Although he's a native son, jazz music fans will forever associate Indy-born trombonist Phil Ranelin with the city of Detroit. It was in Detroit that Ranelin found his voice as an artist, forming the Tribe music collective with musician Wendell Harrison in the early '70s. Functioning as a record label, band and magazine Tribe tapped into the spirit of its era addressing revolutionary concepts in music and political thought, from black consciousness to universal themes of love and peace. The music Ranelin and company released through Tribe has lived on to impact several generations of musicians, influencing works of avant-garde experimentalism, EDM and hip-hop.
While so much of Ranelin's legacy rests on his time in Detroit, the trombonist is undoubtedly a product of the Indianapolis jazz tradition. Ranelin was born in Indianapolis in 1939, received his musical education here and gigged regularly locally until moving to Detroit in the late '60s.
Ranelin will return to Indianapolis for a September 16 date at the Jazz Kitchen. Ranelin's performance is part of the 2014 Indy Jazz Fest series, which also happens to coincide with his own 75th birthday tour.
I spoke with Ranelin via phone from his current home in Los Angeles, a city that has provided Ranelin with all the due praise and honor his hometown has failed to offer. There, Ranelin's birthday is recognized as Phil Ranelin Day, and they've proclaimed the trombonist as a "rare and valuable cultural City Treasure” and a "Cultural Ambassador for the City of Los Angeles." Ranelin's return to Indy should give local arts administrators and politicians reason to reflect on Indy's negligence in paying proper homage to the historic jazz movement of Indiana Avenue.
NUVO: You grew up during a musically rich period in Indianapolis. I know you attended Arsenal Tech high school, but I understand you also studied with the great educator Russell Brown from Crispus Attucks, as well as David Baker. Can you tell me about growing up as a musician in Indy during the late '50s?
Ranelin: Musically I think Indianapolis is one of the world's best kept secrets in a way. There's a wealth of knowledge there, and I was blessed to have been around that coming up. As you mentioned I studied with Russell Brown and David Baker. I had a total of maybe eight lessons with Baker but those lessons are still with me.
When I was a freshman at Tech, I discovered a record in the school band room. I used to look at this record from time to time for about a year before I ever played it. But when I was a sophomore I thought "Why don't I play this?" It was an album by Sonny Stitt and J.J. Johnson, and for me it was mind-boggling. At the end of the record there was something called "Teapot." iIt opened up with a Max Roach drum solo and J.J. came in immediately just playing on the changes. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. After it was over I looked at my classmate and said "You mean to tell me that a trombone can sound like that?" [laughs] Prior to that, I had only been playing marches in the marching band. It was a turning point for me getting more interested in the trombone.
A couple years later after I graduated from high school I had the privilege of meeting and playing with Wes Montgomery. I'd met Melvin Rhyne through one of Russel Brown's summer programs. I happened to run into Melvin one day and he said "Hey man, what are you doing right now? Why don't you come by The Hubbub. Bring your horn and I'll introduce you to Wes Montgomery." So I came through and Wes was his beautiful, beautiful self. Wes was always seemingly in a good mood. I played with Wes and he invited me back. I ended up going to jam sessions with him every week for about three months in a row.
NUVO: You came up during a time when many great trombonists were emerging from the Indianapolis scene. Guys like J.J. Johnson, Slide Hampton, David Baker and yourself took that instrument into new directions. What was going on at that time to push musicians to explore the trombone?
Ranelin: That's an interesting question. The trombone is such a difficult instrument it tends to lead you into figuring things out musically. A lot of trombone players end up being pretty good writers, and arrangers also. I think that's part of the nature of the instrument.
It is amazing that some of the top trombone players came out of this little town. I hear a lot of people say "Wow, Indianapolis is such a little place, but it's produced so many great players." And it's not just trombone players, Indianapolis has produced great brass players too like Freddie Hubbard. You've got Freddie Hubbard, J.J. Johnson, Wes Montgomery. There's three of the top musicians in jazz and they come from this little place called Indianapolis, Indiana.
NUVO: Speaking of Freddie Hubbard I understand he befriended you early in your career, and later on in the late '70s you both recorded together.
Ranelin: I just want to slightly correct you, Freddie Hubbard wasn't just a friend. He was a hero. He was only a year and a half older than me. We went to high school together. We developed a real close friendship, especially when I moved to the West Coast. At that time we were hanging out extensively. Every Thanksgiving I was at his house. He was a special friend and I valued him immensely. Freddie, for me, is my very favorite trumpet player. And I don't stand alone, that's not a biased statement. In terms of jazz a lot of people agree that it doesn't get any better than Freddie Hubbard.
NUVO: Can you tell me about your decision to move to Detroit and what led you to co-founding Tribe Records?
Ranelin: There again The Hubbub comes into play. I'd go by there and stand in with whatever band was there. There were a lot of great musicians coming through there including Grant Green and Eddie Harris. This particular time it was a band from Detroit and after the session was over the leader came and said "I really like the way you play. Are you staying pretty busy around here?" I said "No." He said "If you ever decide to move to Detroit, look me up immediately. I could get you some work."
That was music to my ears because I was getting very little work in Indianapolis. I didn't have any real ties in Indy at the time; my marriage had kind of broken up. So I decided to take him up on his offer. I moved to Detroit and immediately called him. He said "We're rehearsing, come on by." I go to the rehearsal, and come to find out it was a rehearsal for one of the Motown acts. In fact it was The Temptations. I played and I got the gig. They were heading out right that week on a 10-day tour and ironically enough the first stop on the tour was Indianapolis. At that point I'd only been gone from Indy for about a week, and most people hadn't realized I'd even left. [laughs]
A Cultural Manifesto is now available on WFYI's HD2 radio. Tune in Wednesdays at 7 p.m. and Saturdays at 3 p.m. as NUVO's Kyle Long explores the merging of a wide variety of music from around the globe with American genres like hip-hop, jazz, and soul.