Sunday, November 21, 2021

Slide Hampton

Backstage Encounter

It was around 1982, and I was backstage warming up to play for the biggest audience I'd ever confronted. I was 20, still in school, and while some veteran musicians considered me a contender, I had the sense to recognize that while "potential" is fine and dandy, my slice wasn't fully toasted.

The crowd size wasn't the most daunting factor. My student group was opening for an all-star group featuring a who's who of jazz luminaries like Frank Wes, Billy Taylor, and my then-and-now trombone hero, Slide Hampton.

I was nauseous with terror, and Slide, who'd been compelled to spend the preceding week coaching me one-on-one via a deus ex machina intervention of fate I still can't explain, leaned in to offer what I expected to be words of encouragement:

"If you play well," he whispered in my ear just before I took the stage, "they'll remember for a minute. But if you screw up, no one will ever forget."

It was an unimaginably horrible thing for anyone to say to anyone, much less a veteran to a 20 year old student, much less a hero to his worshipful admirer. At the time, I accepted it as well-intended guidance. Realpolitik. Tough love. But as I've gotten older, it's remained a tiny inner gnarl; a mental lozenge of malevolence lodged in memory with the razorish edge of a nearly-dissolved cough drop.

I'm not one to fester on painful lozenges. I try to use such foibles to better understand people. Calm examination normally reveals mitigating factors. There are reasons for things. People are confused, and contend with issues and blocks, and it's hard just to get up in the morning, much less say/do the right thing with any consistency. We all unwittingly cause injury, so we ought to grant plenty of slack. Very often I've ascribed to malice what could have been better explained by incompetence. Processed from a higher perspective, this is a far less daunting world than we imagine.

This memory, however, is one of a tiny few that worsen with examination. What twisted insecurity makes a jazz legend destroy a skinny little kid in shorts before his crappy little student combo opens for an illustrious cavalcade of stars? It's like Usain Bolt deliberately tripping a child jogging alongside, or Rocky Marciano slugging his sparring partner in the balls. I've had trouble coming to peace with it.

My Hero

Slide Hampton is not only my favorite jazz trombonist, he's also pretty much the only trombonist I really like. There are others who I respect and admire for certain skills and qualities. But if I ever want to listen to music that happened to have been played on a trombone, rather than listen to someone playing trombone, he's the one. The only one not wrestling a difficult horn to produce (successfully or not) some veneer of fluidity. Slide is lyrical and swinging. He's free-wheeling. He sings up there, not just wrestling cleverly with five pounds of brass tubing.

Well, all that's true on a good night, and under certain conditions.

Slide spent his early career as an unabashed disciple of the more famous JJ Johnson, who hailed from Slide's home town of Indianpolis, and who'd struck it big while Slide was a kid. JJ handled the tube-wrestling aspect with a droll facade of burnished confidence. While sax players gushed eighth notes, and trumpeters spat staccato flurries, JJ would lay back, genteelly expelling wry burrs of cognac. Stylish doodads and aloofly pat asides. To me, it sounded affected and feyly passionless. He never dug in, or broke a sweat. It was like the ash never fell from his cigarette. JJ never popped out of character; never riled to catharsis; never transcended. And the very point of music (or any art) to me is surprise, catharsis, and transcendence.

Slide tried to follow in JJ's footsteps, but he was naturally more of a preacher. He'd get riled up and his tuning might turn a little funky, his technique showing seams. He just wasn't that guy. But under the right circumstances - with a really swinging rhythm section, late at night on a gig with no career stakes - Slide might let his hair down and be himself, and he'd move you and surprise you. I've heard it, and will always be a Believer, as is everyone who ever experienced peak Slide.

Unfortunately, those moments were vanishingly rare. Slide, like many black musicians of his generation, had been through some stuff, and he staunchly insisted on dignity preservation. He always wore nice suits, conducted himself a certain way, and insisted on being paid in reflection of his status. Which is to say, Slide didn't work much. And, when he did, it was high-stakes, big-money gigs where he'd reflexively return to his comfort zone, playing safe by imitating JJ Johnson.

I'd have given up a couple toes to hear Slide play a humble gig with a sparse audience where he could just let 'er rip. But that scenario didn't comport with his (understandable and well-earned) sense of dignity. Which, alas, boxed him in.

Leveraging His Late Career Rennaissance

Happily, Slide had a career renaissance in the early 00s, at long last drawing wider attention. And while he was already getting up in years, he was more than technically ready. Slide was famous among musicians for his herculean practice habits. Young musicians would cycle in and out, like sparring partners, as he practiced 8, 10, 12 hours per day.

So what was Slide working on? Toward what end was he investing all that work? And how would he channel his late-blooming attention? In light of the vignette which started this tale, you won't be shocked to hear that he was settling a score.

I wrote several years ago about Bill Watrous. Bill was the hot trombonist in the 1970s, blessed with unbelievably agile technique, which he used (to my preference) to little musical purpose, but which brought him bright commercial heat for a while. Bill never really impressed the mainstream jazz community, though, so by the 80s he was well-settled into the anonymity of the LA studio scene, earning a living recording Dorito's jingles and film scores...and maybe once in a great while playing a jazz gig or two.

