A Letter To Urbie Green

Discuss the people that make the music here.
Post Reply
Posts: 34
Joined: Sun Jul 01, 2018 8:37 am

A Letter To Urbie Green

Post by tskeldon » Sun Dec 02, 2018 2:35 pm

[Note: The sad passing of Bill Watrous has caused me to post this tribute to Urbie while he can still be flattered by its publication. It occurs to me then that, for those of you whose appetites run to it, you might want read this tome in consideration of Bill’s legacy, as its language may, conveniently and accurately articulate your personal enthusiasm for Bill in those case where Bill was ‘your’ Urbie; the point is, Urbie was my Bill.]

The post that follows is a personal payment of a debt due to Mr. Urbie Green, who inspired me beyond obligation and ease of adequate compensation. By making him aware of my appreciation of his contribution to the betterment of my life while he is still placed to profit by it, I win the smallest part of dignity for repaying him for a lifetime of settled enjoyment, come for the cost of but a few hours of penmanship.

I warn you that it is long, but no longer than the compensation due an icon in enumeration of his legacy. Had I been as capable on the trombone as I am with language, I might have remained a player, but alas music was not to be venue. You don’t have to read this, but I did have to write it. For those of you with the means to do so, I encourage to use this forum to repay any debt of gratitude you owe to those who have inspired you.
Posts: 34
Joined: Sun Jul 01, 2018 8:37 am

Re: A Letter To Urbie Green

Post by tskeldon » Sun Dec 02, 2018 2:45 pm

Dear Mr. Green,

In order for you to profit best by this missive, it is important that you do two things: the first is that you must suffer both its ‘precision’ of language and its breadth of consideration enroute to the well considered disposal of the matter at hand: the celebration of your talent. I have spent 30 years writing philosophic discourse, and have, in that time, developed a…’formal’ (literarily intoned) style to win resonance and favor with academics, who require the flattery of consideration; although they would prefer that I write in their purely discipline-specific ‘technical’ style (one populated by pretense of elitist philosophic jargon); fortunately they can’t seem to tell the difference, but it is, it seems, a habit hard to set aside for having deep roots in common language, which will not trouble you; though it may grate on you on occasion. The second thing is that, although you don’t need to be one in order to recognize an egg, I was, prior to that life, a chicken: by which I mean a professional trombonist who, for having early on acquired it, and further, been ‘encouraged’ to settle myself upon having achieved simple technical facility, ultimately failed to evolve to become what I define and respect as a true ‘musician’. It is very significant to our consideration here that, ironically, this lack of musicianship didn’t stop me from becoming a professional commercial and orchestral trombonist. The tenets of music’s faith were ignored by those charged with my musical husbandry; apparently because they lacked it them themselves; a trait all too common in instrumentalists who substitute observance and practice of ‘style’ for musicianship. This is our point of departure in consideration of your rare talent.

Let me start by saying that as an adult I am not given to idols of any kind, and yet, you persist as the sole surviving musical ‘enthusiasm’ of my youth. Not, as you might think, out of any ongoing sycophantic fanaticism caused by a persistent, wilful, and malingering musical innocence. But rather, and most flatteringly to you, come as a result of the evolution of my own deliberate, sophisticated, evolutionary musical nihilism. I defeated all ‘the other’ heroes of my youth by eventually coming to participate myself (to one degree or another) in whatever ability they had. It is no flattery at all to me to say that I am fortunate enough to be good at many things I do (for many people are), and this includes music in general and, to our purpose here, the trombone particularly. But that pedestrian proficiency effectively humbles me by association with it, because being only ‘talented’ in degree of ability, I am confronted with the sad awareness that I was not, and would never be ‘great’. As such, I will never write my legacy large in the conscience and consequence of anyone else’s history, sophisticated or otherwise, as you have in mine; nor will I eventually receive an earnest and unsolicited testimony of effect such as is evidenced by your receipt of this letter.

