The first time Chris Washburne picked up a trombone, it was a rather auspicious occasion. The superbly talented jazz musician, bandleader and composer seemed to have fun in relating the experience to me. "I didn’t pick the trombone, the trombone picked me. When I was ten years old I wanted to play the trumpet because it was shiny and because it played high and loud. There were still music programs in all the high schools and grade schools. At ten you could go and rent an instrument fairly cheaply and sign up for lessons at school," he says.
Washburne’s mother made him a deal when he was ten years old. She agreed to take him to the school to pick out an instrument to play. "I ran, made a bee-line for it, and blew as hard as I could. No sound came out. I kept trying and trying and still no sound came out. (My mother) looked at me and asked, ‘Are you sure that you want to play the trumpet?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I want to play the trumpet.’ She (agreed) as long as I tried one other instrument before we left."
Washburne recalls, "The trombone just happened to be on the table next to the trumpet. I picked up the trombone and blew into it. A sound came out. I walked home with a trombone that night." Millions of jazz fans around the world are glad that he did.
Washburne has performed on Broadway and been the musician of choice in live performances for the likes of Celine Dion, Gloria Estefan and Justin Timberlake. He has performed with orchestras and has two bands of his own SYOTOS a Latin Jazz group and the straight ahead jazz septet sextet NYNDK.
Unless you dig beneath the surface Washburne’s tale of his career, it comes out sounding more like good fortune and happenstance. The truth is he has worked incredibly hard at perfecting his craft. He holds a masters degree from the New England Conservatory and a doctorate in Ethnomusicology from Columbia University.
Still he persists with statements such as, "I kind of fell into Latin music by accident. I grew up on a farm in Ohio and attended school in the Midwest at the University of Wisconsin. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school at the New England Conservatory in Boston before I was first introduced to Latin music and salsa."
A musician friend of his couldn’t make it to a gig so he asked Washburne if he would substitute for him. Washburne agreed but inquired as to what type of music they would be performing. His friend told him it was salsa. As he relates the story, Washburne laughs telling me that he had no idea what salsa was. His friend told him just to show up and play really loudly. The Colombian band was popular in the Latino community playing a mix of merengue, cumbia and salsa. The band asked Washburne if he would play with them on a regular basis. That was his first introduction to Latin music.
"I was immediately taken with the rhythms. As a trombone player, I was also taken with the role of the trombone in the ensemble as a solo instrument," he says.
The discovery of genres and sub genres of music in which the trombone played a prominent role was a far cry from scratching his head trying to figure out how to work a trombone into a more significant role with the rock bands he had accompanied in Ohio.
Washburne’s new found love for Latin grooves let him to a record store and a man who handed him a copy of Eddie Palmieri’s White album. "He (the record store man) said with a glint in his eye, ‘This is all you will ever need.’ That record featured Barry Rogers on the trombone. It was one of Eddie’s best records. I heard the (music), I heard Barry Rogers playing trombone and I said 'Wow, I want to do that,'" says Washburne. Little did he know years later he would perform and record with Palmieri and another great mambo innovator, Tito Puente.
It was love at first listen. Washburne returned to the store and purchased all of Eddie Palmieri’s records. "I transcribed all of Barry Rogers’ solos. I really dug and studied the music seriously. Once you start, it is like any jazz tradition," he says and then draws an analogy, "You may start with a Miles Davis type of blues, but eventually, you are going back in history tracing the steps of how that came to be."
Dare we say Washburne might easily be referred to as the artist formerly known as sponge? He literally soaked up every Latin note that he could lay his hands on. He was enthralled with the music of Tito Puente, Tito Rodgrigues and the Afro-Cuban Machito Band. Washburne refers to these artists as the triumvirate of Mambo bands that formed the New York Latin sound that eventually evolved into the music of other artists such as Eddie Palmieri.
Times have changed somewhat on the New York City jazz music scene. "The scene has changed so much in the last few years. There is still a lot of music happening in this city. There is still more jazz than any other place, but it is not as easy for young musicians nowadays as when I first came to New York City (eighteen years ago). The generation before me said the same thing. There are less and less opportunities to make a living and there are fewer venues that require live music," he says. Washburne points to the fact there are fewer studios in New York City today and therefore less studio players are required. The musicians who used to do a lot of studio work to supplement their incomes are now doing Broadway gigs and replacing those artists.
