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David Taylor: Bass Trombone

An Appreciation and Interview by Douglas Yeo (Part 1)


This article, © 1990 by Douglas Yeo and David Taylor, appeared in The International Trombone Society Journal, Volume 19, No. 4 (Fall 1991) and Volume 20, No. 1 (Winter 1992). The article included numerous photographs which do not appear on this online version. To order back issues of the ITA Journal, contact: Randy Kohenberg, School of Music, University of North Carolina-Greensboro, Greensboro, NC 27412 USA.

In the program notes to David Taylor's historic 1984 Carnegie Hall recital, annotator David Wright penned the following telling words:

It's true that David Taylor has been through The Juilliard School, and his professional skills have put him at the top of his field. But he's also married, with a couple of kids, and that gives a person something to think about besides whether the sixteenth note is exactly a third as long as the dotted eighth. Such as: In what kind of world are we hearing this music? How do we as artists and audiences affect that world? How should we play, and listen, and live?" (1)

Asking questions is a big part of David Taylor's life. So is answering them. But why should we listen to David Taylor's questions, or care about his answers? The answer to that question is simple: Because he has something to say.

There are abundant examples in the past of musicians who excelled in many different musical genres. Palestrina and Bach distinguished themselves in composing both secular and sacred music. Early in their careers, Caruso and Paganini were equally at home in the cabaret and the concert hall. But in our highly specialized times, it is more the exception than the rule when a performer successfully moves back and forth across the musical "boundary lines." In light of this, it is even all the more remarkable to note that there has never been a trombonist, much less a bass trombonist, who has distinguished himself in as many areas as David Taylor. And it is very clear that his influence has been very strong in each area in which he has become involved. 

David Taylor's first musical instrument was the trumpet, which he played for only a month. His teacher put a tuba in his hands and he stayed with it until high school when he first began playing trombone. A tenor trombone major at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, he studied under Davis Shuman and received his bachelor's and master's degrees there. Between his sophomore and junior years at Juilliard, he spent a summer at the Music Academy of the West (Santa Barbara, California) and switched to bass trombone.

He first played with The American Symphony under Leopold Stokowski in 1967 and, at the same time, began playing in jazz and big bands in New York. After one year of teaching intermediate public school music in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of New York City, he devoted himself exclusively to performing and began to become involved in more and more musical genres. Following The American Symphony came concerts with the New York Philharmonic under Pierre Boulez and membership in the bands of Gil Evans, Chuck Israels, George Gruntz, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis and Bob Mintzer to name a few. He played in the orchestra for the hit show "Promises, Promises" and started doing studio jingles and records.

His bass trombone began to be heard on dozens of recordings with major jazz and popular artists including Duke Ellington, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones and Quincy Jones.

In 1979, David Taylor embarked on a period of commissioning music for the bass trombone and in the years following gave premieres of significant works including compositions by Charles Wourinen, Alan Hovhaness, Frederic Rzewski, Eric Ewazon, David Liebman and George Perle. In 1982, he was awarded the Most Valuable Player Award on bass trombone given by the New York Chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) - the first time the award had ever been given to a bass trombonist by the New York Chapter. He was to win that award for five consecutive years, the maximum number of years it could be awarded. In 1987, he was awarded the New York NARAS Most Valuable Player Virtuoso Award, an honor no other bass trombonist has received before or since.

His first full solo recital was given, at the age of 40, at Carnegie Hall in 1984. Two more New York recitals followed, each with significant new premieres, as well as his first solo album, DAVID TAYLOR-BASS TROMBONE on the Triple Letter Brand label. His best selling recording, THE PUGH-TAYLOR PROJECT, which was produced in conjunction with tenor trombonist Jim Pugh, continues to garner recognition for its originality, sound, and recording technique. After a hiatus of nearly 20 years, David Taylor, in 1989 began teaching again, this time at the Manhattan School of Music, where he leads a chamber music class called "Sans Batons" and teaches privately. For many years, he did not do the traditional "circuit" of master classes for trombone players around the country, but recently, he has begun travelling and bringing his unique style of performing and teaching to trombone conferences around the world, including the 1988 International Trombone Workshop, the Third Wind Symposium in Paris and the Sixth Annual Convention of the Trombone Association of Western Massachusetts.