It is an amazing thing to still be impressed by a magician as an adult (for it should not be possible to excite a mature mind by trickery), even though you know how the trick is done; and it is important to the authority of the compliment that I pay you here that you remember that I do know how ‘trick’ is done, and this letter exists to attempt to show why there is additionally ‘real’ magic in your performances. The difference is, there can be ‘actual’ magic in music (though ironically not in magic itself), but only when magic is resident to the hands that perform it. [I think the secret of the beauty of your playing is vocal. You are directed, possibly unconsciously, by vowels and consonants of the words, which determine articulation and portamento. You actually play the words. More importantly, your additive style includes the thoughts that precede the composers presentation of the words. Magic!] The composer only writes the illusion; which may or may not work in performance, depending on the sophistication of the performer and the listener’s ability to register it.

The fact is, most professional instrumentalists (and virtuosi alike) celebrate proficiency as mere technicians: individuals who, to one degree or another have defeated the…awkwardness associated with any given instrument (and the trombone has more than its share), such as they demonstrate freedom, facility and flexibility over all ranges of its musical geography, sufficient enough to win membership with a fraternity of similarly inclined instrumental ‘performers’; though not so too kinship with the a more elite group of performers who alone should win the title musicians. For having achieved the simple facility they sought, instrumentalists fail to recognize that the race is still afoot, and that they have in fact still failed to cross a ‘musical’ finish line or achieve a proficiency threshold that defines music. [See the extended definition of musicianship in italics below.] If I am correct Mr. Green, you must find yourself isolated by your experience of ‘most’ other instrumentalists; even given the loft of your musical association. And although professional consideration obliges you in practice to flattery of your piers, I can’t imagine that you ‘really’ like the playing of many of ‘the others’ who participate in celebrity of the genre and instrument, because they fail in address of what you apparently consider a viable musical sensibility. Acknowledging someone’s…difference, and their right to fail in satisfaction of our own standards, is false humility, and not the same thing as vaunting and valuing it.

For being, as a group, too much impressed by technical facility, instrumentalists are largely unaware of their failure to make ‘real’ music (that which a performer must do to attach magic to a series of notes, which otherwise stands itself only as a melody), in a way that might cause a real musician (one for whom technique exists in service of music, not an end unto itself) to concede the point, they fail to ever become ‘musicians’. Their performances manage to impress only other instrumentalists, who are themselves not musicians; those that understand sufficiently what is involved, and therefore too over-value, above all else, the technique that they fail to possess or participate in themselves. I am not one such as they however having derived my own recovery. As such, I long ago lost the ability to find magic in the playing of ‘instrumentalists’ that share your instrument, and participate in some of your technique, but little or none of your musicianship. To my sensibility, there is just no music, no real magic, no…’moment that matters’ in what they do, for failing in the lyricism and musical integrity that is the hallmark of but one man’s playing. To be fare, ‘real’ musicians are just that rare.

By musical integrity, I mean that in the performances of those who I dis-affectionately refer to only as…‘the rest’, one finds two things: first, that ‘their’ personal statement of the theme weakens its melodic authority, rather than strengthens it, doing a disservice to the composition. But your personalized presentation of a melody has a symbiotic relationship that flatters melody to create music, while the others, for displacing, disrespecting, disallowing, discounting and disarming the songs authority and inherent charm by imposition of ‘style’, force a parasitic relationship that attempts to over-right the music, and sadly, more often than not, succeeds! It is the case that we can lift ‘any’ improvisation, from ‘any’ performance, of ‘any’ song, by any one of ‘the others’, and just drop it down in ‘any other’ performance of a different song (chord progressions not with standing) because their solos lack the defining mood, mode and sentiment of that particular melody. In fact, that’s how I recognize the particular playing of one of ‘the others’: by knowing ‘the’ template of their playing; the cheap tricks and conspicuous proposal of technique that they resort to in the one ubiquitous solo that they always play, regardless of what song they are performing, because they, each of them, has only one! If that’s style, I would rather their were none.

