"Every decade has been the decade of the trombone," insists Craig Harris, who has been playing the instrument for nearly 20 of his 31 years. "There have always been good trombone players." But even as loyal a trombone partisan as Harris must concede that the "slip horn" was somewhat out of fashion during the 1960s and '70s.
Harris offers several explanations for the decline in popularity. "What J.J. Johnson laid down in the '40s and '50s was so awesome," he says, "it took people a long time to even try to do it any other way. His standard was so high that anybody who did not play like that probaby did not work. If they couldn't find a J.J. Johnson, people would say they didn't need a trombone."
The result, Harris says, was that the quartet fronted by a saxophone, "maybe a trumpet," became the typical format in jazz for years. He also points out that composers were not writing for trombone. But all that is changing now, says Harris, who brings his quartet to d.c. space tomorrow to verify that the 1980s are witness to a rebirth of jazz trombone. Rod Williams will be at the piano, Fred Hopkins on bass and Andrew Cyrille on drums.
This portrayal of the trombone's revitalized role is no mere pipe dream, for, as Harris is quick to acknowledge, "a great group of young players is coming up, and they can do anything on the instrument, no restrictions." In the forefront of this new generation of trombonists are Ray Anderson, George Lewis, Steve Turre, Gary Valente and Harris himself. Each has an individual voice, but two characteristics in common -- they are virtuosi and the entire jazz tradition can be detected in their playing.
Harris attributes this catholicity of musical sources in his own case to his four years at the State University of New York at Old Westbury, where "they had an Afro-American music program and it just opened up my whole horizon to this culture." After graduation he went to Europe for three months with the band of Sun Ra, and since the mid '70s he has "traveled all over the world and performed with probably most all of the contemporary people now playing."
Yet few in the wider jazz community had heard of Harris until a couple of years ago, when he abruptly surfaced in the jazz polls. Last year he placed first in downbeat magazine's new talent category for his instrument. In the context of Harris' early life, that has to be one of the more uplifting success stories in the annals of contemporary jazz.
"I grew up in project houses," recounts the Hempstead, Long Island, native, "and all my life I had been hearing music, a lot of different kinds of music -- radio, live music, bands, singing groups. They played in the parks, and there was a guy used to have a band down the street from me and he rehearsed right in front of his building. Now that I think about it years later, I have reflected what I was hearing."
When Harris reached the sixth grade he wanted to play drums or clarinet in the school band, but those instruments were grabbed up before his turn to choose, and all that was left was a trombone. "When they gave me this big horn, I said, 'Hey, all right! Let's go!' " Within two years he was playing dances, weddings and clubs with a local R & B combo four and five nights a week. One gig he recalls was in "a topless shake bar" that closed at 4 a.m.
"My parents didn't have too many problems with it," says Harris. "My mother said, 'Well, he's doing something positive, he's going to stay out of jail and he's going to finish high school.' The music pretty much kept me focused on getting away from those negative things that can happen in the so-called communities that I grew up in. People go to jail, some people die of overdoses, but the music took me into a lot of different circles, and so I knew there were other things in life besides cutting school, standing on a corner and robbing people."