Yet despite all of this acclaim, David Taylor remains somewhat of a mystery to many trombonists who have, over the years, chosen to label and put him in one or another genre. To many symphonic trombonists, he is a commercial player, a jazz player or "non-legit," to some free-lance trombonists he is a "legit player," and to each he may be referred to as "the guy who commissions that weird music." But David Taylor rightfully rejects the labeling, knowing that his trombone represents himself better than any verbal defense. He has chosen to live and work in New York City, knowing that that choice has kept him from being known in the "trombone world" as well as others who have for years engaged in master class self-promotion.

Because I have known David Taylor for many years (I myself was a free-lance bass trombonist in New York from 1976-1981 also playing with the American Symphony, the Goldman Band, the orchestra for the Broadway Show "The King and I," and studio jingles and records), I found him happy to sit down and talk freely about his ideas about making music. His insights on not just the trombone, but on broadening our world view, are challenging and thought provoking. But when all is said and done, David Taylor does his best talking with his trombone. And when his trombone talks, we all should listen.

Yeo: You have been known to be very much in favor of musicians not being stereotyped.

Taylor: Yes. Years ago, there were certain catchwords such as "legit" and "non-legit." People tended to get pegged as one kind of player or another. In the world today, it's clear that there is a superfluous number of orchestrally trained players. When eighty to one hundred and twenty people show up at a bass trombone audition, that's a lot of bass trombone players, and many of these players who don't win orchestral positions go on to play in other genres of music. These are educated people; we're not talking about guys who just came into the house with their muddy shoes on when asked not to and go to the gig in their overalls and don't know how to play in tune. For instance, the last time I went to the ITW, I said to the players, "If you're here, you know how to play the trombone. Now we can start to talk about music." And that's the way it is - people can play. We have so many beautifully educated trombonists who have all the technique they need using equipment that is so far advanced. But, to call a person with an orchestral job "legit," and a person without an orchestral job "non-legit", well, I think that's archaic, and it implies too many things.

Yeo: As soon as you put "non" in front of something, you make it a negative.

Taylor: In what I call the "private sector," there are many high-quality chamber groups, jazz groups, concert spaces and clubs in which the government doesn't have a major funding influence. There are many engagements where you don't play in a "fortress." Lincoln Center, for instance, can be like a fortress, keeping aesthetics in ..... and out. Don't misunderstand me about this "fortress" statement. I frequently play classical and jazz concerts at Lincoln Center. I go there to hear many interesting and uplifting concerts and I have premiered several pieces written for me there. However, "art centers" like this give off a very imposing presence and sometimes just being near all that opulence can tarnish the way you hear or play a composition. Anyway, in New York we have the New York Chamber Symphony, the St. Luke's Chamber Orchestra, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and other excellent chamber groups. In these ensembles you have people who play not only chamber and symphonic music, but people who play the high-end free-lance jobs in other genres.

I do a lot of recording sessions where the woodwind section has the first chair players from the New York Philharmonic. The string section may have the concertmaster from the Philharmonic in it and the brass section could have people from every orchestra in town. Does that mean that if I go to a jingle, film date or recording session and all those orchestrally employed people are there and I'm there, that they're "legit" and I'm not, or that I'm suddenly "legit," or that somehow they are suddenly "non-legit" when they're at a session and then "legit" again when they get back to Lincoln Center? It doesn't make any sense. One of the things that I'm a little concerned about in the conservatory is that while we are still training trombone players to play the Rakóczy March beautifully, our concept of orchestral training is getting too narrow. Why is it that so many players in orchestras try to treat sound as if it were an artifact or try to have the same uniform sound? There are certain elements in U.S. cultural history that we brass players have not explored or listened to fully enough.

Improvisation, for example, has been very misunderstood in our schools. In the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century, a cry of industry was "Yankee Ingenuity." Much of our film acting is improvised - the early films were sometimes just "shot" without the heavy scripted technique. Our stand-up comedy is the same. The most obvious and pervasive examples of cultural tradition and worldwide American influence are jazz improvisation and the popular song. It is my feeling that true interpretation of written music must have elements of all of our past and present cultural characteristics in it. Not necessarily with obvious inflection, but certainly not with the obvious denial of our country's varied and strong musical tradition that seems to pervade the way we interpret music today. For sure this is the way Europeans have approached their music. It is common knowledge in all areas of life experience that if you understand your own traditions and heritage, your performance or presentation will be more natural, and you will be more able to understand some one else's traditions and heritage.

