The Troy Street Observer

Apr 29, 1974: A Week in Praise of the Sackbut

Drawing of man playing sackbut
Pre-Berklee Sackbut Player

The second annual Boston Sackbut Week, the celebration of all things trombone, commenced on April 29, 1974 with a concert featuring Carl Fontana with the Harvard Jazz Band.

“Sackbut” is a word with a fascinating etymology, but all we need now is the quick definition: the Renaissance-age forerunner of the trombone.

The idea of dedicating an entire week to the trombone, Renaissance or otherwise, originated in 1973 with two of the sackbut’s local stalwarts, Tom Everett, the then-president of the International Trombone Association, and the director of the Harvard Jazz Band (he retired in 2013), and Phil Wilson, at Berklee in 1973 but named chairman of the jazz studies program at the New England Conservatory of Music in 1974. Boston Mayor Kevin White issued a proclamation in honor of Sackbut Week that first year.

In 1974, the Berklee Dues Band premiered a work by Rich Allen, God’s Trombones, with Carl Fontana the guest soloist. The Berklee Trombone Ensemble played concerts at Hyde Park High School and Trotter Elementary School in Roxbury, and a trombone swarm serenaded the passengers on the swan boats in the Public Garden.

Sackbut Weeks packed in a long day of recitals, lectures, and clinics on Clean-up Day at Berklee. It brought together students at all levels with professional trombonists, and brought together players from both the jazz and classical worlds. One 1974 clinic was “Problems of doubling Trombone, Baritone Horn, and Tuba,” while another was “The Alto Trombone and the Albrechtsberger Concerto,” the latter presented by Ron Barron of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, an active participant in the early years.

There were also a few memorable trombone extravaganzas. In 1975, Wilson issued a city-wide call on the radio for trombonists to gather in front of City Hall to play Tom Plsek’s Reactions I, scored for four trombone choirs of 25. In 1977, 96 members of the Berklee Trombone Choir played at a Red Sox game at Fenway Park. And in 1979, about 150 trombonists marched from Berklee down Mass Ave to Symphony Hall to enliven a Boston Pops concert.

The emphasis was on local players. Wilson and Everett were involved every year, as were other area trombonists like Tom Plsek, Tony Lada, Gene DiStasio, Rick Stepton, Ben Elkins with his Back Bay Bones, the Berklee Trombone Choir, and Phil Wilson’s Dues Band (now the Rainbow Band). Although Carl Fontana, Urbie Green, and George Lewis were featured as guest soloists over the years, the focus stayed local.

The fourteenth and final Sackbut Week was in 1986, with some ten nights of trombone jazz at the Willow, and a performance by the New Brass Menagerie, featuring DiStasio, Lada, Stepton, and Gary Ash. It was a revival of DiStasio’s exciting Brass Menagerie from the late sixties. But the event’s main organizers (Everett and Plsek in later years) had had enough. “We got tired of organizing it,” said Everett in 1988. “We were busy doing other stuff.”

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