Solos (and improvisations) should be a unique elaboration or commentary that references and are relevant to ‘that’ particular melody, and ‘theirs’ do not! This is not a problem unique to trombonists however; most instrumentalists renowned and obscure alike fall into this category. Style is a course thing, but musicianship is a subtlety that is largely wasted on a musically uneducated audience. Their improvisations are only ever simple and singular expressions, signatures, restatements or reminders, if you will, of persistent rather than evolving degrees of technical (in the crassest sense of instrumental superficiality), rather than musical virtuosity; or worse, inclinations and exonerations of bad taste and habit. However, when ‘you’ play, I am never conscious of technique, or even of the trombone itself; there is just a voice, the music, and most importantly, a ‘worthwhile’ moment captured. You do, to my delight, cheeky…Urbie ‘things’, I think to remind us that it is you playing (as if we needed reminding), but they are infused into the music with such delicacy and taste that they never distract, and are always well woven into the tapestry of musical good taste that is the hallmark of your improvisational commentary. The following is excerpted from another article I wrote which references you:

There are two kinds of 'significant' instrumentalists: 'technicians', the lessor, whose awe-inspiring technique is appreciated by those who aspire to having an 'audible' technique of their own; and 'musicians', the greater, whose technique escapes accounting for being occultly spent (even in the most difficult passages) in service of music. The 'playing' of technicians draws attention to itself. Technically difficult parts sound especially difficult, even though they are played without error, and those who themselves aspire to great technique always find what they are looking 'for,' and are rewarded 'with' the awe they so hope to some day inspire themselves. This is the pinnacle of amateurism.

However, those 'few' that reach the highest levels of performance transcend the limitations of their instrument to be rightfully called 'musicians', instead of trombonists (or pianists for that matter). When 'they' play, lovers of music listen, not just lovers of trombone (which means players of trombone, because no one else loves the trombone, a fault of which I endeavor to define by this article). However, despite making actual music, it often happens that in the hands of ‘musicians’ (there are no degrees of musicianship, you either are, or are not one; and few are) the 'hard parts' fail to impress trombonists fully, because they don't ...'sound' hard. If you play the trombone, and you listen to music to see how well someone negotiates the technically challenging parts, you are only a trombonist, saxophonist, guitarist, etc. and not yet a musician. You apparently believe that it was ever in the composer's mind to provide opportunity for a performer to demonstrate his or her technique (in the case of written out virtuosity), but no composer ever wrote a passage to that end.

That most 'lay' people and hobbyist-musicians (which is to say non-musicians) persist in hearing ostentatious technique in music (as if technique were a quality of music itself, rather than a distracting overlay), is evidence only of the fact that many performers who call themselves professionals (for receiving payment) nonetheless struggle too much with much of what they ‘try’ to play to make music of some pieces, and therefore should not endeavor to perform them for the disservice they do. In the hands of the few musician/pianists that can do it justice, there is no greater musical service than to play Liszt. The parts that sound delicate, transcendent, and fragile, and therefore deceptively easy, are monumentally difficult to play (given the independence of line, dynamics, expression or articulation). The parts that sound monumental, epic, dramatic, violent, and triumphant, are the parts that, in a lessor performers hands, would be heard as merely as being technically virtuosic,
But in the hands of a musician with ‘the magic’, and a listener with the sophistication to listen for music, one is never given time to indulge the impression of persistently audible technique, because they are too busy being moved by invocation of the spirit of the music: 'musical' virtuosity rather than technical virtuosity. Played correctly, a piece of music 'transcends', rather than reveals the instrument it is played on, and the listener loses track of the instrument for being gripped by the authority of the music. Urbie Green is one such as these. I never hear technique when he plays, and I never hear a trombone, I just hear an outpouring of music, like water being poured from a vessel into the ears of a thirsty listener. That why he's the best. If you doubt that, get out your metronome and compare the synthetically virtuosic tempi of your favorite technical trombonist to Urbie. In most case, although its feels slower, he actually plays it faster (when the music requires its service that is), it's just more relaxed because ‘he’ is. Urbie is trombone’s one in a million!

