My heart just sank. I was curious what the mighty trombonist Bill Watrous was doing these days. He died July 2, 2018. This is the first I’ve heard about it. I met him only briefly, and implausibly, one night in a jazz club and was honored to play alongside him for a song or two. I was 17 years old. It was my life dream. Thinking back on it, I would say Watrous had a greater influence on my life than just about anyone else apart from my own mother and father.
How is it possible that a musician could have this kind of influence? It’s because his level of excellence is beyond description. He made the trombone do things that no one even thought possible. Even now, you can tell your home assistant to play his music and you immediately enter into a realm of performance impossibility. Each time I think: maybe no one should ever have to play trombone besides him? It’s a silly thought of course, but his level of distinction in his craft surpasses anything known on planet earth.
I’m just sitting here now listening, and I’m getting chills. It’s distracting me from being able to write. The management of vibrato, the range extending probably two octaves (or more!) beyond normal standards, the razor-sharp articulation at breakneck speeds, the infinite creativity, the complexity of his use of modal scales, his seamless circular breathing techniques, the absence of anything resembling a misstep or mistake, and, above all else, his tender interpretations — it all combines to create a product that is otherworldly.
Here’s some background on my wild infatuation with this artist. I was nearly born with a trombone in my hands, put there by my father, who remained a formidable player long after I gave up the craft. My second-grade show-and-tell was to play trombone for the class. When official band class finally got going five years later, I was already playing for the high school. By the time I was in high school, I was playing for the university jazz ensemble. Then I paid for my schooling by gigging around town.
All these years, from the age of 8 through 18, I only wanted to play like Bill Watrous. I listened incessantly. I spent countless hours transcribing his solos to musical staff paper. I ended up with hundreds of pages of transcriptions (just typing those words really makes me wonder why my childhood was so strange). I tried to mimic his sound, his technique, his musical demeanor.
I even saved up money to have a special instrument built that was exactly like his. As I recall, it was a Bach 16 with a pretty small bore but a larger bell than the factory normally made. I used his same mouthpiece. I put black tape on the upper section just like he did.
As for my skill, I was the classic case of a young kid who always had enormous potential. What I did not realize then — though my father constantly warned me — was that there comes a point when you can no longer live off your potential. You have to actually be good. I never crossed into that territory, mainly because I was lazy and too satisfied with my early fame, unaware that it would run out at some point.
The Nature of Genius
But back to Watrous. At some point, he was coming through town to play at a jazz club. I counted the days. Then I was tapped to bring my instrument because he liked to invite local players on the stage to play with him, as a way of encouraging young musicians. I was on stage for a song or two and played. It’s a bit of blur to me now because my aesthetic intoxication was at an all-time high.
I do of course recall his absolute perfection. I also noticed that he had an eccentric personality, almost a bit detached from the reality around him, as if the whole of his person was poured only into his music and the sound he made. I think this might often be true with true geniuses. Others cannot access what makes them what they are. We can only listen, be inspired, be in awe.
There are people who come our way who reach this level of accomplishment that seems superhuman. My list includes Aristotle, Shakespeare, Josquin, Bach, Adam Smith, William Byrd, Mahler, Ludwig von Mises, and Watrous — talents that go beyond good and great to become forces of immortal achievement. There are more than a few of them around today. You encounter them at high-end concert venues: the perfect tenor, the amazing clarinetist, the impossibly brilliant violinist, and so on.
We should revere such people and protect them. And be careful about calling them natural talents. There is endless hard work built into every note they play. At the same time, there is something else in operation. There is a gift of some sort too but a gift that must absolutely be cultivated with discipline, drive, and unrelenting tenacity. They must give of themselves completely to art in order for that art to achieve transcendent levels of perfection. The rest of the world, before they become known for their achievements, considers them to be fanatics, obsessed, even freaky.
But look at this. Right now, Bill Watrous can be in my living room right now playing. Thanks to technology. Thanks to a commercial culture that gives us access. It’s a miracle. We lived through hundreds of thousands of years of human experience without the ability to record and preserve genius. Now we have that ability. How rich this makes us! How much this beautifully improves our lives! Now every genius can be immortalized and forever contribute to the capital base of civilization.
Indulge me for one final paragraph on why I gave up the trombone. At the age of 19, I crossed that invisible line when I had to stop having potential and actually be good. I was playing at a club and got carried away on a solo cadenza. A shout came from the back of the bar: “Cut it with the bull****!” I did. I ended the song and sat down. Fellow band members assured me that he was just some drunk. But I knew the truth: he was right. I needed to move on in life. And move on I did.
Let me say this. I will never achieve anything remotely close to what Watrous did. But his music never stops inspiring me. It affects all my thinking, all my writing, all my daily routines, my aesthetic, and even my life aspirations. His talent produced the music that became the soundtrack to my life. He never knew that. None of us know who we influence and how.
We need geniuses among us. We need the freedom and tolerance to let them become what they need to be, for their sake and ours.