The late Luther Blount of Warren was many things: shipbuilder, captain, entrepreneur, engineer, inventor, philanthropist, father.
But another group of people are honoring a lesser-known side of the man. When he wasn’t designing and building ships, operating his cruise lines, re-populating Narragansett Bay with oysters or donating millions to various causes, every now and then Mr. Blount would take a moment to blow his trombone.
He loved the instrument so much that, a few years before he died, Mr. Blount formed an all-trombone ensemble called The Ocean Bones. Now in its 10th year, the group recently played a free show at Barrington Public Library which — to the great surprise of everyone on stage — drew over 100 people.
“Somebody must have put in a bogus claim for us,” quipped Neil Thomsen of Barrington, a founding member of the group and longtime friend of Mr. Blount’s. “Except for three or four of us, we’re just a bunch of duffers.”
As for Mr. Blount’s skills on the trombone, those who knew him say he was no great shakes himself. To paraphrase an old Johnny Cash song, Luther played the trombone in the strangest kind of way.
“Terrible,” said Mr. Thomsen, before offering a more generous assessment. “I mean, he was OK. He could play a tune.”
His musicianship didn’t really matter, as Mr. Blount’s passion for the trombone was in his blood.
“His father was a trombone player from The American Band, and he traveled all over. And his dad played trombone. So he comes from a line of trombone players,” said daughter Julie Blount, who has fond memories of her dad chasing the kids around the house with his trombone, jabbing the slide at them.
Mr. Blount even played trombone at his church, First United Methodist in Warren, performing duets with the organist.
“Course, he wasn’t always in tune,” noted Ms. Blount.
Added Mr. Thomsen, “He’d be up in the balcony with a silly trombone, totally out of place, and would play along with the choir or just his own solos while church is going on.”
Despite his elevated perch, Mr. Blount never missed the collection plate. Mr. Thomsen said the guys at the shipyard rigged it up so their boss could lower his offering in a tin cup on a string.
“He was a character,” said Mr. Thomsen.
Started with a quartet
The idea for The Ocean Bones came to the shipbuilder shortly after Mr. Thomsen tried to get his friend to take the instrument more seriously.
“I told Luther that he was going to play with me in the senior orchestra in Providence,” said Mr. Thomsen, 73, who’s also a member of the Providence Civic Orchestra of Senior Citizens. “He said, ‘No, I’m not.’ The next thing you know he started playing.”
Soon afterward, in 2002, Mr. Blount formed the East Bay Trombone Quartet. But as he was wont to do, he started thinking bigger — as in “76 Trombones” bigger.
He talked to Larry Perlman, who was then handling the live music on the Bay Queen cruises. “Luther asked me how many trombone players were in Rhode Island,” recalled Mr. Perlman, now the director of The Ocean Bones. “I said I had no idea.”
So Mr. Blount put an ad in the Providence Journal, which promised that any trombone player who showed up in Warren on a particular date would get a free cruise and a dinner on the Bay Queen.
Fifty-seven people, some more honest than others, answered the ad.
“Some people who showed up had never played the trombone before,” said Mr. Perlman.
Although he was shy of his goal, Mr. Blount had enough trombone players on which to draw a decent ensemble. The list was whittled down to about 10 trombones — “people who were really serious about it,” said Mr. Perlman.
Bass, drums round out sound
In front of a capacity crowd at the Barrington library Nov. 25, The Ocean Bones — about 10 trombones plus a rhythm section of drums and upright bass — ran through a set list that featured mainly titles from the Great American Songbook — “I’ll Never Smile Again,” “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” — as well as some patriotic tunes.
Justin Beaulieu of Warren, one of the trombonists who answered Mr. Blount’s ad a decade ago, said he loved playing music from long ago. “We play a lot of the old stuff, going back to the early 1900s,” he said.
Of course, it’s impossible for the band to avoid playing “76 Trombones,” the signature tune from the musical “The Music Man.” The group uses an arrangement written by former Ocean Bones member Lou Ricci, who once directed the Portsmouth middle and high school bands.
Mr. Perlman said the four-part ensemble shows off the full potential of the trombone, a widely misunderstood instrument.
“A lot of people are used to seeing the trombone in Dixieland bands or in circus bands — things of that nature. But this instrument has a whole array of possibilities,” he told the crowd. “When you hear all four parts, it’s amazing what a trombone ensemble can sound like. It’s not that loud, raucous-sounding instrument you may remember it to be.”
Audience members received a special treat when they were introduced to 86-year-old George Masso, one of the best musicians ever to come out of Rhode Island. Mr. Masso played trombone in bands led by Benny Goodman and Jimmy Dorsey and also has several solo albums under his name.
He acted as guest conductor for a song he wrote especially for the group called “Dancing Bones.” The title, he said, comes from an old musical expression, “It ain’t no sin to take off your skin and dance around in your bones.”
Primarily a service organization
Most of the other musicians are not in Mr. Masso’s league, however; the band usually plays nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
“The group is really a service organization as much as it is anything else,” said Matt McGarrell, a trombonist who is also director of bands at Brown University. “It’s a service for the people in the band as well as a service to the public. There are people in this group who are well into their 80s — almost 90. It keeps their brains active, it keeps their bodies moving.”
Apparently it’s working. Mr. Thomsen pointed to a gentleman to his right. “He’s the lead trombone player and he’s 90-something. He’s getting married again,” he said.
While there are other trombone ensembles in the country — Mr. McGarrell plays with a group of professional players called the Gazebones — very few have “this mission,” he said.
Of course, The Ocean Bones has another purpose as well: to honor its founder and friend, Luther Blount.
“Whoever shows up, shows up. We just keep it going. We just lost one — someone died last week. It happens,” said Mr. Thomsen.
“Every Saturday we practice and think of Luther.”