Bill Watrous, Trombonist and Bandleader, Is Dead at 79
July 11, 2018
By Giovanni Russonello
The trombonist Bill Watrous performing in San Francisco in the early 1980s.Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives, via Getty Images
Bill Watrous, whose crisp and graceful playing made him one of the world’s most respected trombonists, died on July 3 at a hospital in Los Angeles. He was 79.
His sister, Sheila Watrous Wright, confirmed the death but did not specify the cause.
Mr. Watrous was heard often on studio recordings by artists like Quincy Jones, Prince and Frank Sinatra. But over a nearly 50-year career as a bandleader, he also released more than a dozen albums under his own name, spotlighting his eloquent playing in a range of contexts.
For a time in the 1970s he led a jazz-rock big band, Manhattan Wildlife Refuge
, which released two albums on Columbia Records.
Mr. Watrous’s professional career began in the 1960s, when he played in ensembles led by the trumpeter Billy Butterfield and the trombonist Kai Winding and contributed to albums by the likes of Woody Herman, Wes Montgomery, Milton Nascimento and Chick Corea.
Reviewing a performance by the Bill Berry-Willis Conover Jazz Band in 1971, John S. Wilson of The New York Times wrote
that Mr. Watrous’s “slippery trombone virtuosity brought down the house.”
After relocating to Los Angeles in 1977, Mr. Watrous became an in-demand session player, heard on dozens of albums and television scores, including Mr. Jones’s acclaimed soundtrack to the popular mini-series “Roots.”
He later taught at the University of Southern California for two decades, retiring in 2015.
In addition to Ms. Wright, Mr. Watrous is survived by his wife, Maryann; their son, Jason; two daughters, Melody Watrous Ide and Cheryl Schoolcraft, from a previous marriage, which ended in divorce; and a brother, Paul.
William Russell Watrous was born on June 8, 1939, in Middletown, Conn., and raised in Niantic, Conn. His father, Ralph, a trombonist who had played in vaudeville and regional bands, became his first role model. His mother, Edna (Little) Watrous, was a nurse and the head of the local nursing association.
The younger Mr. Watrous played with traditional jazz groups around Connecticut before joining the Navy at 18. He was assigned to a Navy Band unit in San Diego, then eventually reassigned to Brooklyn. While there, he apprenticed himself to Herbie Nichols
, the iconoclastic bebop pianist and composer.
He stayed in New York after being discharged, and in 1965 he joined the “Merv Griffin Show” band. A few years later he became a member of the “Dick Cavett Show” ensemble. He did a short stint with the rock group Ten Wheel Drive
before the influential producer John Hammond signed Manhattan Wildlife Refuge to Columbia.
That band released two albums of swirling, up-tempo fusion — a rough hybrid of early Return to Forever, Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi and Chicago. It was not a major commercial success, but it cemented Mr. Watrous’s reputation as a composer and bandleader as well as a virtuoso instrumentalist.
Few knew about his talents at another kind of swing: As a teenager, Mr. Watrous had been briefly scouted by the New York Yankees, and in the early 1980s, when he was in his mid-40s, he even contemplated joining a minor-league baseball team.
On a visit to Texas, Mr. Watrous casually took batting practice with the Double-A Midland Cubs. After he hit more than two dozen balls over the fence, the team’s manager offered him a spot in the lineup as the designated hitter.
“They were serious, but it would have been $540 a month, riding the bus and playing in the middle of nowhere,” he later recalled in an interview
with The Los Angeles Times. “But for a while there I felt like Robert Redford in ‘The Natural.’ I still feel the pangs.”
The music world would have missed him: For most of his career, in addition to his work at U.S.C., Mr. Watrous gave frequent master classes across the country. He also wrote an instruction book, “Trombonisms,”
with Alan Raph. A jazz festival at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Tex., where he frequently performed and taught, was named after him.
Correction: July 12, 2018
An earlier version of this obituary misstated the surname of the co-author of Mr. Watrous’s book “Trombonisms.” He is Alan Raph, not Ralph.
Alain Delaquérière contributed research.
A version of this article appears in print on July 12, 2018, on Page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: Bill Watrous, 79, a Graceful Trombonist, Bandleader and Prized Studio Player. Order Reprints
| Today’s Paper