Concertino for Bass Trombone and Trombone Choir by Eric Ewazen saw its world premiere at the 1996 International Trombone Festival and featured a man who many would regard as the greatest bass trombonist to ever approach the instrument: Dave Taylor. Simply put, Taylor transformed an instrument once relegated to playing whole notes below the staff and doomed to counting rests for a living into virtuosity.
A doctoral student at the host institution, I was invited to participate in an octet that accompanied Taylor on this auspicious occasion. As a trombonist, when you are given the opportunity to deliver the premiere of a renowned composer as performed by the world’s greatest bass trombonist, it feels almost too good to be true. As a young man just beginning to ask questions about building a life in the arts, unexpected moments in the trenches can become transformative, as this proved to be.
The first rehearsal for the piece was in the basement of the University of Illinois’ Smith Music Hall with Ezawen providing direction and insight. I remember him as equally welcoming and appreciative as he was articulate and asserting. The ensemble was well prepared, the composer worked us hard, and we responded in suit. Finishing feeling both pleased and exhausted, we knew the real work would begin tomorrow, with the soloist.
Depending upon whom you ask, impressions of Dave Taylor range the spectrum from ‘…was he even 5 feet tall?’ to ‘…all I remember is being terrified by him.’ He plays an enormous horn and has an even bigger sound. Also, he’s from New York and fully embraces his Italian-American heritage with a big Brooklyn accent to top it off. Think Tommy DeVito from Goodfellas holding a bass trombone.
So, when Taylor walked through the door, the entire ensemble was excited (and a touch nervous) to meet him. We all knew how he began his career — under Stokowski in the American Symphony Orchestra and Pierre Boulez in the New York Philharmonic. We’d all heard his recordings with the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin and Blood, Sweat & Tears as well as Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra and Itzhak Perlman.
In interviews, Taylor talks about the “disconcerting nature” of toggling between playing “trombonistically perfect” and “getting away from the trombone at the same time,” but I can tell you any toggling is imperceptible to the human ear. He is pitch perfect every time he places the horn against his face. How is this possible? It is a brass instrument. We are supposed to make mistakes. All of us! Strings play out of tune. Woodwinds complain about reeds. Percussionists move stuff. Vocalists wear scarves. Pianists are locked in a practice room all alone. And brass players crack notes. These inescapable truths are wired within each instrumentalist’s DNA.
Taylor toggled in rehearsal, too — embracing us when things went well and “voicing his concern,” which felt like he just threw a sheet of glass at your throat. In a happier moment, I vividly remember him placing his hands on both sides of my face and saying, “Mark that was beautiful. You should come to New York. You can stay with me. You’ll make it.” I could feel his deep sincerity and genuine excitement for making music together. It was real. Although I am not certain he was ready to open up his home to me 15 measures into our relationship.
Taylor’s directness was a lot for some to handle. Rehearsals were long and the work taxing. But what I took away from his willingness to share the range of emotions we experienced together was that he truly cared to make this piece come alive. He not only wanted each of us to experience the rewards of our efforts but also to embrace the challenge and the struggle associated with striving for perfection.
Pushing away the harsh rejection in favor of his warmth, I approached Taylor when we were on break to ask him how he had accomplished so much, mastered the instrument and truly carried his artistry across the boundaries of the genre. Or, to put it most succinctly, when you are already the world’s greatest bass trombonist, why practice?
I remember him locking eyes with me, an amused smile playing at the corners of his mouth, and saying with that deep Brooklyn baritone, “You know the story of Sisyphus? He’s condemned to an eternity of repeating the same meaningless and impossible task: to push a boulder to the top of a peak, only to see it roll down again. Every day I strive to perfect this instrument even though I know it is impossible. So why do I do it? Because like Sisyphus, I have found meaning in “embracing the joy of the struggle.”
Although often feeling short on wisdom, this hit me as among my earliest lessons on why a life lived through the arts offers so much to all of us.
Making music, like life itself, will not always be easy. It simply does not work that way. But what you have learned in the solitude of the practice room and in the collaborative space of the rehearsal hall is that being tough enough to hear the truth is a big part of excelling at anything that is really worth fighting for. Whether you achieve greatness in the world’s concert halls, or teach elementary students music, or simply continue to play in your community orchestra, the lessons you learn while “embracing the joy of the struggle” will serve you well.