It is an odd fact that all the really outstanding jazz trombonists were very low on ego. Carl Fontana, perhaps the most gifted player of his time, certainly was. He played potent and dazzling music in such a facile way that it was rather like Leonardo da Vinci sawing off a length of picture on demand.
Fontana first surfaced in 1951. The Woody Herman band was playing at the Blue Room in New Orleans when its virtuoso trombone soloist Urbie Green had to return to New York for three weeks when his wife gave birth. A young local musician hired as a temporary replacement arrived in the band room. Can I help you? asked the tenor player Dick Hafer. I'm here to replace Urbie Green, said Fontana. You're here to replace Urbie Green? repeated Hafer, as the band musicians roared with sardonic laughter.
In performance an hour or so later, their jaws dropped as Fontana ripped off a series of agile and eloquent solos that instantly announced him as a challenger to the crown of Jay Jay Johnson, the trombonist who dominated the era. From then on, Fontana never looked back and no one has ever challenged his supremacy. His several disciples approached his speed and technical agility, but no one ever matched his sublime streams of improvisation.
Herman was so impressed that when Urbie Green returned he kept Fontana in the band. The young man abandoned his studies for his master's degree and toured with Herman for the next two years.