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Edward Kleinhammer, world-renowned CSO bass trombonist, dies at 94

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Edward Kleinhammer plays trombone in CSO performance (at 3:20 in video)
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Updated: January 4, 2014 6:22AM



Edward Kleinhammer was a world-renowned bass trombone player with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra who was equally at home in the North Woods, where he liked to fish, canoe, camp and tramp about with his dog.

Mr. Kleinhammer, 94, died Saturday as he napped in his favorite chair in his log cabin home in Hayward, Wis.

“He was the stone on which modern bass trombone players are now standing,” said John Drew, president of the International Trombone Festival.

“He was the bass trombone player in the world’s most famous brass section,” said Jay Friedman, the CSO’s principal trombonist. “They put the CSO on the map, and everyone wanted to sound like him and them.”

Mr. Kleinhammer was born in Chicago, the son of a banker. At 10, he began studying the violin. In junior high, he received lessons from CSO trombonist David Anderson, said Douglas Yeo, a former bass trombone player with the Boston Symphony and a professor at Arizona State University.

He didn’t go on to college after attending Harrison Technical High School, Yeo said. But his sound was so pure, he served in the CSO for a near-unprecedented tenure under seven conductors.

His first major exposure came in 1940. After a national competition, he joined the All-American Youth Orchestra, where he played under the colorful conductor Leopold Stokowski, who collaborated with Walt Disney on “Fantasia.” In the film, Stokowski, in tux and tails, bends down to shake hands with Mickey Mouse.

In the same year that he began playing with Stokowski, Mr. Kleinhammer was invited to join the CSO. He was only 21 — “an extraordinary accomplishment,” Yeo said. From 1942 to 1945, he performed with a military band. After World War II, he returned to the CSO, where he remained until his retirement in 1985.

There, Mr. Kleinhammer was part of a brass section that blended gloriously.

“Most people point to the brass section as being the crown jewel of the CSO during that time, particularly from the 1950s to the ’80s,” Yeo said. The connection between him and tuba player Arnold Jacobs seemed almost telepathic.

“Without ever saying anything, we breathe together, and play the same length of phrase,” Jacobs said, according to his biography, “Song and Wind.”

In 1963, Mr. Kleinhammer wrote the book, “The Art of Trombone Playing,” still a best-seller in the music world, said Yeo, who co-authored a 1997 book with him, “Mastering the Trombone.”

Mr. Kleinhammer patented a tube attachment he invented that extended the range of the bass trombone to lower notes, said Yeo and Frank Villella, a CSO archivist.

He was generous with his time in offering lessons at the Fine Arts Building, where he walked up 10 flights of stairs rather than take an elevator.

He had only two regrets, he told Yeo. He thought he could have stayed on at the CSO one more year. And, “ ‘If I had taught one or two fewer hours a day, I could have had more time to practice,’ ” he said.

Until last winter, Mr. Kleinhammer was chopping his own firewood in Wisconsin. He was a fan of both the Packers and Bears.

His first two wives, Dorothy and Norma, died before him. He met his third wife, Dessie, at a Wisconsin church, Yeo said.

“When she met him, she had no idea he was this world-famous trombone player,” he said.

“When I was a first-year student at Indiana University, he visited for a master class and I had the opportunity to take a lesson. At the age of 81, I was amazed at his attention to the finest details,” said Weston Sprott, a trombonist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. “The numerous recordings he made with the CSO and Solti are considered ‘must haves’ in the collection of any serious brass player. Many of those recordings are still considered the standard.”

A memorial service in Hayward is planned, Yeo said.

Contributing: Andrew Patner

Email: modonnell@suntimes.com

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