In my approach, I don't always hear various genres of music ending or beginning in definite black and white approaches or styles. I don't necessarily hear music being geographically separated - or age old traditions being separated from the present. I hear or try to hear styles, rhythms and harmonies being on a continuum and overlapping and "user friendly." When conversing with composers and arrangers, I get responses such as Charles Wourinen's - in which he describes listening to various articulations from jazz groups, for example the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (or reading about Stravinsky liking Shorty Rogers' trumpet articulation). Slide Hampton plays big "symphonic" equipment. Gil Evans constantly talked about concerts he had heard, classical music he had studied, and of how he and Miles Davis would go to hear Alban Berg concerts. Lester BowieÍs deep and uplifting amalgam of sound encompassed many cultures. Part of this problem of not exploring our cultural areas is the immaturity of the student, and as teachers we must try to coax them out of it. I've seen many statistical things in the ITA Journal, such as what does an orchestral player earn, what is his day like, and what kind of equipment and music does he or she play. I haven't seen statistical data based on all those people who trained to be orchestral trombonists and bass trombonists who are left out in the cold. Perhaps we should see more data on concept and equipment changes that occur after the academic experience. Perhaps more articles should be written on how our general "music scene" has been uplifted with all of these educated musicians dealing with the reality of not having a steady job, and living in today's cultural pool dealing with the "private sector's" demands.

Yeo: So, we are both denying and losing our individuality.

Taylor: Let's say that our students can be shown ways of achieving good strong concepts including greater understanding of individuality within the values of so-called "high art." When people think of musicians making a living other than in the university or in an orchestra, I think there tends to be a suggestion that we should be on the lookout to prevent the demeaning of the values of this "high art." This way of thinking comes from what I call the "orchestral/academic complex." In the last decade or two we have seen a very positive rise in quality and "respectability" of jazz departments in our conservatories, but I include jazz orchestras and classes in this type of problematic situation.

I object to the "high art police," but to say that I object to it would be just like everybody else saying they object to something without doing anything about it. My objection to being labeled found a vehicle in my playing. My transcriptions, commissions, solo, chamber and improvisatory projects were a kind of "Let me throw this out, this is where I am, you make the judgment" attitude. I found musicians and audiences liking my music; magazines and newspapers started writing about what I was doing. When I started seeing that kind of very positive reaction from the public or private sector....

Yeo: You knew you were saying something.

Taylor: Something went down, because it didn't just happen there. It happened again later on in other concerts. My concept started to change and improve. I had more goals for my development.

Here's something I'm concerned about related to this. It seems to me that when a person is 24 and goes into the orchestra - symphonic or jazz - and then immediately goes back to the college to teach full-time, it can be a very stultifying experience. I wonder, when did this process begin? When did musicians go right from college to the symphony or jazz orchestra and then back to the classroom? When there are 80 to 120 players at an audition in their twenties and one is accepted from that group for a position, is that person being accepted because he or she is a great artist - and I'm sure he or she is or will be - or can it be that the management is able to offer that player a lower salary and doesn't have to worry about his or her pension and disability - is it that it feels he or she can be molded into the style of the orchestra? These are all things that should be thought about.

Here's another train of thought. When a trombonist plays in front of a whole group of his or her peers, are there certain freedoms that will not be taken? Conventional wisdom says it makes more sense to play all the notes cleanly than to play the phrase - hey, the trombonists in the audience are looking at every alternate position you use! When you play for the PUBLIC (or "private sector"), where people might not know the difference between the 6 1/2 A and the 6 1/2 AL mouthpiece, isn't it possible that creative freedoms may open up? An improviser, for instance, will many times do his most creative thinking after some "mistake." I think that when a lot of players do a clinic or master class and they're playing a real florid passage and they sense that they're not set up right for the phrase ending five or ten notes down the line, they will alter the phrase to make the notes sound.

