This photo of Kai appeared in a recent International Trombone Association Journal
The Incredible Kai Winding!--His Official
Interview with Eli Dimeff--musician,
Eli has been a teacher of art classes (painting, drawing) in the Princeton, NJ area over the last 20 years.
This interview received in U.S. mail on
Q. Mr. Dimeff, I would like to begin by asking you what year you initially met Kai Winding and how did it come about that you were asked to play trombone with his group?
A. While in the U.S. Air Force I had been a serious student of a very noted and influential brass instrument teacher in Philadelphia named Donald S. Reinhardt. He taught all cupped mouthpiece brass players of every style (big band, jazz, classical, etc.) for over 50 or 60 years. Many noted brass players studied with him and attributed much of the success of their careers to him (or for saving their careers when he helped straighten out "chop" problems, etc.).
I took my first lesson with Don in late 1958 or early 1959 while stationed at Stewart AFB near Newburg, NY. I continued a correspondence with him by mail while at Clark AFB in the Philippines for eighteen months. My last two years of service were spent at McGuire AFB in NJ where I would take the bus into Phila. every Saturday for a lesson during the day and a visit to a jazz club at night.
After my discharge in 1962 I moved to Manhattan to begin a career in music. There is every evidence that Don made some calls in my behalf to former students of his to help me get started in "the business" as I would get calls for gigs from people I had never met. I continued to take the bus from Manhattan to Phila. for lessons during this time.
At one of these lessons Don asked me to do him the favor of retrieving his rotary-valve bass trumpet from none other than Kai Winding, a former student of his. The name is pronounced "Ki" as in "hi" but all the musicians calls him "K" to rhyme with "K & J."
Now, to set the stage even further, when I was a teen and not feeling well one time, my high school band leader came to my home and brought me two LPs ("K & JJ at Newport" and Kai's "Trombone Panorama"). I still have these recordings and have kept them in perfect condition. I kind of recall having another K & J LP before this but these two new ones expanded my awareness of Kai Winding (as well as that of J.J. Johnson). So, to meet Kai in person and to perform the service of retrieving the horn for Don Reinhardt was a double honor.
But to make it even better (and much to my surprise), Kai didn't just have us meet somewhere to say hello and give me the bass trumpet. He suggested that we meet at Marshall Brown's rehearsal studio in the upper 80s or 90s on the West Side of Manhattan where Kai was having a rehearsal of the trombone section of his septet (the rhythm section not being involved in the rehearsal). So, this became my own private "West Side Story".
Marshall Brown played valve trombone (maybe slide as well) in traditional jazz and "Dixie" groups around town. In addition to this, living in his studio at the time was Tad Dameron, the well known jazz composer, arranger, and piano player. Tad said that he was having problems with his wife and had to move out of his place. So, Marshall had put him up in his studio for the time being.
So I showed up at the studio on the appointed evening, met Kai and was invited to stay for the entire rehearsal. I was twenty-two years old at the time, recently out of the Air Force and this was my first experience up close and in person with such a professional trombone group. I was just floored by what I was hearing because each tune sounded better than the last as the evening went on. Bill Watrous was the only other trombone player I remember being there that night and his playing was impressive even then. During breaks Bill practiced what I later learned was doodle-tonguing.
There were a couple of other people who dropped by to listen to the group and I recall one woman being very pleased when they played the theme from "Mondo Cane". She kept repeating, "I just love the way you guys play that"!
It was in the winter months and I remember the 3rd trombone player remarking to Marshall Brown that it was a bit chilly in the studio. Unlike the story I have read about a rehearsal at Benny Goodman's house where someone remarked the same thing to Benny (who agreed and proceeded to put on a sweater), Marshall Brown chose to turn up the heat.
I may have brought my trombone with me to that rehearsal but wasn't asked to sit in and didn't have the chance to perform in Kai's group until a few years later after my having performed in several big bands (on the road and weekends out of NY), subbed in the orchestras at Radio City Music Hall, Broadway musicals, and gigged around town as well as in the surrounding area.
After the rehearsal, Kai gave me the bass trumpet which was couched in a black cloth bag with a draw string and I returned it to Don Reinhardt at my next lesson.
As I recall, it was Kai himself who called to see if I was available to do a weekend (Fri., Sat., Sun.) with his septet. I have no idea why he called me at that time as it was a few years after my having attended that first rehearsal. However, I was both surprised and pleased to get the call.
