It’s rare in Jazz music to see a trombone player in the role of band leader. Some of the greatest and most remembered names in Jazz among the vast majority of Americans include: Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk. None of those players ever once led a band with trombone in hand.
While there are notable Jazz greats who played the slide trombone while commanding a room and conducting a band, it still remains common place to have a trumpet be the focal point. Big Sam leads on trombone.
Big Sam was always a big boy. In the 6th grade, he was 6 foot tall and 200 pounds while playing little league basketball. When the time came that he grew out of playing the sport – literally – Sam approached his school’s band leader and asked him what instrument they needed someone to play.
Sam’s band leader replied, “The trombone.”
“What’s that?” Sam said. That’s all it took to hook him.
A few years later, Sam was still busting his chops at trying to master his new-found love in life – the trombone. It wasn’t until a friend’s 16th birthday party that he had that light-bulb over the head moment where he figured out exactly what he wanted to do when he grew up. He wanted to be a Jazz player. But not just any Jazz player. He had one particular band in mind.
Sam started browsing around his friends house at that birthday party and took instant notice of the Billie Holiday, Sonny Rollins, and Miles Davis records sitting on the shelf. He asked the birthday girl if those records were hers, thinking he had discovered one of his classmates shared the same love for Jazz music that he did. As it would turn out, the situation was quite the contrary.
Sam asked her whose records they were. She responded by saying, “That’s my Daddy’s stuff.”
“Well where is he?” Sam replied.
That was it. The girl got her daddy and Sam proceeded to meet one of his idols. Sam had wound up at the home of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s trumpet player where he talked to him for the rest of the party instead of celebrating with his classmates.
From that moment on, Sam’s trombone dreams were clear to him. He would join the Dirty Dozen Brass Band one day. He knew it. He had to. It would be done.
Sam and his friend made a pact that night – to remind her daddy that if the Dirty Dozen Brass Band ever needed a replacement trombone player, they’d call Sam right away. It was no secret how good Sam was on trombone. The school knew. His friends knew. Families knew. The boy played hard and practiced hard, that’s was readily apparent to all.
That girl kept her promise. Both her and her mom nagged on and on until Sam got the call. He’ll never forget it.
“Ready to hit the road?”
“When we leavin’?”
“Tomorrow, tomorrow? For how long?”
“About three months.”
Then, he called his momma. This was in 2000 when Sam had gone off to college not too long before. He knew he couldn’t pass up an opportunity to gain experience in the job he wanted to pursue, but as a good home-grown boy he still had to ask his momma’s permission to go on tour first.
Sam can still remember the first show. “We showed up to an empty theater in Key Stone, Colorado … then all of a sudden come show time there were 20,000 people out there.” He was ecstatic.
After his stint with the DDBB, Sam was inspired to start his own group.
Big Sam is an entertainer who plays the music for himself. It makes him happy. Since he’s happy, all he wants to do is share that happiness. He shares it by getting the audience involved.
“I’m blessed to have the same kind of spirit as those guys [Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong].” And boy oh boy, he isn’t kidding.
Big Sam brings the tradition back to Jazz via his Funky Nation. By leading a fusion based Jazz band that plays dance beats mixed with art music, featuring a funk oriented touch, the Funk Nation serve an extra kick in the giant bowl of Jazzy gumbo they cook up for the audience. The stage is their kitchen and their live show’s the grub. They make it work because Big Sam himself is a combination of some of the finer points in Jazz history.
“I just perform the way I perform,” and how’s that?
He’s got the chops of Louis, the charisma of Dizzy, the oomph of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and the understanding that it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing … that and a whole lotta funk. Sam’s got complete bibliographic control of Jazz music history and that’s what makes the Funky Nation the future of modern Jazz.
They put the funk back into the American two-step. You can’t not dance when you hear Big Sam telling you to shake your booty. If you try to, you’ll be forced to bust a move either way once you hear him rip a totally rockin’ solo on his slide trombone.
What gets these guys in the mood to rock out funky style on a some of Jazz’s biggest stages? “We’re like family, we’re always hanging out …” that and “…we let the food digest [before taking the stage],” he said while laughing.
Big Sam’s Funky Nation has a new record out now on iTunes titled “King of the Party” and will be visiting the DC area next Wednesday, June 2 at Ram’s Head Tavern in Annapolis, Maryland.
Tickets for the show are still available at Ram Head’s website for $22.50.