Yeo: They won't take the chance.

Taylor: They won't take the chance. Whereas, when you play for the PUBLIC and not just for the "trombone crowd," the goal is to have those thoughts not enter your mind. I remember playing low C's on the Pugh-Taylor Project but without the trigger. When I hear that now, it's weird. I guess I just happened to hear something and played it. You have to take chances. That's kind of how all of this stuff overlaps. The goal is to make the best of where you're at. Hopefully, I'm doing that for myself.

Yeo: Well, you have a reputation for remarkable longevity in a very competitive atmosphere and in varied styles that is unlike anyone else's. You still compete in all the venues very successfully.

Taylor: I've gambled a lot. Like with my improvisation. I didn't really get up and start to improvise with a big band until I was about 37, 38 years old. It took me a long time, and I finally started improvising in my own way - you wouldn't call it the norm. And you're gambling when you do this, not only on your ability, but with your reputation. It used to be that a player wasn't supposed to do studio work, substitute with the Philharmonic and play with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis all on the same day - which is what I did. I wasn't the only one, others did it also; Dick Hixon, for instance, who was a great bass trombonist, played on the "Stravinsky conducts Stravinsky" albums and many other Columbia Symphony recordings while playing in Larry Elgart's band and other fine groups.

Yeo: But gambling implies either winning or losing. There's no middle ground.

Taylor: Yes. What I'm talking about is taking a chance - it can go either way. On a musical level, maybe you succeed, maybe you don't, and then you try to improve. However, you also gamble on a business level, because when you've developed a reputation or "trademark" and you start doing things differently, even controversially, it puts you right out there and you could get cut out. You might unintentionally step on someone's toes or just philosophically annoy some people, but you must continue.

Yeo: When I do trombone demonstrations for young people, often related to our youth concerts, I tell the kids to close their eyes for a minute and imagine the thing they love doing most in the whole world, whether it's riding their bike or whatever. Then I ask them to imagine that they could do it every day and they could make their living doing it. I say to them that next to my faith and my family, trombone is that thing. And that's a privilege.

Taylor: You know, it's interesting that you said that. It's only in the last few years that I've been able to realize just how much of a privilege that is. I can't imagine doing anything else. A lot of people made fun of the fact that I was always losing money giving recitals, commissioning music - I never went for grants and that stuff. People in my field on my instrument would say, "What gives with this kind of stuff?" But I think back to a show called South Pacific. There's a song in it called Happy Talk. The lyrics go, "Happy talk, keep talking happy talk, talk about things you like to do. You've got to have a dream, 'cause if you don't have a dream, how are you going to have a dream come true." That's basically the bottom line.

Yeo: You've not traditionally gone to a lot of places and done classes, recitals and clinics for an audience of just trombone players. But you have recently begun to do some things; for instance, you were at ITW a few years ago and you did a workshop in Holyoke, Massachusetts in 1989. The Holyoke clinic was the first class I've ever seen you do. Your approach and method is very different. As I was thinking about it, I was trying to put it into perspective. Fifty percent of the people there probably didn't have any idea what was going on because they were looking for someone to come in and say, "We are going to talk about technique now." They didn't know what to think when you came at things from a totally different perspective. They spent the whole time trying to figure out where you were coming from and missed the point completely.

Taylor: It's funny that you said that, because someone called me up after a master class recently and said, "After you figure out that you're not going to get the normal fare, you begin to realize that what you're being asked to do is figure out how to arrive at your own conclusions."

Yeo: That's very true. Let's say that another 40% of the people present are sort of just shaken up by the whole thing in that they're experiencing something totally different. But maybe 5% or 10% of the participants might have had their lives changed because your presentation is, and I'm going to use the word in the positive sense, "provoking." You came in and decided that you would let the audience set the tone of the class. You opened up by playing a very difficult piece, Bozza's Piece Breve, and then after you played it, the first thing you did was to read a quote by Hindemith about how technique wasn't an end in itself. Then you said, "What do you think about that?" Silence. "Okay," you said, "then what do you think about this?" and you read another quote from a book. Boom. This provoking style, where does it come from, and where does it go?