I should also make it clear that I didn't consider myself a member of Kai Winding's trombone septet as I didn't make any recordings with the group and only did that one weekend with the group.
Q. What were your personal impressions of Kai back then and how was he to work with?
A. My personal impressions of Kai at the rehearsal that I witnessed and during the gigs we played together was that he was easy going, relaxed, and self-assured with a sense of humor - basically, a nice guy who was easy to be around. Although not demanding, he expected everyone to do his job in the most professional manner. This was a given. He was also particular in hiring musicians who did so.
Q. Do you have a favorite Kai Winding album? If so, which one(s) and what makes it your favorite?
A. I enjoy "Trombone Panorama" the best because Kai talks in a very warm manner on it. Now that he has passed on, it brings him back to my memory more personally through hearing his voice. It was also one of my early introductions to hearing what Kai's playing was about, so I guess there is some nostalgia involved. I also like "The Great Kai and J.J." recording as I believe this was made after they had split up their group and they had both grown individually in the meantime (musically and instrumentally) before rejoining to make this session.
Q. How would you personally characterize Kai Winding's style of playing?
A. I would personally characterize Kai's style of playing as very individual. Although there may be someone, I can't think of anyone who may have been an influence just by listening to Kai play. Also, I don't know of any other trombone player in whom I hear Kai's style. Maybe Kai's European upbringing led him to hearing things differently than the mostly American jazz musicians and trombone players with whom he performed. It's also possible that Kai was more influenced early on by instrumentalists other than trombonists, making the origins of his style even more difficult to trace than most trombone players who are noticeably influenced by certain trombone players who preceded them.
For example, Kai's right-hand slide at the time I knew him was Bill Watrous. My understanding is that Bill was first influenced by his trombone playing father and later on by Carl Fontana and Urbie Green, two excellent trombonists of renown among musicians.
Although it's natural for all musicians to learn from others playing the same instrument, this trombone-to-trombone influence is quite possibly more imperative for most trombone players because of the unique and unwieldy nature of the slide. It's much easier for trumpet, sax (and even piano players) to echo each other's technique and speed. Whereas, proper slide/tongue coordination is one of the most difficult actions to accomplish among all instrumentalists and many trombone players tussle with overcoming this "problem" all their careers (I know I did).
So, learning how other trombonists deal with this dilemma, especially in fast passages when trying to keep up with the other instruments is the norm.
As with all instrumentalists, trombonists are basically speaking the same unique instrumental language. This is not so evident when playing written ensemble music where the more difficult the instrument is to play the easier the music is written (and vice versa) so that it evens out in an orchestra or a big band.
For example, a trombone player would not be expected to play the most difficult of violin parts. Slide/tongue considerations are one thing, but it is necessary to also consider lip manipulation to make large interval jumps at a rapid pace which might come at the end of a breath, all of which increases the intricacy of the mechanism. (Meanwhile, the violinist is jumping from one string to another in order to make certain interval jumps and, not being a wind instrument, continues to play till the end of much longer passages.)
So, for the most part, although at times quite demanding, the trombonist plays written ensemble music that is orchestrated in a suitable manner which is appropriate for the instrument.
However, when a trombonist is improvising in a group which includes various combinations of trumpet, sax, clarinet, and piano players - it can be quite challenging to keep up with the speed and facility of valves, keys, and fingers. There is a lot going on there because this difficulty for trombone players holds true not only instrumentally but also in attempting to express one's ideas while operating a slide. If one hasn't overcome or "made friends with" the slide, the slide trombonist has quite a problem getting one's feelings out. In these situations, a trombone player can be called upon to be not only part mechanic and part musician but also part magician because of the inventive demands that are made. This is one reason the term "manipulate the slide" came into use.
"Manipulating the tongue" in coordination with the slide is an equally valid phrase, especially now that doodle, double, and triple tonguing are so widely used among today's trombone players. Through necessity, trombone technique has come a long way these days and more and more trombonists can keep up very well with other instrumentalists, whereas in the past this was the case with only a select few.
This may be one reason why Kai felt more comfortable being involved with trombone led groups, either with J.J. as a trombone duo or with the other trombone combinations he and J.J. introduced, as well as with his four trombone septet.
