Fred Beckett: A Modern Jazz Trombonist

By Chris Wiley

Fred Beckett was born in 1917, the same year as Dizzy Gillespie. He grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, but did not begin to develop his musical skills on trombone until becoming a member of his high school’s band. He must have developed quickly, because it was not long before Beckett began to play professionally. After moving to Kansas City, he moved again to St. Louis where he joined a band called “Johnson’s Crakerjacks” in 1934. By 1937, he was playing with Andy Kirk, and in the next years played with “territory” bands of the Kansas City region including, in 1939 and 1940, “Harlan Leonard and his Rockets.”

In 1939 and 40’, musical change was in the air; jazz musicians began to look for new ways of playing in what would eventually evolve into modern jazz. Although Leonard’s band was definitely swing-based, the music it made was foward looking. In fact, Tadd Dameron, who later became an influential composer of the be-bop movement, wrote a healthy amount of the Rockets’ arrangements. The musical environment of Leonard’s band made it a place where players like Beckett could feel free to play how they wanted.

Fred Beckett Sound Clips

A La Bridges
Recorded with Harlan Leonard and his Rockets, 7/15/40
My Gal Sal
Recorded with Harlan Leonard and his Rockets, 1/11/40

These sound clips are provided for educational purposes only.

In 1940, Fred Beckett recorded with Leonard and was allowed a good share of solo space. These solos reveal the wonderful qualities of his playing: a lovely and flexible sound, a facile high range, and perhaps most important, what J.J. Johnson called “tremendous facilities for linear improvisation.” Beckett’s streamlined melodic ideas, like those of Lester Young, left their mark on J.J. early in his career.

In contrast to the somewhat staccato playing style later developed by Johnson, however, Beckett’s articulation was often very legato. In this respect, his style bore a similarity to swing era trombonists like Lawrence Brown, Jack Jenny, and Jack Teagarden. As with Teagarden, Beckett’s technique relied heavily on the fact that notes in the same or adjacent slide positions can easily be “lipped” to produce phrases, negating the need to move the slide long distances. This technique requires that the player have a strong and flexible embouchure, and certainly Fred Beckett had one in spades. Just as important, though, Beckett had an excellent sense of musical construction. A good example is Beckett’s solo on A La Bridges, sculpted by the trombonist to have a lovely rise and fall to its phrases.

Fred Beckett’s career began about three years after Jimmy Harrison’s ended, and like Harrison’s, it ended too soon. After leaving Harlan Leonard in 1940, Fred joined Lionel Hampton’s band, where he stayed until 1944. He died a year later while serving in the military. It is telling that although at the time of his death he was only 28 and his recorded output was comparatively small, Beckett’s work was nonetheless impressive and influential, and remains impressive — if not so well known — today.