Every instrument has one, but they are not usually the most celebrated. However, in this case, music lovers got it right, even though trombonists-technicians ritually, habitually, and religiously get it wrong. Shame on them. It is very telling that Urbie Green’s playing was first recommend to me when I was very young, not by a trombonist, but by a very fine musician: in this case a professional pianist. On that occasion, the other sophisticated members of the rhythm section picked up on the conversation and joined their commendation to the tribute. Why is this significant? Because instrumentalists tend to listen to their own instruments; both in false humility of an education, and in pursuit of kinship and proposal of support for their brothers in arms. Musicians, only and alone, listen to musicians, whatever tool they propose upon. Now pick up your trombone, and make people ‘feel’ music, not think technique!

As a soloist you move variably with, under, through, and on top of the music; like a dolphin sporting in and out of the water; as seemingly comfortable in either medium, realizing its potential as you explore its depths. My point is that there is, above all else, always ‘the water’ when you play. You never stand outside or in front of (or worse, above) the music as do the rest, who only ever surf and grandstand upon the waves for requiring its authority to buoy their amelodic efforts and oblige it with false musical impetus for lacking any of its own. Your solo’s breathe in accordance not only with the song, but with the arrangement. You never interpolate yourself between the listener and the music as do most soloists who…intrude and impose too much upon the music, and therefore too trade against the sophisticated listeners enthusiasm to persist in patience of what becomes less and less a likelihood: music!

As such, your musicianship has courted my life (and, by association, that of my family), proving over the years the only persistent soundtrack to my evolving musical idealism. First on record, then cassette, CD’s, MP3 digital files, and now again, come full circle, on record. I have all of your solo records, and much of what you played on as a sideman (eg. Walter Wanderley, Rain Forest, etc.). I’m not an ‘equipment’ guy, but I still have 3 Urbie Green Jet Tone mouthpieces (and may return to one); I played a new King 2B in the late 60’s, and have recently been able to acquire a pair of ‘mint’ condition Martin TR4501 Urbie Green Model trombones; having only recently returned to playing .

While it is not your fault that I started playing the trombone (the burden of that crime is settled on another), it is your fault that I persisted passed easy recovery, to ultimately become a professional musician; when otherwise I would have lapsed in faith of the instrument itself, which is something I can’t thank you enough for, nor can l ever forgive you for. But, it is also true that it is your fault that, ultimately, I stopped playing the trombone. In the end, when all the cards of my limited talent had been played out, I realized that I still couldn’t be you, for lacking, as I said, your ‘greatness’. And because I didn’t want to be one of ‘the others’, for participating to one degree or another only in ‘their’ far more modest gift, and more significantly too, for realizing all too well the limitations set by that defect of insufficient talent, I became an competant orchestral player instead, to satisfy the need of a paycheck over the need of musical relevancy. [That would prove ultimately to be a poor fit for me too, because the stricture of classical music fails to make sufficient space for the musician’s ego to harbour ‘true’ creatively in its waters; especially if that performer is a lowly trombonist.]