Taylor: This is how I live my life. In New York City, I'm always having to improvise my lifestyle. Schedules change daily. I might play a Mingus concert in Cleveland and then have to change my flight to get back for an orchestral rehearsal the next morning. That's the way things are. It wouldn't be honest for me in a class to say, "And now I'm going to get classical." That's not the way the real world is. I read a lot about artists, I read a lot about composers, and things aren't so cut and dry. You are who or what you live. If I'm provocative, it's because I'm here in New York living that kind of life. Why cover up the fact that I play for Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and Frank Sinatra? Why not utilize the positives of those experiences? The abstract expressionists didn't paint figures. Andy Warhol painted a tomato soup can, Lichtenstein paints cartoon pictures - this is what we are.

So that's how I approach everything. When you say I'm provocative, well, I live in a provocative city. We live in a provocative society. These are provocative times. We are artists. We mirror our environment; hopefully, we honestly mirror in our art universal qualities we've lived in each of our localities. This is how my master classes go. "This is who I am, ladies and gentlemen." The night before that class you spoke about, I was worried about playing Piece Breve because I was up until three in the morning playing with Quincy Jones on "Saturday Night Live." I had to get up very early on the morning of the clinic, about six o'clock - after three or four hours sleep - practice, and drive up. This all affected the way I approached the class. I was in the car for a long drive and was charged up and had to use that energy. I must admit, though, that I was a little disappointed that many people wanted just to be entertained.

Yeo: It was interesting how the class went. The first half-hour was very quiet. And then it started to pick up because people began to ask the honest questions. Because you would keep quoting and asking ....

Taylor: When you start to get too conscious about why you are doing something, you lose that God-given naiveté, that childlike simplicity. At this point in my life I'm thinking of trying to get away from the "provocation" word because now I'm beginning to think, "Must I always be provocative when I go out?" Is it being expected of me now? It seems to me that the brass world is really behind the times if by reading a book and asking people about it you are being provocative. Maybe it should take more to provoke a brass player. Is that a horrible thing to say?

Yeo: No, because it would seem to be true.

Taylor: It's unfortunate. I was talking to a fiddle player in one of my ensembles at the Manhattan School of Music. This girl is one of the best violinists in the school. But she won't play minimalistic music. "There's nothing there," she says. So I responded, "Why don't you just get into the sound." But she just won't do it. This is a problem. When a person like me comes along, people tend to want to say that I'm provocative, but I'm not really provocative, I'm just telling you what I do, how I live my life. What's really funny about it is that I'm successful financially and to become successful financially in the free-lance music business you have to be somewhat conservative. Not make waves. So how am I succeeding in this if I'm so provocative? I did not mean for my transcriptions or my classes to be "provocative." I didn't mean for my commissions of these contemporary pieces to be "provocative." I commissioned these pieces and took them and played them in chamber music situations, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, in front of real people. It's all in the approach. Labeling or characterizing people is not good. But you tell me, what was the most positive reaction you had from that class?

Yeo: That you have to think for yourself. And it's okay to be y ourself. However, it wasn't what they expected. But David, the problem would seem to be that many people don't want to think. A person at the clinic said to you, after you read a quote, "What do you think about that?" You said to him, "I won't tell you what I think about it. I made the action, you give a reaction and then I'll react to your reaction." And that's a very good way to approach things. People don't want to think. They want to have you tell them what you think. They're there - you are the teacher, they are the student. They say, "Tell me what you think." And if you make them think, it's sometimes a very uncomfortable thing. Because when you're out there in the audience, you're anonymous. You just want to say, "Give it to me. Entertain me." But when the artist says for you to give something back to him and then he'll give you more....

Taylor: A lot of people say that when you write in some magazines, you've got to write down to the level of the reader or when you play, you must play things that the audience will immediately grasp. I say that's baloney. There are enough people doing that. It's important for audiences and students to be around people thinking on a level that they have to come to. It's okay for a lecturer or a teacher or an influential person to come into someone's life and make one grope for something, to not understand everything. I think that when audiences hear genuine honest expression, they react positively and when this is reinforced, it takes hold. The person might go home feeling that he or she didn't understand it all, but he or she also intuitively knows when something is really going on and in a year might say, "Wow, that's what he meant by that."

