Trombonist Bill Watrous Has Passed

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Bill Watrous, 79, on June 2nd, after a short illness in California.

William Russell Watrous III grew up in Connecticut idolizing his trombonist father who had played with Paul Whiteman. He tried his hand at the instrument himself and was playing in Dixieland bands while he was still in high school. He would go on to become one of the greatest trombonists in the history of jazz known for his rich, smooth, and technically proficient playing.

In 1957 he joined The Navy Band, which he said gave him more discipline in his approach to learning music. While with the Navy Band in San Diego he studied with Herbie Nichols. In New York in the early 60’s he got attention when he joined Kai Winding’s bands. He also recorded with Woody Herman, Quincy Jones, Maynard Ferguson, and Johnny Richards. He performed with the Billy Butterfield Band and then in the late 60’s was a member of the house band on the Merv Griffin show. In the early seventies, he played with jazz fusion group, Ten Wheel Drive.

He led The Manhattan Wildlife Refuge Big Band, later renaming it Refuge West after relocating to California where he has lived since 1976. In 1983 he published an instruction manual of trombone techniques titled Trombonisms. He also recorded as a soloist and in ensembles of all sizes.

In 1993 he released the album he would become best known for. “A Time For Love,” featured songs written by Johnny Mandel with charts arranged by Sammy Nestico.

He had been recently planning a vocal album. He was on the music faculty at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music. He also contributed to innumerable trombone workshops, passing on his wisdom to the next generation of talent.

The four Photographs in the body of article courtesy of F. Norman Vickers.

Click here for a truly fascinating and wide-ranging interview in which Watrous discusses his own history, critics, other trombonists, and playing jazz in the modern era.



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4 thoughts on “Trombonist Bill Watrous Has Passed”

  1. From Lisa Kelly Via Facebook:
    We had the real honor of spending time with Bill during the several guest artist residencies he had over the years here at the University of North Florida with JB’s UNF JE 1 big band. When he was here again about 2 yrs ago, we could see his health was really challenging him, and I knew it would probably be our last time to hang with Bill, so I really soaked up the moments of being ’round him. But when he would play, there was that unforgettable Watrous sound and style. We so treasured our final time with him, watching he and Dave Steinmeyer hang, reminisce, joke and laugh, talk shop. I knew I was in the presence of 2 irreplaceable ‘greats.’

    And I enjoyed watching JB and Bill sharing mem’ries from prior guest artist time and hangs too. We’d run into him from time to time over the years at fests, music conventions. Amazing musical moments .. his beautiful, phenomenal playing and sound, his imparted wisdom from so many years of playing, his straightforward, honest insight with the students. Always sharing a light-hearted, sometimes ‘colorful,’ tongue-in-cheek joke.

    Bill was a pillar in the international trombone community of jazz and beyond. He will be fondly remembered, heavily appreciated for the musical presidents he set.

    RIP Bill Watrous, an honor to have known you and to watch you wow audiences and musicians alike. Thanks for the memories of time spent with you, thanks for your great music.

  2. Bill played at what was Jersey City State College. This was around 1978. He was great. Even though I played classical clarinet. We had a good time as he put on great show. I’ll never forget him.

  3. I attended the Dick Gibson Colorado Jazz Parties from 1985 until they closed in the early 90s. Watrous was present every one of those years. His performance on trombone was gorgeous and he was a handsome man with a distinctive “Prince Valiant” haircut. (You youngsters, seek out the comic strip character)

    At the Gibson parties, Dick Gibson would make a chart of who played on what set, who soloed etc. And most times the musicians would be in the back room visiting among themselves. Since most of them were traveling musicians, the Gibson party was a great time for them to re-connect with each other.

    But, the year that Australian multi-instrumentalist James Morrison—he played only trumpet and trombone for the Gibson party—was present, Watrous was in the audience taking in Morrison’s performance. That year, Watrous’ performance was even more flamboyant, with singing and whistling added to his gorgeous trombone performance which even included “circular breathing,” allowing him to extend his tone almost indefinitely.

    And, we were pleased to have Watrous perform for the Pensacola JazzFest in early 2000s along with pianist Derek Smith, drummer Bobby Rosengarden and bassist Milt Hinton. A great show!

    Bill Watrous R. I. P.

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