Slide, meanwhile, had become the grand old man of jazz trombone, with all the credibility in the world, and enjoying international tours with the best of the best. But Slide never forgot how this Watrous guy had sucked all the trombone oxygen for a hot minute 30 years prior while Slide labored in obscurity. So in 2002 he called Watrous east to make a two-trombone record. It was an odd proposition. A has-been hotshot lured into the inner sanctum to collaborate with the incomparable Master. Come play a song with me, my pretty!
I know Slide's side of the story. He'd deny all that vehemently. He’d honestly never had a bad word to say about Watrous. He admired his prodigious technique. And Slide conceived himself as a lifelong learner, so he'd been simply trying to pull even, that's all. The recording gave him an opportunity to try to match up with the one-time phenom. That's how Slide spinned it, and I think he even made himself believe it. Slide had articulate policy positions on things, and they all painted him as 100% all-about-the-music.

I don't think Slide saw, much less owned up to, his darker impulses, which (I'd bet the remainder of my toes) compelled him to bait Watrous into that studio, with impeccable cordiality, to settle a long-simmering score. To cut him down and destroy him. It was a mop-up operation. The vestiges of a trombonist who'd once risen, gallingly, to "sensation" status would be shredded, leaving Slide supreme on a proving ground existing only in the murky recesses of his own mind.

This was what had spurred those 100,000 hours of intense practice: a lingering Ahabian obsession with Watrous' already-irrelevant white whale. And while there's no denying that the new, improved Slide could play really really fast, you just can't "defeat" people in art. If it vexed the Arepa Lady that Jean Georges was given greater respect and a fatter paycheck, and she reacted by spending 20 years in Paris honing the art of French cuisine, I'm sure she'd cook that stuff fantastically but it wouldn't render JG, like, vanquished, you know? That's not how it works! 

Actually, that was backwards. Slide was by far the more famous and respected player by that point, so it was more like JG devoting himself to mastering Colombian corn-cakes in order to put down the street vendor who’d once garnered some attention.

On the recording, Watrous did his usual spectacular, uniquely personal and (to my preference) rather unmusical thing, while Slide sounded like he'd wrestled the tubing into full and utter submission - which was very far from Slide at his best. It wasn't at all free-wheeling. In trying to supplant Watrous (who, let me emphasize, had not posed a professional threat in three decades), Slide only diminished himself, while Watrous, that rascally rabbit, simply did his thing.

Watrous was the best Watrous that ever Watroused, and while Slide had figured out how to play really really fast, he couldn't match that glib ease any more than he'd been able to perfect JJ's burnished wryness. If ego compels you to not just be the top guy, but to slaughter and liquify all the rest so you can be The Only, that's a fool's errand. Artistic colleagues can't be occluded or subsumed. One can't, like, eat them. This, after all, is bebop trombone, not the Mongol horde!

Slide went on to play really really fast for some years, which added absolutely nothing to his greatness (and made him the sort of player I listened to more for trombonistics than for music) while Watrous returned to LA. I'd imagine his Slide Hampton experience felt a bit like my own: thrilled to be in his circle, but disturbed to note, despite all the cordiality, the loud, discordant sound of sharpening knives.

The Bad News

Slide passed away this week, and I'm devastated. I've been going through YouTube bootleg videos to see if anyone ever bottled the lightning; maybe a late-night set in a little club somewhere. I already own every legit recording Slide ever made, and there's lots of greatness, but nothing at his best. Nothing free-wheeling. It's all safe playing, pressured by self-imposed high stakes. He kept getting in his own way, always self-conscious about legacy, always trying to be The "All-About-The-Music" Guy rather than being all about the music. But that's the takeaway from a breathless fan paying far too much attention to fine points and shadings. By any standard, Slide was a legend, and he brought me immense joy, and I can't imagine how I'd have played if he'd never existed.

During the week I spent with him, Slide went on and on about how he'd toured for a full month with JJ and never heard him miss a single note. I somehow found the nerve to respond with this:
"JJ never missed notes because he never took chances!"
Slide fell silent. Reflective. His jaw throbbed lightly, leaving me expecting an indignant chew-out. But Slide, who I loved for being surprising in unguarded moments, surprised me with his reply:
"True. That's true. It's our job to take what we learned from him and make it more musical in our individual ways."
That wasn't just a policy statement. It was profound, honest, and disarming. Free-wheeling, even!

Backstage assault aside, Slide had encouraged me that week (much as Watrous had two years prior). I suppose he had to, given that I'd slyly played almost all his own recorded solos at him, verbatim, as we jammed together (the coolest of cucumbers, he never betrayed a trace of recognition).

Finally, I've decided to seal the tomb on his backstage words, deeming them tough love, well-intended. In fact, I find myself mentally scanning the full length of my career (as a writer, too!), and concluding that Slide was absolutely right about audiences, and that it helped me far more than it hurt to hear this so early on.

So having laboriously ungnarled the memory, I'd like to express this with my full heart: RIP, Slide. You absolutely preserved your dignity down here, so please take humbler gigs up there. Let your hair down and enjoy playing without pressure. You've earned some glee and wild abandon. Just let it slide!

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