William Russell “Bill” Watrous, long considered the best trombone player of the late 20th century, passed on this evening in a hospital in Los Angeles. He was 79 years old.
Bill was raised in Connecticut. His dad was a trombonist, and young Bill used to sneak into the trombone closet when he was a kid, and good around with all of his dad’s trombones. He idolized his dad, and used to talk about him quite a lot.
He joined the navy band in 1957, and was assigned to unit bands in San Diego. My Uncle Sandy was one of his teachers at the Navy School of music in 1957, and was one of only a small handful of people I heard Bill talk about in a positive way from his time in the service.
After his stint in the fleet (He always said he was not a good sailor, but he got a lot out of his stint, including the discipline to learn to read music instead of memorizing everything and playing by ear) he went to New York and quickly got as much work as he could handle. He was on Merv Griffin’s band, and picked up oodles of session work until he felt confident enough to start his own band the “Manhattan Wildlife Refuge”, which redefined what the trombone was capable of.
After a few years in New York, he moved to Los Angeles to take advantage of the opportunities in the recording studios where he worked with everybody
. His amazing range, speed, and melodic playing made him a favorite when someone wanted something impossible played on the trombone. He also wrote a lot of tunes himself, and in later years changed from being the technical master to being superbly melodious. Back when DownBeat was the musician’s magazine of choice, Bill took the title for years and years.
I first met Bill when he did a clinic and concert at the Navy School when I was a student there, and I got to work with him a few times after I left the service, the last time about 9 years ago. I also worked several clinics with Bill, where he put a lot of effort into teaching. He spent the last 20 years teaching at USC, and many of his students have gone on to do great things.
Bill was not only a great trombonist — he was a supremely silly person. He turned every rehearsal into a storytelling session, and every gig into a party. If you were good enough to work with him, he trusted you enough to put up with his jokes, gags and pranks. Everybody who knew Bill had oodles of stories about him and he had a bunch of his own.
Bill is survived by his wife Maryanne “Sweetface” Watrous, and his son Jason. Every trombonist in the world is in mourning right now.
I hope this is my last diary for a while.