Trombonist Russ Phillips has yet to figure out what the word “retirement” means. Even before he retired from his day job as a production and account services coordinator with a Chicago marketing firm in 2012, he was playing over 100 nights and weekends throughout the year. Now music has become his full-time endeavor, and he is enjoying being one of the busiest musicians in the Windy City more than ever.
He regularly plays with three big bands: the 18-piece Jazz Community Big Band led by Marianne May, the Jazz Consortium Big Band, and the 17-piece British Buddy Alumni Big Band that features Frieda Lee on vocals.
Every Thursday, he’s with the 13-piece Swing Shift Orchestra at the legendary Green Mill Lounge (where the Fat Babies hold forth on Tuesday nights). Then he regularly joins some of the best ensemble players in Chicago who make up Petra’s Recession Seven, led by vocalist Petra Van Nuis.
A Unique Project
He’s involved in what he calls “a very unique and creative project” with the Metropolitan Jazz Octet that meets monthly to play original charts created by a former DePaul University music professor that draw comparison to works by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and Bix Beiderbecke, but now are performed in a more modern harmonic style. The group is currently in rehearsals prior to recording a CD that is a tribute to Billie Holiday and featuring vocalist Dee Alexander.
Russ is back with Ann Stewart and the Banjo Buddies Dixieland Jazz Band after a hiatus that had him playing with Tommy Saunders Midwest All-Stars on the festival circuit. Once a month he’s mentoring young trombone players as part of an educational program under the Luminarts Cultural Foundation that was created by members of the Union League Club of Chicago.
Russ still works jazz parties (St. George, Utah/McCall, Idaho) and festivals (West Texas in May, Elkhart in June, Sun Valley in October) and will be on a Jazzdagen cruise to Costa Rica in September. He was the 2018 guest artist at the Sacramento Tradition Jazz Youth Band Festival. He views all this activity “like going to the gym for a brass player. You gotta keep playing which always provides a good workout and a great hang!”
Born to Play Jazz
One could say Russ was born to play jazz. His father, Russ Phillips, Sr., played in Midwest bands in the 1930s and ’40s and toured briefly with the Louis Armstrong All-Stars that at various times included Barney Bigard, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Cozy Cole, Arvill Shaw, Marty Napoleon, Billy Kyle, and vocalist Velma Middleton. Russ remembers being backstage every night listening to Satchmo while traveling with his parents before he reached the age of six. It was like learning about jazz by osmosis. Russ recalls how much he enjoyed being around Louis. “He was a genuinely nice person.”
The elder Phillips played in territorial bands led by Jack Staulkup, Teddy Powell, and Tiny Hill as well as in the pit band at a Chicago theater where he met his future wife Jocelyn. After moving to Denver in 1945, he became the first call when touring groups came to town in need of a horn player. On one occasion, it was Louis Armstrong who requested his services. So it was no surprise that in 1950 he took a break from his sales job to join the Armstrong All-Stars as a replacement for Jack Teagarden.
Back to Chicago
When it was time for his young son to enter elementary school, it was obvious being on the road was not conducive to getting a meaningful education, so Russ Sr. left Armstrong after a year and a half of travel (Trummy Young took over his spot in the band) and moved his young family back to the Windy City for a 9-to-5 job which afforded him the opportunity to become quite active in the jingle recording business and to play with some of the top jazz groups in clubs, such as Jazz Limited, with the likes of Art Hodes and Franz Jackson several times a week.
In the early 1960s, the Phillips family moved to Warsaw, Illinois (where Russ’ mother was born), and Russ Sr. continued in sales management, got involved in county politics and became more active in his church before passing away in 1987 at the age of 75.
Russ II (his parents didn’t want him to be called “junior”) played football and baseball in high school and free-lanced with local bands “where I learned how to play.” It was on to Northeast Missouri State Teachers College (now Truman State University in Kirksville, MO) and then Quincy (IL) College where he majored in music. He was married with two sons at this point and worked all sorts of jobs to support his young family.
In his spare time, Russ played in a rock band and commuted 75 miles to play with a Dixieland band on a riverboat three nights a week. In 1969, the family moved to Chicago where music became less prominent in his life (other than a tour with the BeeGees) as he worked in various sales positions and as a railroad brakeman, draftsman, steel worker, and production assistant for S&H Green Stamps.
A Turning Point
By the early 1980s, he was divorced and uncertain as to his future in music. “I decided I was either going to play or make a lamp out of my trombone,” he said. He heard an ad on the radio for “a hard-driving trombone player” and figured “I can do that.” It was a turning point musically and led to a six-year association with the Banjo Buddies Dixieland Band.
Russ did his first jazz festival in 1984 with Chuck Hedges and Barrett Deems in Quebec, Canada, and a year later hooked up with the Celebration Dixieland Jazz Band led by Garry Miller.
He initially ran into Tom Saunders at a festival in Indianapolis when Al Winters was on trombone for the group, but it wasn’t long before Russ became a regular with the Midwest All-Stars. He has appeared with the Jim Cullum Jazz Band on the Riverwalk: Live at the Landing NPR show.
12 Years at Andy’s Jazz Club
Growing tired of the faster-louder style of some of the bands with whom he played, Russ organized the six-piece Windy City All-Stars in 1995 that led to a 12-year engagement on Thursday nights at Andy’s Jazz Club. That band included Chuck Hedges and later Kim Cusack, Bob Neighbor, and Bobby Lewis along with some of the top rhythm section players in Chicago.
He was a member of the Ken Arlen Orchestra working some 80 weekend dates a year playing the best hotels up and down Michigan Avenue. The Orchestra also performed at George W. Bush’s 2005 Inaugural Ball and in Las Vegas for the New Year’s Eve Ball at the Bellagio Hotel.
Some T-bone Influences
When asked to identify the trombone greats who have influenced his style, he lists his Dad (“he pushed all the right buttons”), Jack Teagarden (like his Dad, “great flexibility on his horn”), Si Zentner (“could really hit the high notes”), Tommy Dorsey (“wonderful phrasing”), and saxophonist Zoot Sims (“for his warmth and uncanny ability to stay relaxed and keep swinging”). Among his contemporaries, he mentions John Allred (“technically one of the best ever”) and Dan Barrett (“plays with great heart”).
Russ’ style is lyrical and melodic, and he loves the challenge of performing in many different musical settings from classical ensembles and pit orchestras to Big Bands, classic jazz units and rock ’n’ roll groups. “Jazz is a remarkable product, and it will never go away.” he observes. “The key is connecting with the audience.”
A comment from a review of Russ’s Love Walked In CD says it all: “As in all the Arts, there are the pretenders, and then there are the truly-gifted, naturally-talented ones. Russ is way into the latter category. He plays with romance, intelligence, and ease, moving in and out of difficult passages, never giving you the sense that the phrases are especially awkward to play on the trombone.”
Retired? What’s that all about?