Given the best evidence, which by all accounts is very much incomplete, the earliest trombone, called the sackbutt and similar names in England, seems to have emerged from Belgium circa 1450. Though the earliest examples of this instrument date to a century later (circa 1550), direct references to musicians and their instruments, and surviving artwork, both establish the existence of the saxbutt circa 1450.
The bells of these earliest instruments terminated in a rimless funnel little wider than 5" in diameter (13cm). Like the modern trombone, these were a tenor instrument, and by the early 17th century there was an alto, a bass and a contrabass version.
These early instruments often came with a variety of crooks, to lower the pitch a tone or more, or in some cases to drop the range of a particular instrument to the next register.
These early instruments were known to have been used to accompany church music, and to have played parts in bands, though parts for these instruments were rarely scored. The evidence suggests that the players of these instruments read from parts that, though not written specifically for these instruments (or any other), were nevertheless intended to be part of the performance practice of the day.
The addition of trombones to the orchestra began in the 18th century, though their most popular role was as vocal support for the sacred music of the church, a tradition which continued until at least the mid-19th century. An excellent example of this type of scoring can be found in such music as Fanny Mendelsson-Hensel's Oratorio based upon scenes from the Bible. Gluck, Gossec and Mozart wrote passages for the trombone intended to be spiritual or supernatural; Gluck commonly used three members of the trombone family- altos, tenors and basses.
By the mid-19th century, bell-size became wider as a larger, louder sound was desired, for performance in bands, and to generate greater volume in orchestras which were continually increasing in size. Composers like Berlioz and Wagner relied heavily on trombones for bigger volume, and a far greater range of emotion expressing might, heroism, barbarism, religious fervor, and, it must be admitted, the spectacle of sheer volume for its own sake. This no doubt prompted Richard Strauss to utter the famous quote, "Never look at the trombones ... it only encourages them."
By this time, though the role of the trombone in band and classical music was pretty much set, by the end of the 19th century the trombone found itself in the hands of early jazz musicians, in New Orleans, USA. The various types of jazz were: New Orleans jazz (1870's to the 1920's), Ragtime (circa 1890-1930), what some called the Jazz Era (1910's-1930), the Big Band or Swing Era (1930's-1940's), the Be Bop Era (1940's- 1950's), the Avant Guard Era (late 1950's), Free Jazz (late 1950's), and Fusion (1960's-1970's).
In early jazz the trombone played a more or less functional role, and was usually present as a single instrument. Early jazz bands consisted of a wide variety of instruments, but by the 1930's became more or less standardised, consisting most often of four trombones, four saxophones, four trumpets, and the rhythm section which was made up of bass or tuba, drums, piano, and guitar or banjo.
One soloist of particular note, Tommy Dorsey, was the first to play the trombone as a singing, lyrical solo instrument- a far cry from its more Wagnerian association of the previous century.
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