Ron Westray: Man or Machine?

From left: Ron Westray, Alex Coke, Michael Melinger, Glenn Rexach, James Polk. Not pictured: Art Kidd.

It’s a fair question.

Ron Westray is one of those rare individuals who breezes into town for a while, assumes the throne of Jazz Royalty, and then leaves for greener pastures when the “Live Music Capital of the World” reveals itself to be…well, something other than that.

Ron is an amazing trombonist, and we were fortunate to have him with the AJW on two seasons (Ellington/Strayhorn and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, pictured above).  I learned a lot playing alongside him and consider myself extremely fortunate for having had that opportunity.  A UT professor while here, he has since moved on to a tenured teaching position at York University in Toronto.

When Ron was in town, he would often drop in at the jazz jam session on Monday nights downtown at the Elephant Room.  I was there one such night, sitting in on alto sax.  Ron came in, walked past the bandstand to the ‘warmup area’, and pulled out his horn.

The ‘warmup area’ is really just a dead-end corridor at the end of the long basement that is the Elephant Room.  It’s a handy place for people to lay their cases and wind players to warm up their chops.  Ron strode directly there because, as a member of Jazz Royalty, he knew he would not have to sit and wait through several sets to get up and play.  As soon as he was warm, he was good to go.  And sure enough, he soon joined us on the bandstand.

There is a lot of psychology to the Tradition of the Jam Session, and tales of novice players being ‘schooled’ are legion.  In fact, one of the reasons jazz music has managed to maintain some degree of integrity over its history is the Jam Session Final Exam, which has played itself out nightly across our country for the past ninety years.  It goes something like this:

1.  Spend as many years as you deem necessary to master your instrument and the principles of jazz improvisation (a minimum of ten is a good start).

2.  Step onto bandstand.

3.  Get blown away by players many times more skilled than you.

4.  Rinse; repeat.

Of course, there are many for whom Step #4 is “trade in your instrument for a bus ticket out of town”, thereby maintaining the Integrity of Jazz.  See how simple?  See how effective?

Anyway, on this particular night, Ron stepped onto the bandstand after his warmup and called the tune “Donna Lee”.  Not a blues to ease into it, not some medium-tempo standard, but “Donna Lee”–a fiendishly difficult head followed by a challenging set of changes, generally taken at a preposterously breakneck tempo by its composer, Charlie Parker, who played the alto saxophone.

I looked down into my hands.  I was, indeed, holding an alto saxophone.

I looked across the bandstand.  The five other horn players who had been crowding their way into “C Jam Blues” just moments before had scattered like dried leaves, no doubt rushing to the bus station before it closed.  It was just me and Ron.

Ron gave the patented Manhattan countoff (“Eh, eh, eheheh”) and we were off.  The audience, NASCAR-like, leaned in and licked its collective chops in anticipation of potential bloodshed.

Now the mechanics of playing the trombone are quite far removed from those of the saxophone.  While saxophones are built for speed, trombones are built for…well, I don’t know what exactly, but I doubt speed is what they had in mind.  But Ron was not one to let the mechanics of his instrument stand in the way of his desire to nail “Donna Lee” to the wall at 240 bpm.  Which he proceeded to do, with me holding onto his tail for dear life.

Here is where my years of jazz training really kicked in.  Firmly believing in the adage “the best defense is a good offense”, I knew exactly what I had to do.  I had to take the first solo.  Because if I had to follow Ron Westray on “Donna Lee”, I might as well catch a cab to Greyhound that very moment.

So I dove on in and took three hair-raising choruses, about as much as I dared.  No sense in pushing my luck, right?  I’m sure the rhythm section appreciated my brevity.  At that tempo, three choruses flashed by in less than two minutes.  Still, I was panting when it was over and appreciative of the audience’s polite applause.

Then Ron started to blow.

And blow.  And blow.

After about the tenth chorus, he bent forward with the bell of his horn facing the ground.  People began to clap.  I thought, “Wow, that was incredi–”

But he had come up and was blowing again.  He was just taking a short breather.

I lost count of how many choruses he ended up taking, so let’s just call it ‘many’.  When it was over, the audience stood up and cheered like Ron had just single-handedly won the Super Bowl.  Which I suppose, in a way, he had.

Later at home, I pulled out my tattered Charlie Parker Omnibook and my metronome.  Rinse; repeat.


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