Written by guest columnist and British trombonist Becky Pepper March 2023
Callum Au is one the most significant artists on the U.K. Jazz scene today. His list of accolades as a player is outstanding enough, but it’s his work as an arranger and composer both in, and breaking out of, the big band style that have really catapulted him to the forefront of the music scene. Micheal Bublé, Quincy Jones, The Metropole Orkest and the BBC Concert Orchestra are a tiny handful of the massive artists he has collaborated with. You wouldn’t have thought any of this however, when I caught up with Callum for a quick chat one afternoon in March, as we both grabbed a few minutes between medical appointments. It’s a credit to his success that it was hard to tie him down, but in our conversation he was so generous, open and realistically down to earth. We discussed the U.K. trombone scene, the differences between a university and conservatoire education, advice for young players, balancing excellence with perfectionism and finding things harder in your 30’s than your 20’s…
BP: Hi Callum! Could you give us your “elevator pitch” – who are you and what do you do?!
CA: My name is Callum Au; I am an arranger, composer, orchestrator, trombonist. I work in London mostly, though I arrange for people all over the world. As a trombonist, my “gig”, or the band in which I have I have a recurring chair is the Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra, the big band at Ronnie’s. I also play freelance stuff in and around London, as a mostly ‘non-classical’ trombonist.
BP: As a mostly ‘classical’ trombonist, I like that! But I do get where you’re coming from!
CA: ‘Non-classical’ is a better term than ‘jazz’ because very little of what trombonists do is purely jazz.
BP: So, what made you choose the trombone?
CA: I didn’t really! I imagine this happens to a lots of kids – I was in the school music teacher’s class in primary school, maybe 8 years old, and the brass instruments came out the cupboard. We were told that three of us were going to learn the brass instruments – we had a trumpet, a tenor horn and a trombone. She tested everyone’s singing, to see if they could sing back the pitch, as especially with brass, if you don’t have that sense of pitch, it’s a non-starter. So, of the children she deemed could sing in pitch best, she assigned instruments to. I was a big kid – I’m a big adult – but of my year group I was probably the largest, and as the only one who could reach the sixth position, I was given the trombone.
BP: And you stuck with it!
CA: I had a fab teacher at school, called Terry Reaney, formerly a trumpet player with the Syd Lawrence Orchestra, back in the days when they had a gruelling touring schedule – so I was very lucky to get him, as most peripatetic teachers outside the major cities (I grew up in Blackpool) are not of that quality.
BP: Did having that great teacher get you going on the path to playing professionally?
CA: That’s what got me to the stage where I was playing semi-professionally. I was able to do a lot more a lot younger, because I had that grounding.
BP: What has been your highlight of 2023, so far?
CA: Probably my concert at Cadogan Hall this January. It was the long delayed launch of my album, Songs and Stories that I did with Claire Martin, the great British jazz singer. We had originally planned to do it in 2020, we rescheduled to 2021, then it got cancelled again! This was our third attempt at getting it together. I had an orchestra, I was conducting, I played one tune and wrote all the arrangements and/or compositions. It was an amazing night. We had a fabulous trombone section – Andy Wood, Mark Nightingale, Matt Lewis and Barry Clements. It was so humbling to hear that music played by that section, in a live setting.
BP: Have you got a career highlight overall? Or was that it?!
CA: That might well have been it! As a trombonist, the best gig I’ve ever done was probably a week at Ronnie’s with Maria Schneider, the famous big band composer and arranger, out of New York. She came over mid/late 2019 we played 3 or 4 nights of her music in the club. We also had 3 days of rehearsal, which is a massive rarity as you’ll know, especially in the big band world. It was an amazing experience to get to go deep into that repertoire and see how it all bit together. We had a great section: I play second trombone in that band, Andy Flaxman is the leader, Alistair White and Mark Frost.
BP: Has anything about having a career as a trombonist or arranger, whichever side you’d like to fall (or both!), surprised you at all?
CA: Yes of course! You don’t really know going in, what you’re getting yourself in for! There’s a lot of unrealistic expectations. I was never quite sure what would would be possible and what shape a career would take. It’s a busy world, there are a lot of trombonists and a lot of arrangers. When I was starting out I would never have known if I was going to be a trombonist, if I was going to be an arranger, a combination of the two, or do something else entirely! I guess having the career at all is still a source of surprise to me!
BP: For sure! I think you’re a great example of making a success of it as well! Do you think your perspective of a musical career is different because you went to a university rather than a conservatoire?
CA: I did, yes.
BP: As a conservatoire graduate myself, we were channelled more into the idea of being ‘a player’ or ‘a teacher’. Do you think you got more of a rounded experience, coming from an academic background?
CA: I think I had a better idea gong in, of ‘what else’ was on offer. I feel like a lot of musicians go to Wells/Chets/Purcell [specialist music] schools, then onto college at the Royal Academy/ Birmingham/Trinity etc. and then start working, as a musician in some capacity. They have no contact with anyone who isn’t a musician from the start of their careers at all.
BP: Yes! That was my life, so I totally get what you mean!
CA: I wouldn’t advise that route to anyone nowadays. I think you need to know what else is possible; not that being a musician is a bad thing, or a good thing – it is what it is. It can’t be the only possibility. Going to university gave me a lot more perspective on what else was going on and how I could do things. Also, I don’t think I’d be doing the arranging if I’d not gone to a university – I don’t think it happens that way at conservatoire.
BP: No, not really. I did a few electives on arranging, but it’s not done as rigorously and debinitely not given as a career path, at least when I was at college. We did it out of necessity but not as a way of providing a service or marketing yourself. With that perspective is there any other advice you would give to young people starting out now?