It's not that Kai couldn't keep up with other instrumentalists so much as a matter of feeling comfortable in a genre, as many trombonists have experienced over the years, of not having to prove yourself over and over again by battling it out with other more facile instruments every time it's your turn to improvise.
Again we could refer to Kai paying tribute to earlier significant trombone players in the "Trombone Panorama" recording. Although we all have our moments of impatience, when I was around him he was very easy going and when you listen to him speak and play on the recording, Kai's overall mild nature leads me to believe that battling it out with other instrumentalists would not be his inclination.
On the other hand, when performing in the same instrumental environment with other trombonists, he had more control and this gave him the freedom to focus more on the music.
Q. When was the last time you performed with Kai Winding?
A. The one and only time I performed with Kai Winding was in the mid-1960s.
Q. How do you personally view the legacy of work that Kai has left the world of jazz?
A. I would view Kai's legacy of work as obviously being very trombone oriented. His work and recordings with J.J.; the work and recordings they did by adding other trombonists; the "Trombone Panorama" LP where Kai gives an overview of the various trombone styles and outstanding performers through the years; as well as Kai's work with his trombone septet all emphasize trombone oriented musicianship.
Many people initially thought that the "K & J" thing would never work. The question was asked as to who would want to hear two trombones without a trumpet or sax to speed things up and add some variety. Yet, because of these two gentlemen's ability, their integrity to the instrument, as well as their high standard of musicianship, they made it work. Or, maybe better stated, they just did their beautiful thing and let it happen. Very quickly the uniqueness of the two trombones became a "variety" in itself and they picked up quite a respected following as a result.
Speaking of being influenced by instrumentalists other than trombonists, J.J. said on Marian McPartland's PBS "Piano Jazz" radio program that, early on (back in the 1940s as I recall, Dizzy Gillespie took J.J. aside and gave him several important pointers regarding jazz playing on the trombone. Obviously, blazing speed was one of Dizzy's "things" so this could have influenced J.J. greatly.
Also, on every J.J. recording that I have ever heard, he never used his slide speed for speed's sake itself. It was always musically done, putting the music before technique. J.J. eventually exhibited little if no limitations on the trombone and that gave him the liberty to focus on expressing his musicianship.
Kai Winding had to be very secure in his person and in his playing to hook up with someone such as J.J. who was so widely respected because of all his many musical and instrumental attributes. And equally so, J.J. obviously recognized Kai's uniqueness in order to both form and continue a successful group which, like a bumble bee, was never supposed to successfully fly.
Q. What would you characterize is the trademark of Kai's style and playing ability?
A. As with a previous question, I would say the trademark of Kai's style was his individuality. He just had a unique style all his own.
Q. Are there any interesting stories you can tell our readers about Kai's career, the time you spent recording with him, or anything else that he was involved with?
A. The only story I have to tell is what took place during the weekend of my involvement performing with Kai's trombone septet. You can decide for yourself whether or not you find it is interesting. I'll relate everything I remember about it.
There may have been a rehearsal but I don't remember rehearsing with the group. I do remember being in a studio other than Marshall Brown's somewhere in midtown another time where I recall Kai and Bill Watrous using the doodle tongue technique to get around on the horn, especially during improvised solos. They were doing things I couldn't do by single-tonguing. I tried to use double-tonguing and thought that was what they were doing. They were secretive when I asked them about it. Now there are books and cassettes on doodle-tonguing technique. And it's a big thing for trombone players as not everyone can successfully accomplish it. There is no way to explain what it is like to stand next to a trumpet or sax player with a trombone in your hand and be expected to keep up and to come up with something exciting and original when you are tussling with a slide.
Nevertheless, on the weekend of the gigs, Kai and the members of the group met at "Jim and Andy's" where many of the hip, small groups met. This big road bands met at "Charlie's Tavern" on 52nd St. near "Roseland Ballroom" when the musician's union was located upstairs at the ballroom (back in those days).
The girl singer (whose name eludes me - she sang the Impre Vous commercials on tv at the time) couldn't make the first job. I knew an alto sax player from one of the big bands I did gigs with who knew a girl singer named Paula. We found his name in the musician's union book and I called him to get her number. I remember Kai asking me how she sounded and how she looked. I had never heard her sing but was introduced to her and when I told him she looked nice he nodded his approval. His concern was for how she would look in front of the group as many of the girl "band" singers were very attractive (Peggy Lee, June Christy, Helen O'Connell, etc.).
