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Goldkette Veteran Returned to the FoldCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1999
Willcox, SpiegleThe death of trombonist Spiegle Willcox has further reduced the dwindling band of jazz musicians who were active in the first great decade of the music's history in the 1920s. Willcox played with some of the major names of the era, but his jazz career then took on a lop-sided shape when he retired from performing in 1927, and did not return to the professional stage until 1975.
He was born Newell Lynn Willcox in Cortland, New York, and learned valve trombone as a youngster under the tuition of his father, Lynn Willcox, an amateur musician and bandleader. He acquired the familiar nickname Spiegle as a student at the Manilus Military Academy (he claimed he could not remember its specific origin), where he played in the school brass band.
He switched to the more familiar slide trombone in his late teens, and joined a group called The Big Four in nearby Syracuse, New York. The band came to the notice of an aspiring young bandleader named Paul Whiteman, who first joined the group, then took over its leadership as the Paul Whiteman Collegians, and brought them to the bigger stage of New York City itself in 1923.
Willcox made his first recordings with the Collegians, and remained with Whiteman for three years, building a reputation as a good reader with a full, richly burnished tone which sat well with the leader's preference for a sweet, sophisticated ensemble sound, rather than the more earthy approach of the hot bands. Willcox regarded himself as predominantly a melody player rather than an improvising jazz soloist.
He returned to Cortland for a time after leaving the band in 1925, but was quickly in demand, and played briefly with the California Ramblers before joining the popular Jean Goldkette Orchestra, where he replaced Tommy Dorsey. Shortly after, cornetist Bix Beiderbecke and saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer also joined the band, making it one of the stellar ensembles of the day.
In 1927, and with a family to raise, the trombonist opted for the greater certainties of joining his father's coal business rather than pursuing the life of a professional musician. He continued to lead an amateur group in local functions on weekends in the Syracuse area, and did so for almost half a century.
In 1975, Willcox was invited to take part in a reunion concert for the Goldkette band at Carnegie Hall, where he renewed acquaintance with violinist Joe Venuti. Venuti persuaded the trombonist, now retired from the coal business, to join him on a series of club engagements, and they worked together until the violinist's death in 1978, by which time Willcox had firmly re-established himself on the traditional jazz scene.
He began to play regularly in America, including many appearances at the celebrated Sacramento Jazz Jubilee, and was a regular visitor to Europe, where he was scheduled to tour again later this year. He made a rare venture into the recording studio with a group of Dutch musicians in Amsterdam in 1994. The resulting disc was released under the appropriate title of Jazz Keeps You Young , even though at the age of 91 it probably made him the oldest trombonist ever to record.
In 1995, he won the Benny Carter Award of the American Federation of Jazz Societies. The trombonist reminisced on his experiences with Biederbecke for the documentary film Bix in 1981, and will be heard discussing his life and music in a major television documentary series on jazz currently in progress from film-maker Ken Burns.
He is survived by a daughter, Cynthia.