All that being said, Wasburne would like to pass along a piece of sage advice he once received from John Swallow, one of his professors at the New England Conservatory: "If you can survive the first five years of starvation, the second five years when they will work you to death and if you survive those five years, then in the tenth through fifteenth years you will really get to enjoy your career. You will pick and choose what you want to do."
Washburne says he is fortunate because he hit New York City’s pavement playing. When Washburne first arrived in the Big Apple it was easy for a good musician to land gigs playing with Latin groove-oriented bands. He notes that it was during the second five year segment of his career that he started playing between eight and fifteen gigs per week (yes you read that correctly). "I was working seven nights per week just running myself ragged, but I was making money and getting lots of opportunities," he says.
Washburne believes that the key to success for a jazz artist today is to remain flexible about the types of music you play, where you will play and most importantly, not to get discouraged. He then gives me a peek at his own schedule for this particular week. The week includes playing with a Machito band in the Bronx, performing with his ensemble at Smoke Jazz Club and Lounge, doing a private function with a jazz trio, a recording session with a funk band and for good measure, throw in playing Klezmer music at a Jewish temple. The week winds up with a music festival.
When it comes time to write original charts, artists take various approaches to their compositions. For some it is a cathartic experience. Some are inspired by another piece of music. And still, others draw upon personal experiences. Washburne says his approach to composition is a combination of all three. He did let me in, however, on the story behind one of his songs, "Pink". "In "Pink," the opening gesture on the piano is taken from a Chu Chu Valdez recording. Chu Chu is another big hero of mine and he plays this groove that is just so great," says Washburne.
Washburne’s 2003 project, Paradise In Trouble, was written in the aftermath of 9/11. He says, "For the artists who were living in New York City at the time it was a very trying experience because a lot of things were cancelled. When 9/11 happened, nobody wanted to play anyway. The last thing on my mind for the weeks following 9/11 was to perform. Everyone just wanted to leave."
You might say Washburne and his band members had their mettle put to the test as they had a regular gig a few days following the tragedy. "I didn’t want to be there and none of my guys did either. We decided to go and play and the place was absolutely packed, not with tourists, which is the norm, but with New Yorkers--people who lived in the neighborhood. They wanted to convene, share experiences or perhaps not talk about it at all. (People just) needed to commune," he says.
It was a defining moment for Washburne. "At that moment," he says, "I realized the powerful role and essential role that musicians have in society. Those people needed us to play. They needed us to be there and we had no choice in the matter. It really didn’t matter what we played either. It wasn’t a matter of us choosing repertoire that was happy, it was just being there and playing for them. It was some of the best performing experiences that I have had in New York City."
About the CD Paradise In Trouble, Washburne says, "It is really a tribute to the city that I live in and the city that I love. It was in turmoil. In some ways, for a jazz musician New York City, it is a paradise. (It is also) a paradise for a lot of other people. I saw it as a paradise that was shaken at its very roots, to its very core. At that point it was clear that we were in trouble and we still are. We haven’t come out of that trouble."
In the wake of 9/11 Washburne became more vocal in terms of speaking out concerning political issues. "The new release Land Of Nod is all political. I got to the point where I couldn’t avoid making a political statement with my music. I feel pretty disempowered within my country as to how we interact with the rest of the world. Musicians are world travelers; we travel all over the place and interact with world cultures, way more so than I think our politicians do. In some ways we are on the front lines and see the reactions. We see how people are reacting in other places. Those are our audience members and we care about it. I just felt I might not be able to make a lot of difference but maybe I could make a little bit of a difference by the music that I record, the messages that I put forth and also on the stage," he says.
"Land of Nod is a phrase that I took from Jonathan Swift. The Land of Nod is about a place where all the inhabitants walk around in a slumberous state. The way that I perceive my music is that I am trying to make a wake up call to those who are asleep at the wheel and not paying attention to what is really going on," says Washburne.