contests between the bands of New Orleans.

In 1925 Ory was easily coaxed to Chicago when asked by King Oliver to join his band with the first genius of jazz, Louis Armstrong, on trumpet. Ory's association with Armstrong would later give him immortality through his playing on the classic recordings of Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven. Through 1925 to 1932 Ory played with other jazz greats such as Dave Peyton, Jelly Roll Morton and Ma Rainey.

1933 began a nine year period of almost no musical production for Ory. He moved back to California to take over his brother's chicken farm and played only sporadically. By 1942, however, he started playing with Barney Brigard's band and got swept up in the 1940s revival of traditional Dixieland jazz. He continued to lead his own group, Kid Ory's Creole Jazz Band, throughout the 1950s. Eventually ill health forced Ory to move to Hawaii in 1961, where he played occasionally. Ory stopped playing completely in 1971 due to his health, and in 1973 he died of pneumonia and heart failure.

The following transcription of Ory's solo on "When the Saints Go Marching In" is a good example of his style. Throughout the solo Ory uses the glissandos and growls that he is known for. Ory also employs a fast vibrato that begins almost as soon as the note is played. These are all musical devices that were commonly used by trombonists of the Dixieland era.

This solo is simple harmonically and melodically. The second chorus is a virtual repeat of the first chorus. Many times Ory simply outlines the chord triad, such as measures 7, 12, 23, and 28. He also plays the minor third (A flat) in measures 4 and 20, which is one of the so called "blue notes" of the blues scale (The blues scale in the key of A flat is: A flat, C flat, D flat, D natural, E flat, and G flat. The sound of the C flat on an A flat triad is one of the blue notes.). This use of the C flat gives these measures a blues-like sound.

Miff Mole

Miff Mole, born Irving Milfred Mole in 1898, was perhaps stylistically the opposite of Kid Ory. Although both played in the Dixieland format, Ory's style was boisterous and rough, Mole's was more technical with a brighter sound. Mole also avoided the glissandos and growls that Ory favored. Mole's first contact with jazz came through the popular recordings of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the first recorded examples of this music, which included Edwin "Eddie" Edwards on trombone. Fascinated with the new sound, Mole attended performances in New York and quickly began to imitate what he heard. Along with a group of other New York musicians, Mole recorded hundreds of tunes under many different names, including the Original Memphis Five and Ladd's Black Aces (named as a marketing ploy for the black population).

After working with many other groups, including Charlie Randall and the Abe Lyman Orchestra he began a long association with cornetist Red Nichols in 1925. A five-year partnership produced many excellent bands under various names such as Red Nichols & His Five Pennies and Miff Mole & and His Little Molers. During this time, Mole also became the trombonist with the studio band of radio station WOR and worked many recording sessions at the NBC studios.

In 1938 Mole joined the enormously popular Paul Whiteman Orchestra and played with the group for two years until poor health forced him to leave. After leaving Whiteman, he played part time for the Benny Goodman Orchestra. The last few years of Mole's life were frustrating ones for Mole. Even though he had founded a new trend in jazz trombone, and had a great influence on many trombonists in the 1920s, the listening public had begun to listen to a new style in jazz known as Swing.

There are many more trombonists who deserve mention for their work in the Dixieland style. Many, such as Freddie Assunto of the Dukes of Dixieland and Turk Murphy, got their start in the Dixieland revival of the 1940s. Many others, such as Vic Dickenson and J. C. Higginbotham were known for performing both in Dixieland and Swing jazz styles.