In April 1974, trombone players of all musical persuasions gathered for the second Boston Sackbut Week, the brainchild of local stalwarts Tom Everett, Phil Wilson, and Tom Plsek. One of the Big Deals of 1974 was the April 30 debut of “God’s Trombones,” a work composed by Richard Allen and performed as part of the annual Berklee Spring Concert.
The Berklee Performance Center did not open until 1976, so for this concert the college rented the New England Life Hall on Clarendon Street, a space that was closed in 2005.
“God’s Trombones” featured the Berklee Jazz Trombone Ensemble and Wilson’s Thursday Night Dues Band, plus guest soloist Carl Fontana. “God’s Trombones” was written with Fontana in mind, and he plays the voice of God throughout the work. Fontana in 1974 was making a very good living in Las Vegas, and jetting to occasional jazz jobs across the country.
Rich Allen was a composition major at Berklee, and one of Wilson’s students. “God’s Trombones” was his major project. He taught composition at Berklee himself later in the seventies, but his whereabouts today are unknown.
Allen was inspired by God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, written in 1927 by James Weldon Johnson. Johnson patterned his verse after the cadences of the traditional African-American preaching style. He viewed the trombone as the instrument most able to express the emotion of the human voice, and he called the preachers with such powerful expressiveness “God’s trombones.”
Johnson wrote seven poems: “The Creation,” “The Prodigal Son,” “Go Down Death: A Funeral Sermon,” “Noah Built the Ark,” “The Crucifixion,” “Let My People Go,” and “Judgment Day.” Allen wrote a movement for each poem.
Wilson’s trombone ensemble included 10 trombones and a rhythm section, and for “God’s Trombones” it was combined with the Thursday Dues Band with its four trombones. With Fontana and Wilson, there were 16 trombonists on stage, plus five reeds, four trumpets, piano, guitar, bass, and drums.
Among the musicians on the bandstand that night were trombonists Keith O’Quinn and Dennis Wilson, trumpeter Tony Klatka, saxophonists George Garzone and Billy Drewes, pianist Rob Mounsey, bassist John Lockwood, and drummer Bob Gullotti. All were still active forty years later as performers, arrangers, composers, and/or educators.
“God’s Trombones” wasn’t played often. After its Boston debut, Wilson and Fontana did it in Chicago for an IAJE convention, and Wilson again performed it in Boston with Urbie Green in 1984. It was performed a few times by student ensembles. But Wilson feels that the premiere performance with Fontana was the best of them.
“God’s Trombones” is not available online, but to celebrate its 40th anniversary, a recording of it will be played on WZBC-FM 90.3, on May 1 just after 5:00 EDT. Follow the Listen link on that site to stream it. We’ll relate the story behind the broadcast, and play an additional piece from the April 30 concert as well. This will be the first time this music has been heard in Boston since Wilson, Fontana et al. premiered it. This should be good!