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Britt Woodman: 1920-2000
Britt Woodman
Trombone, saxophone, clarinet, piano

Born: June 4, 1920 in Los Angeles, California
Died: October 13, 2000 in Hawthorne, California

Trombonist Connected with Mingus and Duke

Copyright © 2000 

The Scotsman, 2000


Britt Woodman arguably made the first of his many significant contributions to jazz history by handing out a piece of advice. Charles Mingus, still a teenager but only a couple of years his junior, had come to the trombonist for tuition on that instrument, but after a few lessons, Woodman advised him to try cello instead. Buddy Collette, another distinguished west coast player, completed the transformation by suggesting Mingus switch to bass.

Woodman also took him to hear the Duke Ellington band, another seminal moment in the development of the great jazz composer which Mingus would become. He played on some of Mingus’s most famous records two decades later, but the fact that he was chosen as a teacher while still in his teens himself is indicative of the early reputation which he had gained in his home town.

He went on to make his most celebrated mark in the Duke Ellington Orchestra, but remained a highly versatile musician throughout his life, a legacy of his early musical experiences. He was born Britt Bingham Woodman into a very musical family. His father, William Woodman, was a trombonist, and encouraged his sons to play from an early age. Britt mastered piano from the age of 7, then moved on to trombone, saxophone and clarinet.

By the age of 15, he was performing alongside his older brothers, William Jr. (who also became a professional musician) and Coney, in a group billed the Woodman Brothers Biggest Little Band in the World. William was mainly a saxophonist, but could also play clarinet and trumpet, and the two brothers would often trade instruments during their set.

They established a reputation in the city in the late 1930s, and Britt was recruited to play with a number of name big bands in the following decade, despite an interruption for military service. They included those run by band leaders Les Hite, and, after his service, Boyd Raeburn and Lionel Hampton. He studied music at Westlake College on the GI Bill from 1948-50.

In 1951, he began the association for which he will be best remembered when he replaced Lawrence Brown as first trombonist in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He remained with the band for a decade, establishing an unshakeable reputation as a consummate band player as well as a gifted soloist. His memorable features for the band on record include “Red Garter” from Toot Suite and “Sonnet To Hank V” from the Shakespearean suite, Such Sweet Thunder.

During his tenure with Ellington, he recorded with Miles Davis for Mingus’s Debut label in 1955, and linked up with the bassist again after leaving Ellington’s band in 1961, appearing on the Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus album, and taking part in the rather more infamous Town Hall Concert in 1962, where lack of rehearsal time and administrative errors combined to turn what should have been a triumphant occasion into something of a debacle (although, as the full concert tapes revealed on their release in 1994, it was not the musical disaster which the earlier badly edited version had suggested).

From 1961, he was a freelance in both New York (where he spent most of his professional life) and Los Angeles. He played in John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass sessions in 1961, and recorded and performed with many other major names in the course of his long career, including Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Johnny Hodges, Chico Hamilton, Oliver Nelson, Benny Goodman, Quincy Jones, Benny Carter, Nelson Riddle, the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the Mingus Big Band. He backed singers Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Rosemary Clooney, and was also a studio musician and played in pit orchestras for musicals.

A respiratory illness eventually forced him to retire in 1997. His wife, Clara, died in 1991, and he is survived by three brothers, Coney, William, and George Woodman.

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With 3 reader comments, latest December 21, 2000