William Wells (June 10, 1907 or 1909 – November 12, 1985), known as Dicky Wells (sometimes Dickie Wells), was an African-American jazz trombonist. Wells remains as one of the great classic representatives of jazz trombone, and one of that instrument’s most significant players of all time. Like all accomplished soloists, Wells had his own distinctive voice, characterized by a broad, wide, vibrato, a sound that was both firm and soft, combining dignity with a sense of humor. His phrasing was fluid and melodic, but also made use of rhythmic contrast and sudden jumps from one end of the scale to the other. Sometimes a mere two or three notes appropriately placed by Wells could propel the band to new heights.
Dicky Wells was born in Centerville, Tennessee and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. He moved to New York City in 1926, where he became a member of the Lloyd Scott band. In the following years, he played in various orchestras, including Spike Hughes, Benny Carter, and most importantly Fletcher Henderson. His stay with Henderson in the early 1930s shows him in full mastery of his talent. Replacing the more dramatic J.C. Higginbotham, Wells contributed to the band’s transition to a fluid swing style. In the Henderson band, he became a major solo voice, interacting with other stars of the orchestra like Coleman Hawkins, Henry “Red” Allen, Buster Bailey and many others (King Porter Stomp, 1933). During that time, Dicky Wells also participated in recordings with other musicians, some of whom were like him members of the Henderson band. Particularly remarkable is a set of 1933 recordings with Coleman Hawkins and Red Allen (I Wish I Cold Shimmy Like My Sister Kate).
In the late 1930s, Wells toured Europe with the Teddy Hill band. In Paris, he impressed French jazz critic Hugues Panassié, who recruited him for a series of excellent recordings, on which he was joined by Django Reinhardt on guitar and Bill Coleman on trumpet (Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, Oh, Lady Be Good, Japanese Sandman).
Back in the United States, Dicky Wells joined the emerging band of Count Basie, with whom he stayed between 1938-1945 and again in 1947-1950. With Basie, Wells achieved real fame, his style fully matured in a band where he was perfectly at ease (Dickie’s Dream, Taxi War Dance, Panassié Stomp, Harvard Blues, a duo with singer Jimmy Rushing). In the Basie band and elsewhere, Dicky Wells mixed an upbeat swing style with a strong sense for the blues.
In the latter part of his life, Wells also played with Jimmy Rushing, Buck Clayton, and other Basie alumni, as well as Ray Charles and B.B. King, to name a few. He toured Europe again with small formations, but was no longer in the limelight. He died on November 12, 1985, in New York City after several years of declining health due to alcoholism.
Along with Jack Teagarden, Lawrence Brown and a few others, Wells fully transformed the once cumbersome trombone into a powerful yet mobile instrument that had its full place in the swing era. In the New Orleans style, trombone players did have their place, but it was somewhat limited to a supporting role (exemplified by Kid Ory’s famous “tailgate” style), while the trumpet played the lead and the clarinet surrounded it with a flurry of rapid notes. Trombonists like Jimmy Harrison, J.C. Higginbotham and Miff Mole considerably expanded on that initial role. They began to use the trombone as a melodic instrument, much like the trumpet players did with their horn, something that requires great technique with the trombone. In addition to being great artists in their own right, they created the foundation for the swing style exemplified by Wells. What Wells did was add a touch of easy-going smoothness, without altering the powerful presence of his instrument. In turn, Wells would later be cited as an influence by bop trombone legend J.J. Johnson, himself an example of effortless ease.
At the same time, Dicky Well is noted for his speech-like playing. The ability to produce sounds that express human feelings in ways similar to those of speech is common to many jazz musicians and not limited to the trombone. “Speaking,” rather than just playing through one’s instrument is part of the immediacy and strong emotional content of the jazz idiom. Among trombone players, Duke Ellington’s Trick Sam Nanton was famous for his speech-like technique, but in his case the effect was produced by the use of the wah-wah mute. Wells managed to speak to the audience mostly through his open horn.
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