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Hard-Hitting Trombone StylistCopyright © 2000The Scotsman, 2000
Abe Lincoln enjoyed a considerable reputation in traditional jazz circles as a trombonist with a punchy, expressive, hard-hitting style who could improvise fluently in the idiom. Those qualities ensured he was much in demand, both as a performer and a prolific session musician, and he appeared on over 250 recordings across his long career. Remarkably, well over 100 of those recordings were made in the earliest days of recorded jazz, in the two year period between 1924 and 1926.
His command of trombone began early. He took up the instrument at the age of five, under the strict but encouraging supervision of his father, a cornet player, who ensured he had a solid technical grounding, and ingrained the habit of always looking to improve his skills.
He joined a band formed by his elder brother, Bud, in 1921, then moved to New York two years later, where he worked with a variety of bands, including the Goofus Five, led by saxophonist Adrian Rollini. In 1926, he joined the best known of his early bands, The California Ramblers, where he took over from Tommy Dorsey, a player he called the finest trombone player that ever lived (Lincoln was brought up in the same area of Pennsylvania as the Dorsey brothers).
He joined the Michigan Theatre Orchestra in Detroit in 1930, and made the recording of Rossinis William Tell Overture which was used as the signature tune for the original radio version of The Lone Ranger. He formed his own Abe Lincoln Orchestra in 1933, and enjoyed a period of success with the band in his native Pennsylvania before returning to New York, where he worked with a number of leading band leaders, including Paul Whiteman.
One of his employers, Ozzie Nelson, took him to Los Angeles, and he remained there when the band moved on, working as a studio musician for radio shows by the likes of Al Jolson and Fred Astaire. He held that role for 25 years, and also contributed to soundtrack music for films, including several of Buster Keatons comedies and the famous Woody Woodpecker cartoon series, in which music played a central role.
The so-called Dixieland revival of the late 1940s and 1950s brought him back to active jazz playing, working with groups like the Rampart Street Paraders, and musicians like Wingy Manone, Wild Bill Davidson, Red Nichols, and his friend Jack Teagarden, the greatest of the traditional jazz trombonists. Their styles were very different, even diametrically opposed, but that contrast worked to great effect when they played together on Teagardens famous Coast Concert, recorded in Los Angeles in October 1955.
A decade earlier, Lincoln had used his connections with cartoonist Walter Lantz to broker the making of two jazz cartoons, The Pied Piper of Basin Street (1944) and The Sliphorn King of Polaroo (1945), which jazz historian Steve Voce has called two of the best ever jazz cartoons. Both featured Teagardens eloquent trombone.
He performed infrequently during the 1960s and early 1970s, but reunited with cornetist Wild Bill Davison in 1975, and both led and arranged the music for a large trombone ensemble at the Sacramento Dixieland Jubilee in 1976. He retired from professional playing after that engagement, but would occasionally break out his trombone in later years at the behest of friends in the business.
Abe Lincoln will always be associated with one of the great jazz stories, even if it never actually happened (see Michael Pittsley's account below). The story as handed down goes like this:
The trombonist was pulled over by the Los Angeles police while he and a colleague were driving home after a gig. The officer was less than amused when he asked for the trombonists name, but when he inquired after the identity of the other occupant of the car, his patience snapped, and both Lincoln and his passenger, fellow trombonist George Washington, were promptly packed off to the police station. Production of satisfactory proof of the genuine identity of this unlikely pair resolved the situation amicably, but it underlined the pitfalls of bearing a famous name.
Ah, well, it may not be quite what really happened, but it should be true....
Michael H. Pittsley writes with the following comment on that story (and additional thanks go to Michael for factual corrections):
In 1995, I had to opportunity to ask Abe personally about this story. Here's what he told me.
It seems that Abe and some other musicians (none was either George Washington or Thomas Jefferson) were on the road on their way to their next gig, when they were pulled over for speeding in a small town (I'm not sure of the exact time, but it was during prohibition - I think in the early 1930's).
The police officers who pulled Abe over were drunk. When Abe showed them his drivers license, the officers laughed and joked about it. Abe seized upon this opportunity and asked them if there was someplace where they could go to get a drink. The officers promptly forgot the reason they pulled Abe over and said "Follow us."
They officers led them to some hole-in-the-wall place that was apparently owned by a relative of one of the officers. They went in and had a few laughs and a few drinks with the officers (who were already pretty toasted to begin with). The officers then just let them go on their way. Of course, when they got to their gig, they told the rest of the band what happened and the story just grew from there.
It certainly is one of the best jazz musician stories going around. I've told it myself many times. It's interesting to see how stories like this evolve, given the actual circumstances that give rise to them.
Michael H. Pittsley, November 2001