CA: Went to a NYJO [National Youth Jazz Orchestra] concert recently and one of the young players asked me this! It’s a really hard question to answer because the business is always getting smaller. When I was his age (I sound like an old fart – I’m only in my mid-30’s! So 15 years ago) the section that you would see on everything was: Gordon Campbell, Andy Wood, Mark Nightingale and Dave Stewart on bass. Nowadays the section you see on everything is: Andy Wood, Mark Nightingale, Trevor Mires and usually on bass, Dave Stewart. So there’s only been one seat rotation in all that time. Once upon a time there was just a lot more work. In fact, Gordon himself told me, that when he moved to London to start his career at 18-19 years old, I’m guessing around 50 years ago, he moved to Wimbledon [borough of southwest London, famed for the tennis tournament], and in Wimbledon alone there were 15 trombone jobs.
BP: That’s mad!
CA: Yeah! And maybe now there are around 40 trombone jobs across all of London and I’m counting all the orchestras, opera, ballet and West End. You’ve got to be excellent. There are so many brilliant players competing for so few places and you’ve got to take every opportunity you can because you don’t know which one will develop into something you do a lot of. I’m in the Ronnie Scotts big band, purely because in my early 20’s, there were a string of absences in the regular band at that time and it was dumb luck because I was always available. Out of the available deps, I’d always done the last gig.
BP: As well as being ready, also having the ability to turn up and do a good job.
CA: Yes, but all of that plus excellence, still isn’t enough. You’ve got be willing to do anything you can to succeed and be fully prepared and still know it might not work out. The other advice I’d give is that I do the odd bilm sessions and most are big band, for obvious reasons, but maybe one in four are orchestral and I’m required to play my large bore. Because I had practiced my large bore a lot in my early 20’s I can play large bore. Even though I’d not used it in my career until maybe the last 4 years or so, it was something I’d picked up and made sure I could make the sound.
BP: That versatility as a jazz player is so useful, coming from the classical side it can be really hard to meet and bind that sound as a section, so having that attitude is so great.
CA: I’ve got a baby now, a 14 month old, and another one on the way. If I’d waited for that call to come in to practice my large bore, for example I did 2nd trombone for Black Panther recently, which required large bore trombone, I wouldn’t have been able to say yes. So my binal piece of advice I’d say is use your 20’s. As you get older and get more commitments, family and all the other things you end up doing you don’t ever have the time again.
BP: Indeed and not wanting to say for you, but I bind I don’t have the same energy anymore!
CA: Oh god, yeah! Especially since baby number one has been up every night for the last year, I certainly don’t have the same energy anymore!
BP: Yeah, that’s all really useful stuff, and I think that there’s always room for people to try these things and bind their niche.
CA: Yes, indeed. Another thing I did in my early 20’s was learn euphonium and get my valves together and that still hasn’t been any use! Some things will be useful, some won’t, but you have to be prepared!
BP: Do you think the U.K trombone scene has changed across the course of your career?
CA: The young players are just incredible nowadays, people like the Bone-Abide quartet. People of my generation are great of course, but some colleagues and I went to see the Bone-Abide quartet recently and we were bloored. They’re all remarkable. So here’s something quite interesting: think of Mark Nightingale, obviously a towering bigure in the British trombone world. All the jazz players younger than him play differently to the players older than him. The ones younger than him have heard him play and therefore have that as their benchmark to aim for. I think with the advent of YouTube and Spotify, everyone’s benchmark is so high. I got internet when I was about 15 or 16, so I got the tail end of this benebit, but the ones who have grown up with it and don’t know any different, they’ve got such an amazing resource because their benchmark from the very start is the best person it could possibly be – be that Mark Nightingale, Christian Lindberg, Zoltan Kiss or whomever it may be. So you get these young players leaving college in their early 20’s, sounding like international soloists. That’s something I bind remarkable. The quality of playing is as high as it has ever been. On the blip side, the amount of work is probably as low as it’s ever been! The Bone-Abide quartet are just sensational, and they aren’t the only ones; there’s the great quartet who made the opera video…
BP: Slide Action!
CA: Yes – they’re just as good!
BP: So, maybe that’s where we will see more of that break-out chamber stuff that is self made and self marketed?
CA: Yes, I hope so!
BP: So binally if you could go back and talk to 17-18 year old Callum, is there anything you’d want him to know?
CA: Don’t bother with the euphonium! I’m joking (sort of!). No, I’m pretty happy with where I’ve ended up. The one thing I’d say is, don’t be too precious about the stuff that you’re putting out. It’s really easy to be an utter perfectionist and spend days and days and days on a single track and not release anything! If you’re too precious, you never put anything out. Certainly earlier, I would agonise over things for ages and put them out very infrequently. To be honest the time would have been better spent doing more things, slightly less well. Or not less well, but with less agonising! Volume at all costs, volume of output not playing!
BP: So what have you got coming up for the rest of this year, besides a new baby?!
CA: New baby in July, so that’ll be a big deal! I’m working on a piece for Bone-Abide, which will be great – well I’ve not actually started it yet, but they’ll play it great! Louis Dowdswell, the trumpet player has a new album coming out; I’ve binished the writing and we’ve done about 70% of the recording, the last session is coming up on the 13th March. When that is done, we’ll be releasing the singles, so that’ll be great fun. I do a lot of work with various orchestras, I’ve got projects for the Metropole Orkest and BBC Concert Orchestra but they’re little bits and bobs.
BP: Thank you so much for your time!
CA: You’re welcome.
Callum’s Album is available on his website here: https:// callumaumusic.com/shop/albums/songs-and-stories/ (U.K. only) and worldwide on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Songs Stories-Callum-Claire-Martin/dp/B088N941BY And you can stream it on all the regular platforms