There is intent and intellectualism in what you do; it is what sets you apart from ‘the others’. I too have spent my life in service of that faculty through writing, and teaching philosophy, which has further underscored the significance of needing something to believe in outside of oneself. You are my metaphor: that thing that ‘I’ believe in beyond myself. That thing which I would like to have been, even though I don’t know the cost of wearing that life; those are the ghosts of your twilight. There is no God, there is no purpose, there is no reason, but in life there ‘is’ satisfaction, and my association with significance outside of myself is settled by experience of your talent; something that I, and every instrumentalist, and musician who are exposed to you value. It is the greatest gift in life to create moments of significance that are not recorded in time, and never to be repeated (see solos above); it is my great disappointment that I never got a chance to hear you perform live; a moment shared privately with but a few, with no record of it save a memory. You are, for many beyond me who respect you equally, but who lack the words to articulate your effect upon them, their touchstone for, and definition of talent. Have you never noticed that you are not referenced ‘along’ with the others in consideration of trombonists, but rather, you are…’apart’ from them; always…apart; a category unto yourself! The alpha is always made to stand alone, and apart. Therefore, to manage such glowing and universal character commendations from that position of relative psychological and musical isolation is possibly your greatest feet of musical and personal appreciation (I’m told you are a wonderful man).

Today, to the degree that my insufficient talent allows it, it is my goal to attempt to channel your musical spirit with a three pieced rhythm section in a quiet suburban bar. Together we will play the lyric standards, as you championed them in me, more for ourselves, that the roomful of people (who wouldn’t have the means to appreciate either the music or the performance even if it were you playing); the goal of which is to do what you have always done: allow the music to speak, to breathe, and ultimately, to persist long passed the calendar of its cultural authority has already expired. On my best day, if I am lucky, I will prove only a crude and slavish copy of your gifts, and yet it flatters me greatly to do so. It would give me both the greatest joy, and the greatest embarrassment for you to hear my tribute to your significance, first as a musician (for uncounted others will undoubtedly do it better) and secondly as man, for there is nothing greater that a man can aspire to than to arrest the behaviour of his fellows to better effect than would otherwise be the case. Trombonists know that you are better, but for failing the language to describe it to themselves, you remain an enigma, and a true magician destined, unwilling or unable to reveal his magic.

And though it is not often enough done, I would also like to thank those who have played a part in creating you, by profiting and promoting, as well as by cheating and challenging you, such that you might be tempered to arrive upon our musical landscape and awareness in so original, so creative, so expressive, and so valuable a form, as to elicit this outpouring of appreciation from someone who ‘is’ by nature inclined to commend talent where I find it, but sadly is so little given to discover it in practise as to need to set pen to paper. Your experience of life, however rich or challenging, is exactly, and most selfishly, that which I needed it to be for you to realize the potential that has fashioned of you the talent that you are, and has profited and partnered me by association with and through it.

Finally, there is only one word that comes to mind when I hear you play. It was the word that silently moved my lips 50 years ago when I heard you for the first time playing, If He Walked Into My Life, from 21 Trombones, vol. 1. I have reserved that word in exculiseve service of your performances ever since (and, I’ll admit, on occasional experience of woman who is beautiful enough to partner and participate in magic). That word is ‘Wow! I deploy it only in service of your playing. Never forget that I participate in talent, if however only modestly, and with the debilitating awareness and humility sufficient to the task of proffering an authoritative compliment come with that statement. Saying ‘Wow, was the method by which I have overcome my otherwise unconscious recognition of your occult or undeclared participation as a sideman on other people’s recordings. Whenever I was moved to say it, I knew reliably that it was you playing. Now I just say, ‘Urbie’!

Oh… there is one other word that comes to mind every time I hear you play, and that word is ‘thank-you’! So, on behalf of myself, of every aspiring young trombonist, on behalf of all ‘the others’, and of every great instrumentalist (those who actually qualify as musicians too, for being able to see beyond the ends of the instrument specific paradigm that owns them; few as they are) those that, only through your playing, are come to discover for the first time that the trombone is, quite surprisingly, an elegant, sophisticated, musical voice, whose expression knows no limits technically or musically, if only, however, and sadly too, in the hands of one humble man. I realized early on in my career that I was always embarrassed to be a trombonist (though not so too a musician), for what I thought the instrument lacked in musical potential and prestige. In jazz, the trombone is too often crudely rendered without moments of musical redemption by those individuals who use the technical obstacles caused by its simplicity as an excuse for celebrating only its base and vulgar animal side; sheer bombast and bluster, without moment or investment of quiet confidence stinks of insecurity. You however made it matter to me. But, I realize now, if only in writing this, that you brought dignity to this troubled instrument that I don’t feel it has received in anyone else’s hands, thereby validating its musical legitimacy and making it possible for me to embrace it anew and adopt its husbandry. That is why, after 30+ years away from playing and 40+ years away from jazz, I have returned to embrace my first, my fondest enthusiasm: you, and a tribute to your legacy.

