Annie Whitehead - Trombone

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One of Whitehead’s fondest memories is “tripping alongside the trombone players on the Whitsunday marches and being fascinated by the slide going in and out.”

“I’m a girl from the north country – Oldham. It’s the heart of brass band land and I wanted to play music from quite a young age, all part of the process of growing up.” When the young Whitehead was offered music lessons at school, there was only one instrument that she wanted to play. “But I wasn’t allowed to,” she says. “I was too small. So instead they gave me a tenor horn and I played that for a year or so and I also tried the euphonium. After a while they realised that I was prepared to work hard and practise and so they let me have a trombone. My teacher, Ron Ibbotson, was a trombone player and so that was really helpful.”

She started playing the trombone when she was 14. “I was really into Tamla Motown and soul – people like Aretha Franklin. I used to listen out for the horn lines. I always remember that song ‘Don’t Play That Song For Me’ because it had a really great horn line. Another song I remember from that time was ‘Tap Turn On The Water’ – Alexis Korner and CCS I think, because that, too, had a really great horn line. I didn’t get into jazz until much later.”

Having done her O level music, Whitehead left school at 16 to join Ivy Benson’s band. “It was an all-girl band,” says Whitehead. “She’d run it since the war. I wrote to her when I was 16 and she gave me an audition. Then a few months later the vacancy came up for a trombone player and she sent me a telegram and that was it! I was also playing with the Manchester youth stage band, which was essentially the Manchester equivalent of NYJO. By that time I was listening to the arrangements of the big bands like Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich and Count Basie. I actually met the Count, because the band came to Manchester to play at the Free Trade Hall and I managed to catch up with him.”

As for instruments: “My first trombone was one of those ubiquitous Boosey & Hawkes student models. That didn’t last long, as my mum bought me a Yamaha YSL 651 with a red brass bell – I think it was a kind of superior student model. Anyway, it was the horn that I was playing when I started in Ivy’s band. Then when

I was 17, because I’d earned enough money in that year playing with Ivy, I bought my first King 3B. I remember going into Bill Lewington’s, trading in my Yamaha and picking up the 3B and thinking: this is me.”

Whitehead left Ivy Benson’s band in 1973 and spent a year’s sabbatical in Jersey listening to and playing some jazz, while doing the usual waitress thing “to keep myself going”. She heard and was knocked out by the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band. “There was a trombone player called Grachan Moncur III who played with them and from him I started listening to JJ Johnson and Wayne Henderson from the Crusaders and Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters of course.

When she was 21 Whitehead came to London and started playing jazz. She changed her mouthpiece from a Dennis Wick to a Vincent Bach 12C, “not for any particular reason – it just felt better”. But it wasn’t until 1985 that Whitehead decided to change her horn. “The 3B was getting worn out – it was getting less responsive and it was getting harder to hear the centre of a note and at that time I was doing a lot of session work and for that sort of thing you have to be really, really accurate. So I bought a King 2B Plus lightweight model, halfway between a 2B and a 3B. It has a slightly smaller bore and it’s a little bit more responsive. But in the end I didn’t like it. It was fine for the session work but it didn’t work for the jazz work that I was doing.” That instrument came to a rather sticky end. Whitehead takes up the story: “I was in Mozambique with Chris MacGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath and it was the last concert of the last gig. I had put the trombone on its stand and for some reason the congas fell over and crushed it.”

Whitehead was effectively forced to go back to playing her old 3B. “I picked that up and started playing it and thought – thank God – that sounds just like what I want to sound like. I had been struggling with this 2B and couldn’t really get it to sound like me. Then a year or so later I bought a new King 3B.” Sometimes, however, Whitehead still plays the old 3B if she wants a big and fat roots or reggae sound. “The old beauty’s a lovely instrument to play as the metal’s really thick. It’s quite tank-like, but I couldn’t do a whole gig on it because it’s really hard work. Right now I’m thinking of changing to one of the English makers.”