Guys With Swing Show That Jazz Is the Thing
What I loved about the trombone were all the things that Mr. DeVoe scorned: its large, slushy sound; how you could slide around the notes and up to them and away; its capacity to blat. J. C. Higginbotham and Benny Morton were my first heroes. The 3 Deuces and Cafe Society Uptown and Downtown were my would-be hangouts. Oh, to be Jack Teagarden! Or, the next year, Tommy Dorsey. Swing! Pure, liquid sound. "Marie," "Song of India." Even "Pardon Me Boys, Is That the Chattanooga Choo-choo?" The Glenn Miller band!
Mr. DeVoe was the conductor of the school band. I'd watched the band march and noticed that the trombones were out in front. The boy who played first trombone took his lead from the drum major, and the rest of the school followed him. What I wanted to be, at 13, was that boy.
"The note is F, Trowbridge. Not F sharp, not F flat. F! Take it again from measure 24." Even in the practice rooms, I was not free to play around. "You'd do better to stick to the score, Trowbridge," Mr. DeVoe interrupted, just as I was getting somewhere on my jazz version of "The Stars and Stripes Forever."
In spite of Mr. DeVoe, I managed to work my way up from sixth to fifth trombone by Christmas. At the end of my second year, I was playing third, having hurdled Mr. Noble, the Latin teacher and head football coach. But the biggest event in my tromboning life was the birth of "The Three Shots of Rhythm" in my third year - and the musical haven of "The Sweat Box."
"The Sweat Box" was a tiny room in the schoolhouse where Chas, Jock, and I were free to make as much noise as we wanted to on the drums, piano, and trombone, respectively. It was a hard-fought battle, but we had won it. It wasn't just Mr. DeVoe. The school itself was opposed to jazz. But Mrs. Crocker, the headmaster's wife, was on our side; and now we were rehearsing for an actual performance, the first jazz concert ever to be given at the school.
Jock was a tall, lanky, curly-headed classmate from Minneapolis and a natural-born pianist. He could play anything: Bach, boogie-woogie, a Beethoven piano concerto, Gershwin. I don't know if he made it to the concert hall, or that he ever wanted to. He just loved playing the piano, no matter what the music was.
Chas was from New York City, like me, but unlike me he was a person of exquisite suavity and sophistication: swarthy in complexion, dark of hair, and a subscriber to both Metronome and Down Beat. He knew all the Manhattan night spots, some of the head waiters by name, and at 15 he had a string of girlfriends, any one of which could have been competition for Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable, or Dorothy Lamour. His hero was Gene Krupa, of course, but Big Sid Catlett he counted as a friend.
Our theme song was the same as Tommy Dorsey's: "Song of India." We would be playing that as they drew back the curtains; and when the cheering died down, we would swing straight into "In the Mood."
The concert was in May. The whole school would be there, and to say that we were nervous would be an understatement. As soon as the first number was over, however - to stupendous, foot-stomping applause (with the jazz breakthrough we could hardly have failed) - the rest of the concert was a piece of cake, a joyous rhapsody of sound. Mr. Noble, two seats below me now, came beaming up to us during the intermission. Mrs. Crocker showered us with praise. Some of the younger boys even asked for our autographs. Mr. DeVoe, needless to say, was not there.
The bad news came the following week when Mr. Crocker called us into his study. "Boys," he said. "I'm sorry to tell you this, but we can't allow any more jazz concerts to be given at the school."
"Why not?" said Jock, finally. Mr. Crocker hemmed and hawed. Apparently, one of the trustees had complained. While he had not actually been to the concert himself, a teacher had called it to his attention. Someday, maybe, popular music would be accepted by those in authority; but the prevailing thought at the moment was that it was unsavory, something to be discouraged.
Mr. DeVoe, I thought. It had to be his fault.
At band practice that week, I could hardly play a note.
"What's the matter, Trowbridge?" Mr. DeVoe said to me afterward.
"Nothing, sir," I said, not trusting myself to speak.
"By the way. Congratulations. I understand I missed something."
"Hypocrite!" I thought.
"Mr. Freiday told me how good it was. Guess I'll have to plan to make it to the next concert."
"There won't be one," I mumbled. Then, of course, I had to tell him all about it. He claimed to be shocked.
Six days later, Mr. Crocker called me into his study and told me that he had changed his mind. I could hardly believe it. "You owe it all to Mr. DeVoe," he said.
"Mr. DeVoe?" I said. I could barely get his name out. Mr. Crocker gave me his best hardy-har laugh.
That night at band practice, I gave DeVoe my all. Crisp, clear, military. Not a slide or a slush in a car load.