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Tue, Oct. 15

Column: What my grandfather taught me with a trick trombone

Richard Haddad’s grandfather, Ralph Ruland (far right), played trombone for big bands during the 1920s and 1930s.
Photo by Richard Haddad, WNI.

Richard Haddad’s grandfather, Ralph Ruland (far right), played trombone for big bands during the 1920s and 1930s.

When I was 11 years old, I remember my mother asking me to sit with her at the dinner table to look through a catalog filled with musical instruments. As she turned the pages she showed me all the different kinds of instruments I could choose to play in school. She told me of the wonder, beauty and power of music - and not just with her words, for I could see it in her eyes.

She is an accomplished musician, having earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music, as did my father who was also a musician and well-known composer. Even in her late 70s my mother played professionally with several bands, including a 20-piece swing band of the most accomplished musicians. She continues to play today at age 82 when opportunities present themselves. Her father, Ralph Ruland, played trombone with the great Sammy Kay Band, Blue Barron and other big bands of the 1920s and 1930s.

I enjoy hearing the stories of my grandfather’s musical adventures. One story my mother shared is when he was asked to fill in for a musician with the circus that came to town.

During the performance, a clown came out holding a trick trombone. It had been cut and rigged so that the clown could pull a trigger, forcing a bouquet of fake flowers and water out of the bell. The clown ran around blasting the trombone and squirting other clowns in the center ring.

My grandfather had a great love for the trombone, even until the day he died. He could hardly restrain himself as he sat near my mother, then about 4 years old, watching this clown making a joke out of the instrument he so dearly loved and respected.

Finally, he could stand it no longer. Setting aside his own trombone, he leaped over the barrier separating the band from the center ring and approached the clown with an outstretched hand. The clown stopped and turned to see this determined-looking man in a band uniform.

Thinking this was part of the act, the spotlight operators put all lights on the two figures in the center ring. Not knowing what else to do, the clown handed the trick trombone to my grandfather who tore out the fake flowers, drained the water and lifted the horn to his lips.

My mother said she watched in amazement as her father began to play. The audience fell silent and the beautiful melody of “Sentimental Over You,” a Tommy Dorsey classic, flowed from the lips of this master musician.

When he was done, the audience erupted in applause. When my grandfather tried to give back the trombone, the clown bowed in respect, indicating that he wanted my grandfather to keep it - which he did. He later gave that trombone to my mother, who followed in his musical footsteps.

I am grateful for all those who love music and give of themselves to share it. Like my grandfather and his daughter, there are many in our community who are dedicated to the art. I thank the music teachers, the students and the performers who keep the arts alive in the quad-city area.

Richard Haddad is Director of News & Digital Content for Western News&Info, Inc., the parent company of The Daily Courier. This column originally appeared as a blog entry on

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