The trombone may not be instantly thought of as a solo instrument by some, but it’s been around for hundreds of years in some form or another.
As such, there is a lot written for the trombone, and some performers have risen to fame to become known as the best trombone players.
Here’s a list of those considered to be great (you’ll notice several of them are mentioned in the new hit video game Trombone Champ). In the rest of the article, I’ll give a bit of history on what they’re known for and embed a video of them playing (where possible).
- Bill Watrous
- Glenn Miller
- Al Grey
- Dick “Slide” Hyde
- Roswell Rudd
- Jack Teagarden
- Melba Liston
- Arthur Pryor
- J. J. Johnson
- Don Drummond
- Urbie Green
- Tommy Dorsey
- Wycliffe Gordon
- Christian Lindberg
- Gunild Carling
- Joseph Alessi
- Natalie Cressman
- Kai Winding
- Helen Jones Woods
- Frank Rosolino
- Fred Wesley
- Curtis Fuller
- Jay Friedman
- George Roberts
- Troy Andrews
- Robert Lindahl
- Don Lusher
- Douglas Yeo
- Grachan Moncur III
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Bill Watrous was an American jazz trombonist who lived from 1939-2018.
His sound was what made him popular among the masses, and his great technical skill made him the envy of the trombone world.
He played jazz a lot, specifically calling himself a bop trombone player.
Glenn Miller was probably best known as a band leader and songwriter during the early days of jazz and big band.
He wasn’t active long due to his mysterious death and lived from 1904-1944.
Despite being known more for his orchestra, he was also a very accomplished trombone and helped to make the instrument more mainstream.
Al Grey was a legend who lived from 1925-2000 and played trombone with the equally-legendary Count Basie orchestra.
The trombone’s iconic plunger mute technique (think the teacher’s voice in all Charlie Brown shows) was developed by him. He even went so far as to write a book about it titled Plunger Techniques.
Dick “Slide” Hyde
Richard John Hyde, better known as Slide Hyde, was a musician who played many instruments, notably the trombone (which is why he’s on this list).
He lived from 1936-2019 and is in the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame.
He performed and recorded with many insanely famous musicians, including:
- Count Basie
- Herbie Hancock
- Frank Sinatra
- Steely Dan
- Earth, Wind, & Fire
- The Beach Boys
- Tom Waits
- Ringo Starr
- Carole King
Roswell Rudd was best known for his jazz trombone work.
Though he started as a Dixieland performer, his later works focused more on free and avant-garde jazz.
Roswell lived from 1935-2017 and won Trombonist of the Year in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2009, 2010.
Weldon Teagarden was one of the early American trombone players who made his way into the Jazz world.
Living from 1905-1964, he pushed the boundaries of what was expected with the trombone at the time and set the standard by which musicians followed for years to come.
Jack was a sideman for many household names like Louis Armstrong, a lifelong friend of his.
Melba Liston is one of the greatest trombone players you’ve never heard of.
She was the first woman trombonist to play in big bands and got a lot of attention for the skill and emotion she put into playing her horn.
Her later career focused on arranging, and she had the honor to work with greats like:
- Dizzy Gillespie
- Billie Holiday
- John Coltrane
- Count Basie
Arthur was considered one of the first trombone soloists, even going so far as to earn the title of trombone virtuoso.
A bandleader and composer himself, his biggest claim to fame was being the preferred soloist with the Sousa band led by (you guessed it) the American March King, John P. Sousa.
J. J. Johnson
James Louis Johnson lived from 1924-2001 and played actively as a jazz trombonist.
He cut his teeth in the big band world, but when bebop rose up, he was one of the first to embrace it. This gave the style some validity and helped carve out a key place for the trombone in this genre.
This Jamaican trombonist didn’t live a very long life (1932-1969), but his impact was felt throughout the brass world in such a short time.
He performed as a member of The Skatalites and helped introduce Ska to the world. This genre, to this day, tends to feature the trombone heavily.
His death was shrouded in mystery. He died of a supposed heart attack in a home for the criminally insane after being convicted of murdering his girlfriend. Many theorize there was a conspiracy to suppress the Kingston musician’s work.
Urbie Green was one of the most active trombone players who ever picked up the horn (originally called a sackbut).
During his life from 1926-2018, he took part in recording over 250 albums and cut 24 of them as a solo artist.
His bread and butter was jazz, and it showed.
There are many reasons to love a trombone sound. One of the biggest ones today is when a trombone plays with a smooth-like-butter melody.
This style and feel were modeled after Tommy Dorsey, a legend for this style of trombone playing.
The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing led bands and performed heavily during the big band era of jazz.
Wycliffe Gordon was born in 1967 and still plays actively to this day. While the trombone is his main instrument, he’s also seen singing and playing the didgeridoo, trumpet, soprano trombone, tuba, and piano.
Pinecone, as his friends and fans call him, plays as a solo artist and sideman and teaches at the conservatory level of education.
Related Reading: How To Tune Your Trombone (With Tips!)
