APRIL WEST: Virtuosity and Versatility
It was sometime in August on a warm summer evening. I remember that the clouds hung low over Point Loma, making for a brilliant sunset. A Saturday night, my girlfriend and I went out dancing, leaving her teenage daughters home with some videos and the chores to clean up after dinner.
We made it to a nightspot not far from my girlfriend’s place. I can’t remember the name, but it was small, dark, with a matchbox sized dance floor. We ordered drinks, and the band started up. They were a lively bunch, a six-piece—three horns, piano, bass, and drums. They played songs that made you want to dance and made you smile, too, old Nat King Cole and Louis Jordan numbers like “Got a Penny, Benny” and “Open the Door, Richard.” We hit the dance floor when the band launched into “Take the A Train.”
One thing I most certainly remember, on the right side of the stage was the bass player, dressed in black, who had a constant repartee going on with the trombonist next to him. The trombonist wore a dark pencil skirt with a white blouse, a patterned vest, and a small hat tipped to the side of her short red hair.
The band was Tobacco Road, and the trombonist was April West. Since that time in the early nineties, West has gone on to distinguish herself as the most prominent locally performing trombonist, playing with a slew of top-notch, award-wining ensembles.
I spent a recent morning with West on her back patio. We sat in folding beach chairs, while rain from an unexpected summer shower pitter-patted on the patio’s roof. A paddleboard rested next to a bicycle. Tall bamboo and other greenery walled off the backyard, as though we were somewhere in the tropics.
The pandemic has been especially difficult for musicians, and West has been no exception. “It was rough at the beginning. There were no gigs and I was worried about money,” she says. Like other musicians, West had trouble with the state unemployment office, which was complicated because she not only earned money as a musician but also as an educator. “There were some depressed days,” she adds.
But the last 16 months have not been a total downer for West. During the pandemic she rediscovered the joys of listening to music and dancing. “I was listening to Bruno Mars and other stuff like that. Just dancing here at home,” she says. For musicians and a great number of music lovers who crave variety, things like Spotify and Pandora can be frustrating. Their algorithms find music that sounds like the music that they have played for you before. That might be fine for a lot of folks, but West wants variety. Her eyes light up when she tells me about being cooped up at home and discovering Radio Garden, an online music service. “They give you a globe and there are all these green dots all over the globe, and each dot is a radio station.” She also joined up with the Big Tree Brass Band that played in a socially-distanced style in Balboa Park during the pandemic.
Music filled West’s home when she was growing up in the Midwest, and the young West was an avid music fan from the very beginning. “I couldn’t wait for fifth grade band practice,” she says. “One of my favorite memories is lying under my mother’s baby grand piano while my mother played.” West remembers watching her mother’s feet work the pedals while the music of “Claire de Lune,” “Never on Sunday,” and Broadway show tunes washed down over her.
She and her siblings received piano lessons from their mother on that baby grand. When it came time for West to chose an instrument of her own, aware that her family’s finances weren’t the best, she tried to be as thoughtful as she could. Her sister played the saxophone, and her brother played the trombone. Thinking that she could save her parents the expense of buying another instrument, she chose the trombone that she imagined that she would share with her brother. “I’m not sure if it’s some kind of chicken and egg thing, but I like tenor sounds. I like bassoons, French horns, and cellos. And the trombone seemed fun. My brother was always coming home telling stories of the fun he had playing in the band. It didn’t occur to me later that if I was playing the trombone, then my brother couldn’t play the trombone,” West says with a wry smile.
West majored in music education and music therapy at Western Illinois University in Macomb, a small town two hours west of Bloomington. After two years, she took a sabbatical to practice the trombone. Her sister was living in San Diego and allowed her to live with her rent-free for a year.
The second week she was in San Diego West, her sister, and friends went out to hear some music. They caught a show by Stone’s Throw, a band that received a great deal of notoriety in the eighties and was fronted by multi-instrumentalist Molly Stone. While the band took a break, her sister’s friend approached the band and talked up West’s talents.
The next thing that West knew, she was invited to a jam session, a jam session that, looking back, seemed suspiciously like an audition. There she met Sue Palmer and others who would comprise many of her musical associates through the years. She was asked to join a band, a band that wound up being Ms. B. Haven, a rock pop band, as the band’s bass player. “I had picked up the bass; in a lot of music the trombone lines are the same as the bass lines,” she says. “We did a lot of pop stuff like the Rolling Stones, Disco. We used to play a lot at The Club, which is now The Casbah.”