This short trope, this…tome, for I have already said too much, and by way of that not yet enough, is a confession of atonement: my way of saying thank you to you for 50 years of unrequited enjoyment that never fails to bring a smile to my face. What has it cost me to write this but a couple of hours pleasantly spent in return of a favor (I am a professional writer and write quickly and with ease); a small price to pay I think, and a necessary exchange in practice, because good intentions, silent exchanges, and unspoken flatteries are a poor return for life in service. Be well and rest easy my ‘friend’ (in celebration of your contribution, and exchange of my appreciation), for your legacy is assured.

Tim Skeldon
Posts: 33
Joined: Tue Apr 24, 2018 5:39 am

Re: A Letter To Urbie Green

Post by Cmillar » Fri Dec 07, 2018 8:31 am

Tim Skeldon! ... (you are, I presume, my former fellow trombonist from UBC music days? Have to catch up! We probably both wonder about the paths in life that we've been down!)

Firstly, may I say 'Wow' to your writing. So eloquent, thought out, and beyond reproach.

And, as in the same way as any musician on the bandstand or in the recording studio must have felt when having to try and play a jazz solo after Urbie just finished his choruses...you're a tough act to follow!

So, all I can add is that yes, I believe that we should take the time to write to some musicians or artists that we would like to truly thank for their having been alive, and for their having been such a source of inspiration to us.

I hope he sees your letter or has someone read it to him...or at least convey the essence of what you've written to him.

Secondly, now that I think I know who 'tskeldon' is, others should know....

When UBC had an influx of trombone students while you were there, YOU were that guy...the trombonist about whom we all wondered and thought (I know I wasn't alone), "Man, this guy is great...what a player...he's set the bar pretty high!...I've got to really get my act together if I'm going to get into music and trombone playing!"...."Damn...this guy is already playing in the Vancouver Symphony as a student!....and his lead playing in trombone choir is musical and flawless!....doesn't he ever make a mistake?"

Thanks to you from myself, and others, for having set that high standard for us to follow as incoming students!

Am glad to see that you are returning to the 'bone'!

Hey...keep the spirit of Urbie and music alive with your own playing!

Thanks, Cam Millar
Posts: 134
Joined: Sat Apr 07, 2018 6:10 pm

Re: A Letter To Urbie Green

Post by Bach5G » Fri Dec 07, 2018 12:21 pm

What years were you at UBC Cam?
Posts: 33
Joined: Tue Apr 24, 2018 5:39 am

Re: A Letter To Urbie Green

Post by Cmillar » Sat Dec 08, 2018 5:59 am

while on the subject of Urbie Green....Canada's own 'Urbie Green', Ian MacDougall, went to UBC before all of us.

And Ian would say just listen to Urbie Green!

UBC...I was there 1979-82. Some great fellow trombone players at that time, some who went on to heavy orchestral careers....the late Murray Crewe, John Helmer, Andrew Claydon, Bob Baker among others.

And of course Tim Skeldon, who was just ahead of us; but way ahead of us in his trombone playing!

As trombone nerds, we'd party while listening to Urbie Greens' "The Fox" and "21 Trombones" while drinking copious amounts of beer....nodding heads while knowing we were listening to the mysterious 'X' factor in Urbie' playing and musicality.
Post Reply

Return to “Musicians”