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Remembering Bill Watrous

June 8, 1939 – July 2, 2018

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A tribute to one of jazz’s finest trombonists

Bill Watrous (June 8, 1939 – July 2, 2018) was an innovative trombonist whose effortless speed, wide range and beautiful tone were influential.

He began playing trombone under the guidance of his father who was also a trombonist.

Watrous served in the Navy where he had an opportunity to study with the legendary pianist-composer Herbie Nichols.

He made his recording debut with the Kai Winding’s group during 1963-64 and was on many jazz sessions in the 1960s, often playing with large orchestras including with Johnny Richards, Quincy Jones, Maynard Ferguson, Don Sebesky (on a Wes Montgomery album), and Pat Williams.

Watrous, who was in the house band of the Merv Griffin show during 1965-68 and worked with Ten Wheel Drive in 1971, became famous in the jazz world as the leader of the Manhattan Wildlife Refuge Band.

His two big band albums of 1974-75 (Manhattan Wildlife Refuge and The Tiger Of San Pedro) are gems that alerted the jazz world about Watrous’ technique, sound and creative playing.

Also quite impressive are his series of small-group albums (often teamed with trumpeter Danny Stiles) for the Famous Door label.

After permanently moving to Los Angeles in the late 1970s, Watrous remained very active locally, led an occasional big band, and was involved in jazz education although he was sometimes overlooked by those not living in Southern California who forgot just how brilliant a trombonist he remained.

Bill Watrous, who was active until near the end, passed away on July 2, 2018 at the age of 79.

Here is Bill Watrous in 1976 with pianist Chick Corea, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Billy Cobham performing “Nancy With The Laughing Face.”

-Scott Yanow