I was born into a world of make believe. My mother was a nude dancer at the Windmill Theatre in London, England, so where we lived was party central. At night, before the party got into a full swing, my mother would put me to bed and turn my radio onto a French jazz channel so I wouldn't be disturbed. On the rare occasions I listened to jazz trombone I was not impressed, but I loved all the sax players. I was surrounded by musicians and show business people by day, and the jazz masters by night.
My mother took me on her gigs all over Europe and Canada, but when I reached the age of sixteen she decided I was getting in the way of her lifestle, so I was shipped off to join the British army as a musician. I wanted to play sax like all my heroes, but the army decided I would be either a trombone player, or a regular soldier - so the decision was made for me. In the army there were talent spotters looking for young impressionable kids they could psychologically mold for undercover work. They were delighted to find me since I was perfect for the task. So for a promise of excitement, promotion, lots of travel, extra leave and pay, I agreed. The only way I managed to stay sane in this environment was by practicing my horn whenever I could. My attempts to improve what was esessentially my cover impresssed my military bosses, so I was sent to Knellor Hall Music College in London. I spent the next year at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in Soho, where I became something of a fixture, just listening and learning and being a nuisance by asking questions. After I finished music college I was posted to my unit in Germany.
It was April 26th 1964 when I went to the Wuppertal concert to hear Charles Mingus with Eric Dolphy. The event changed my life since this was the sound that had been going through my head for as long as I could remember. I went backstage afterwards. Mingus had gone, but Eric Dolphy was still there with Danny Richmond. He had dropped his bass clarinet during the show and was seeing if it was OK. I asked him what it was all about, and he told me just to play what was in my head, but never give up because if you can't do it today, it will work tomorrow, always be optimistic and play with honesty. He was very kind and took the time to explain about music in a way I had never understood before.
People in the military laughed at my attempts to play what I had always heard, and I was told it was impossible to play the trombone like that. I was in a dixieland jazz group then and we toured with Albert Nicholas and Acker Bilk. I was constantly being fired because I didn't want to play "tailgate trombone", only to be re-hired because there was nobody else who could play. I've never stopped trying to get better and hopefully after all these years I've proved my detractors wrong. However, in order to learn to play what was going around in my head I resolved to find the very best teachers in the world and in that I have been very lucky. The teacher with the most influence has been Ian McDougall, now living in Victoria, British Columbia, who has taught me since 1977. Ian said to me once: "Bill Watrous is a great player, If you can play like him without putting the mike inside the bell of the horn, then I will be impressed." So that's what I have tried to do, believing, just as Eric Dolphy had told me, that a generic sound has more honesty. I have succeeded in part, but only because I try to practice as much as I can, at least three hours a day, six days a week.
Stan Kenton was right when he said: "It's ten percent talent, and ninety percent hard work." Even after all these years I have only just scratched the surface. Trombone, the forgotten instrument, is endless in its possibilities. My major influences were and still are: Bird, Diz, Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Sal Nistico, Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, Miles, and my dear soul brother, formerly with Blood Sweat and Tears, Bruce Cassidy. The greatest EVI player in the world. Plus, just everybody else. I try not to listen to trombone players if I can help it, anthough JJ was an influence as was Frank Rossolino. I find trombone players have a hard time just surviving, think of all the jokes about that, and therefore there is little excitement compared to other horn players. I have tried to change that.
Diz knew it wasn't just the playing that produced a good show, but everything else in order to hold the audience. Arturo Sandoval learned this from Diz. His shows are exciting and dynamic as well. Cerebral music only attracts celebral listeners. That's why the younger generation turned away from jazz in the early 70s. They found it boring. Jazz used to be full of life, dynamic and happy, be it Coltrane, Bird or the Dixie Kings.
It's time that we go back to that instead of putting people to sleep. Try to remember all the Woody Herman herds. Now that was exciting music.