Yeo: Because it's in their head and it sits there.

Taylor: Right. I think that one of the built-in problems with the educational system is that so many teachers are forced to communicate on the lowest common level or have their students show immediate progress -there are important points that are being forgotten. When they see a clinician come in, students and some teachers want to be dazzled by his technique, and they want to find out "how did he do it." And they want him to be able to say, "Here is my tongue, it goes like this," or "Here's how to play changes." It's very important that the student realize and have confidence that if he has a great enough desire or a great enough need to have that technique, he will get it. I spent hours a day on articulation; I still do, even at this point. But I don't double tongue and that surprises a lot of people.

Yeo: I don't often double tongue either.

Taylor: How did you come to that?

Yeo: Nobody ever taught me how to, so I just single tongued.

Taylor: Right! You had to play the part. You stretched yourself. And to me that's an ingredient in what real interpretation is based on. I was just reading about Schubert. For years after Schubert died, orchestras didn't have or refused to work up the technique they needed to play his symphonies. Now, you know that when those pieces were first being played, they were being played with abandon. Sometimes they were being played with an extraordinary strain and effort and this abandon added to the music. I think that's what music educators sometimes forget.

There are musical things - spiritual and etc. - that are really not explainable, and if one lets oneself go, these unexplainable things just appear in an interpretation and have a positive value. I'll tell you something, when I look back at the recording I made of Charles Wuorinen's string quartet, do you know what I think some of my best playing is? There is a passage of four octaves of b flats in a row - pedal, low, middle, high. I allowed myself to make those leaps in a way that made them sound like colors, not octaves. It's like bing - bong - bang. I did it with abandon, and it has effected other interpretations and given me confidence.

Yeo: That stretched you.

Taylor: Right. And it also added a certain flair to the interpretation.

Yeo: Well, you have to take the chance, as you have said.

Taylor: You just hit the nail on the head.

Yeo: Throughout this interview is the theme, "You've got to take chances." As you've said, if we play a recital for trombone players, we might not take chances because we're worried that we won't play the note in the right place, or we might miss and make a clam or run out of air. But when you play for the "private sector" as you call it, you're trying to make the music, not just play the trombone.

Taylor: I think that's vital.

Yeo: You have been busy as a professional musician for almost 25 years and have been extremely successful from many points of view. How do you keep it all fresh and new to you?

Taylor: My playing is changing and it's becoming more personalized. It's a funny thing that I should say that because with orchestral repertoire, a lot of the guys thought that my playing was too personal from the beginning. But I never felt that way. Now I can see myself saying, yeah, I'm really beginning to personalize my playing more.

Yeo: But you've always been independent in your playing, haven't you?

Taylor: I've always done independent, individual things.

Yeo: So this newly personalized style is maybe just a continuing expression of that.

Taylor: Going out even further. It's becoming more fun, but it's more scary because every time I go out there, I'm trying to push myself further. I'm always studying. I read a lot of literature. It's my relaxation. I love to jump from book to book. In preparation for a master class on transcriptions at the Manhattan School of Music, I read a book about Irish Christmas Mumming, which made me jump to Jean-Paul Sartre, which made me jump to a Berio interview, which made me jump to a Ferrucio Busoni book; I mean this reading is all in segue somehow, jumping back and forth from one thing to another. This morning I went back to a book that I hadn't opened up in maybe 10 years.

During my master classes I cite examples from a wide variety of books. What I'm trying to do is show people by example that we're not reading enough, and that in these books written by great artists we see so many possibilities and freedoms within our structured art that allow us to take chances and give us confidence. Finding out about other "searchers" helps us determine our own sound, interpretation and musical thought. Many great musicians of the past said that if you're going to be a good musician, you've got to have a broadly based education and you've got to bring in all your experience to your art. You receive information and you never know how, why, when or where it will affect you. I like to read and it always ties in - indirectly or directly - to my music.

PART 1 | Continue to PART 2


(1) Carnegie Hall Stagebill. October, 1984. © David Wright. Used with permission.

This interview was conducted on February 7, March 15 and October 19, 1990 and January 30, 1991 in New York City. ©1990 by Douglas Yeo and David Taylor. All rights reserved.

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