Christian Lindberg is a Swedish trombonist born in 1958.
In the professional trombone world, he’s one of the most favorite and idolized performers of the instrument. His sound and technique are hard to match.
As a classical trombonist first, he’s played and soloed with many orchestras around the world, going so far as to win 2016’s Artist Of The Year Award from the International Classical Music Awards.
Gunild Carling (b. 1975) is a modern-day jazz musician known for playing the trombone and many others besides.
She’s still rising in popularity and was scheduled to tour the United States when the COVID pandemic shutdown her plans.
She’s still actively performing and has acquired quite a YouTube following.
Joseph Alessi is the principal trombonist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, widely regarded as one of the best ensembles in the world.
For trombonists who love orchestras, listening to and studying this man’s sound is a requirement.
He is also active as a teacher and advocate for the trombone.
In the music of our modern day, there are more and more unique niches being created and filled by wonderful musicians.
Natalie Cressman is one of these. A skilled trombonist, she carves a space out for herself as one of the few (if the only) singer-songwriter-trombonist.
Kai lived from 1922-1983 and performed a jazz trombone. He was most known for his work with J. J. Johnson.
His solos reached some popularity. His song, “More,” a cover of the song from the movie Mondo Cane reached number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Helen Jones Woods
Helen Jones Woods (1923-2020) was a black woman trombonist who spent her formative years playing the instrument in early jazz groups.
As such, she had to fight to find places to play. At first, men’s and women’s jazz groups were separated, and for a while, Helen performed in the top female group (until it disbanded).
Then, she planned on playing in the more stable orchestra gig, but no one would hire her because of her race.
The Omaha Symphony Orchestra hired her based on her recordings and then fired her when she showed up because they didn’t realize she was black.
This turned her off from professional trombone and she instead worked as a nurse.
Frank was a jazz trombonist best known for his work as a studio musician (and the sad way in which he died).
In the time he lived and played (1945-1978), he performed with many world-class musicians, such as:
- Frank Sinatra
- Sarah Vaughan
- Tony Bennett
- Penny Lee
- Michel Legrand
- Quincy Jones
This American trombonist, born in 1943, is still an active trombonist, though he was best known for his work in the 60s and 70s.
His career highlight includes working with James Brown in the 60s and 70s and with the group, Parliament-Funkadelic.
This Detroit native performed jazz trombone and lied about his age in the early stages of his adulthood to get the gigs they would only give to older players.
This fact only recently came out after his death in 2021!
In trombone, Curtis Fuller made his way by playing jazz with many other great musicians, including Sonny Clark and Cannonball, and Nat Adderly.
He was active in spreading jazz through music education and received the title of NEW Jazz Master in 2018.
Jay Friedman is an active conductor and classical trombonist.
He sits as the principal trombone of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, one of the best orchestras in the United States and considered top-tier worldwide.
He has the distinction of being the youngest person to earn a principal chair in the brass section of any major orchestra when he took over with Chicago at the age of 25.
This record was broken in 2022 by another trombone player (not featured on this list because he’s still too young, but I’m sure he’ll make it).
George Roberts played with Urbie Green and learned a lot from him! But what he picked up from Urbie he did on the bass trombone.
George was an inspiration for bass trombonists everywhere, especially in the jazz genre.
Troy Andrews, better known by his stage name Trombone Shorty, is a wildly popular musician for his performance skills on the trombone and how he gives back to his community.
A New Orleans native, he tours and records with his group, Stooges Brass Band, and is popular on social media for their engaging street performances.
Doc Bob, as his students call him, is an active trombone player and pedagogue.
He currently teaches trombone at Central Michigan University and is a Selmer Bach Artist and consultant.
Doc has a wide experience in both the classical world (performing with many orchestras, including the Detroit Symphony Orchestra) and the jazz world (including the Jimmy Dorsey orchestra).
As such, he is one of the top trombone teachers for trombone teachers. CMU awarded him the Excellence In Teaching Award. He plans on retiring from active teaching in 2023.
We don’t usually think of the English as big jazz people, but Don Lusher broke this mold.
Living from 1923-2006, he performed American jazz trombone with big bands and smaller jazz groups, including the Ted Heath Big Band.
Twice he served as the President of the British Trombone Society.
Doug Yeo is a bass trombonist who played with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and taught trombone at Arizona State University and now Wheaton College.
He is one of the most sought-after teachers of the bass trombone and classical trombone players in general.
The International Trombone Association gave him their highest ITA Award in 2014 “in recognition of his distinguished career and in acknowledgment of his impact on the world of trombone performance.”
Grachan Moncur III
Moncur had jazz in his blood. His family was filled with skilled jazz musicians.
It made sense for him to apply this love and skill of music to the trombone.
He performed with notables like:
- Jackie McClean
- Art Blakey
- Ray Charles
- Sonny Rollins
- Herbie Hancock
- Wayne Shorter
Further Reading: How To Clean Your Trombone Mouthpiece (And Prevent Gunk!)