Anyway, Kai called her and she came right over to "Jim & Andy's". Kai was pleased with her performance at the gig because she sang in "sharp" keys which he found refreshing.
I remember our going to Kai's house at one point for some reason and I recall admiring some of the artwork hanging on the walls.
The trombone players on all three gigs were Kai, Bill Watrous (who was with Kai for several years); Mico Manardo; and myself on bass trombone.
Also with Kai for a long time and later for many years in Doc Severinsen's band on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" was Ross Tomkins on piano; Russell George played bass; on the Friday gig, Al Harewood played drums and on the next two performances Jake Hanna was the drummer.
We traveled to the jobs in private cars and as I recall, there was a van or truck of some sort to transport the drums, bass, and other instruments.
Different people took turns driving the van so we switched around traveling in different vehicles to each gig. Going to one job I traveled with Kai in his car (he drove). The second girl singer and Jake Hanna were in the car as well.
On the way to the gig, Jake told a Woody Herman story. He was with Woody's big band for some time in the 1960s and I would get to see them at the Metropole on 7th Ave. in NY (I had the opportunity to play there with Lionel Hampton's big band at one point as well. Benny Powell had the gig with Lionel but also had a record date for a set-and-a-half on two successive nights, so I filled in for him. It was then that I also discovered there was a lounge upstairs in the Metropole where Gene Krupa was playing at the time with piano and bass. It was like touching a small part of jazz history.).
Anyway, Jake said that while the band went by bus, Woody would drive his own car to many gigs and would really put the proverbial pedal to the metal out on the highway. Jake was in the car with him on the way to Boston one time when a cop pulled them over for speeding. The cop asked what the hurry was as he looked at Woody's driver's license. Then he looked at Woody, put the two together and recognized who he had just stopped. The cop said he was planning to take his wife to see the band that night so Woody said he would have a couple of tickets waiting for them at the booth. The cop let Woody off with a verbal warning adding, "Okay, Woody, I'll see you with the band tonight but take it down to around a hundred, ok?".
So, back in Kai's car, while we were on the road we passed a road sign that warned, "WINDING ROAD", and we joked about Kai having a road named after him.
I might add that it was a missed opportunity on my part for not asking Kai about his days with Stan Kenton and the guys in that band. Also, I wish I would have asked him about performing in early bebop groups, how he and J.J. met, how they decided to form their group, if they rehearsed much, how they selected the tunes they played and recorded, who arranged what, and why they eventually decided to break the group up, etc. Instead, we mostly did small talk about things that were going on at the time.
The trombones stood in front of the rhythm section. Facing the audience, I think Kai was on the far left, then Bill, then Mico, then me. At the third song before the intermission I was told to drop out and depart to the wings of the stage. Then the other three trombone players plus the rhythm section played a tune. Before the second to the last number, Mico joined me behind the curtain and Kai and Bill Watrous played a number a la "K & J". It was fun to just stand there and listen and enjoy the happening.
The last number featured just Kai and the rhythm section. Kai played a swinging, up-tempo on "How Are Things In Glocca Morra". I remember the way it started very well because I was impressed by the arrangement. Kai opened alone with a slow few bars of the intro then went into tempo playing through the tune with the rhythm section. Then he played an improvised chorus or two, then back through the tune itself, ending by himself by repeating the slow intro.
If we all improvised on every tune we would have played far fewer tunes, so Kai and Bill Watrous handled most of the improvising (Mico improvised on a few tunes and I may have gotten to improvise on a blues here and there).
So, on one of the jobs I asked Kai if I could play a solo. Kai said ok and I played a ballad with the rhythm section on "Polkadots and Moonbeams". What a treat - it was great fun. Afterward, Bill complemented me on my sound (which I worked on diligently).
I remember the gigs being very casual with no pressure and nothing to be uptight about - everything went smoothly. The performances didn't have the excitement of playing in a roaring big jazz band, but were a more subtle kind of excitement - a very enjoyable and fulfilling total experience. The arrangements were great, all the musicians were top notch (I felt honored to be performing with them), the singers added a nice touch, and it featured the trombones, so I was playing much of the time. It was wonderful and very memorable.
Thank you, Eli, for the interview!
And I'm delighted for this
opportunity to relive and relate the experience in this interview.
Thanks for asking, B.J.!