The first thing you need to know about bass trombonist Jennifer Wharton, who will bring a septet to Akron and Cleveland this week, is that she has a delightfully playful sense of humor. The second thing you should know is that she’s nobody’s fool. So when she chose Bonegasm as the name of her four-trombone band, she knew she would hear about it.
“Being a lady brass player, my suit of armor, my protection for most of my career was my humor. If I could hang with the guys and tell jokes, whatever,” Wharton said in a humor-filled video call from her home in the New York area. “But I have been in a couple situations where I can give as good as I get, and people have been offended because it’s a woman saying it.”
Her response to them? “Well, bite me,” she said laughing.
“If you’re a trombone player,” she added, “you hear boner jokes from the time you pick up the instrument. So this is not shocking to any trombonist. It’s only shocking to these people–these men–clutching their pearls.”
Wharton has nothing against men. Her band is full of them, including Cleveland native John Fedchock, a fellow trombonist who is also Wharton’s husband. But she’s the boss.
Her sidemen include a rhythm section of Evan Gregor on bass, drummer Don Peretz and pianist Manuel Valera, while the other trombonists are Alan Ferber and Nate Mayland.
Four trombones, many colors
Bonegasm’s new release Grit & Grace (Sunnyside Records, 2023). is a showcase for the many colors and textures a four-trombone frontline can summon and a tour de force for some of the instrument’s most adept soloists. Wharton credits the work of the composers who contributed to the new recording.
“One of the core things about the band was to commission people to . . . treat us not only as melodic instruments but also treat us differently harmonically,” Wharton said. “I decided I was going to put them in a box and pay them to fall in love with the trombone.”
Mission accomplished as those composers, including Carolina Calvache, Natalie Cressman, Miho Hazama and Fedchock, responded with music of nuance and variety. “In Our Darkest Hour” emerges from the shadows full of portent, but the closing “Coop’s Condiments” is an exultant love-letter of a list song inspired by a favorite New Orleans restaurant.
For the first time on a Bonegasm recording, Wharton gave herself a composer credit. “I did not write for the band until this third album because I wanted to make sure I had something to say and I wanted to make sure it would stand up against what other people were writing,” she said. “I’m really excited and I also feel very vulnerable about it.”
Some of the vulnerability Wharton feels might come from the unusual path she took to a music career.
From cheerleader to bandleader
Growing up in Pittsburg, California, Wharton’s family did not encourage her love of making music. “When I said I was gonna be a music major, my whole family laughed at me, like they all thought I was going to be homeless or something,” she said, adding, “I did quit playing for a while” I became a cheerleader, which, I guess, is a story most trombone players probably don’t have.”
Enrolling in her local junior college, Wharton was encouraged by her band director. “That’s the reason I’m here today,” she said. Wharton’s training was primarily classical, and she admits that in Bonegasm, “I’m the baby in the band with improvisation.”
Yet her technical command is sovereign, a must for the demanding and lucrative Broadway work that forms the backbone of her career. And despite coming late to jazz, she seems to be in the section of every major big band in New York, including Sam Blakeslee‘s. “He’s such a cool guy and I really like the way he handles his business,“ she said of her fellow trombonist.
Though she’s often the only woman in the band, Wharton doesn’t see herself as a pioneer and is quick to acknowledge the accomplishments of her predecessors. “I will say about being female in the business that there were always women,” she asserted. “Their stories just aren’t told.”
Maybe that’s why whether she’s in the pit orchestra of a Broadway show, a big band section or onstage with her own group, Jennifer Wharton is writing her own story, and doing so with grit and grace.