West went back to the Midwest, finished her degree at the University of Illinois, came to San Diego for a vacation, and never left. She worked more than 20 years as an educator in the San Diego school system, teaching music in elementary schools and traveling to nine or ten schools a week. “Going to so many schools and seeing so many students, you miss out on the personal interaction, but I liked my work. I actually loved doing lesson plans, tweaking them, getting them better. And I liked it when the behavior of the students was good,” she says.
For the last three years West has worked as a substitute teacher, including during the pandemic and doing the online screen-time thing. “Some classes were great. All the kids showed up; there was great participation and all the kids were good,” she says of her online teaching experience. “But there was one class, almost all of he kids didn’t show up for. Total attendance was six kids in all. And they all had their video off; so I was teaching to a blank screen.”
West performed with Tobacco Road for that band’s lifetime of about 12 years. Tobacco Road featured such performers as saxophonists Chris Klich and Eric Hybertsen, drummer Sharon Shufelt, San Diego’s Queen of Boogie Woogie Sue Palmer, bassist Preston Coleman, and trumpeter Phil Shopoff.
West’s longest musical association, and maybe what she is most known for, is performing as part of Sue Palmer’s Motel Swing Orchestra. Over decades, the ensemble has appeared everywhere in San Diego, from the Belly Up Tavern to street fairs and concerts in the parks. Sometimes it’s the full band, other times it turns into the Motel Swing Trio or Motel Swing Quartet, or Motel Swing and fill in the number of musicians scheduled for the gig.
The band’s recordings have been recognized by the San Diego Music Awards over the years, garnering nominations for best blues and jazz albums. In 2003, the band’s release Live at Dizzy’s won the local music foundation’s Best Blues Album Award.
“This is more than ten years ago,” West says. “Steve Ebner, the trumpet player, asked me if I wanted to join a Dixieland band.” With images of dressing up in vests and straw hats and churning out tunes like “Swannee River” night after night, West originally turned Ebner down. Once he explained that the idea of a Dixieland band included material by such bands as the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and funk selections, West was certainly interested.
The brand of New Orleans brass band music that the Euphoria Brass Band plays is raw and raucous. “It’s the equivalent of adding a distortion pedal to your guitar,” West says. The rhythm is funky, the arrangements are exuberant, and the soloists take things to another level. “The only problem is that the public doesn’t understand what a brass band is.” When most people hear the term “brass band” they think of high school bands in uniforms marching on football fields.
West appreciated the new challenge that the band presented. “After playing jazz and swing for so long, I had to relearn the blues scale for this band,” she says “And the arrangements have me playing in a higher register than what I’d been playing before. It’s a lovely kick in the head.” West and the other Euphoria Brass Band members have shared the stage with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Dr. John, Trombone Shorty, and other notable bands and musicians. Nominated several times for San Diego Music Awards, the band received the award for Best Jazz in 2019.
For about as long as West has played with the Euphoria Brass Band, she has played with the Bi-National Mambo Orchestra. West loves all the ensembles she performs with, and loves all the music, too. But she does take note of the prominent role that the trombone plays in Latin music, and how it is featured. “I think Latin music is where the trombone is truly respected,” she says. “I’ve never heard a trombone disparaged in that world, but I have in classical, jazz, and rock, of course. A salsa band might hire only trombone players.”
Founded by trumpet player Bill Caballero, the Bi-National Mambo Orchestra features the classic sounds of the Cuban big bands from the 1940s through the early 1960s. Think of Ricky Ricardo and his band, and you have an idea of what the Bi-national Mambo Orchestra produces.
“And I’m now playing with the Tighten Ups!” West says. “I thought I was going to be their substitute bass player, but I’m their trombone player now.” West joined the seven or possibly eight-piece band, fronted by singer Laura Jane Wilcock, in the last several weeks. Nominated for Best Cover/Tribute Band by the San Diego Music Awards in 2009, the Tighten Ups’ repertoire includes funk, soul, and rhythm and blues, but is largely a rock band that features horns.
And, dear reader, we’ve reached the part of the profile that you’ve been waiting for. Perhaps many of you have skipped ahead, your curiosity piqued to such a degree. Through her musical career, West is known for playing the trombone with her foot, grasping the slide with her toes and, well, doing that trombone magic from the knee down.
“I was in college, and I saw someone wearing a T shirt with a monkey playing trombone with his foot.” It seemed physically possible for a human, so West gave it a try. “I thought I was the first person to do it, but I’ve seen it done in old films. Turns out it’s an old schtick,” she says. “But I’m the only one to try it in a skirt!”
West says that she’s pleased to do this sort of novelty act from time to time, although there have been a small number of times when she’s been roped into doing it again and again, because it turned into something folks expected to see. “I’m fine doing it,” she says. “It’s like music, it makes people happy.”