Joe Fiedler never meant to play the trombone, but that hasn't stopped him from becoming one of the most in-demand players on the New York scene.
Growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1960's and 70's, his home life wasn't particularly musical. His father mostly listened to singers like Roger Miller, but Fiedler's ears perked up when his dad played records like The Cannonball Adderley Sextet's "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" and Oscar Peterson's "Night Train."
As a child, he admired two cousins who played trumpet, so he decided to follow in their footsteps. Fiedler had buckteeth, though, and he couldn't get a buzz out of a trumpet mouthpiece. When his fourth grade music teacher gave him a trombone mouthpiece, he got the buzz and he was given the instrument.
"I was just so shy that I sadly took the trombone home and thought I'll stick with this," says Fiedler, who brings his quintet to the Bop Shop on Thursday, March 30.
Fiedler played through high school, but he put the trombone aside while majoring in computer science at Allegheny College. When that didn't prove satisfying, he returned home and became a math major at University of Pittsburgh. At a party there he ran into an old friend, a sax player, who told him the college jazz band needed trombones.
"I said I hadn't practiced in a couple of years," Fiedler says. "But he convinced me. Once the door cracked open a bit, that was it; I started practicing day and night."
After college, he hung around Pittsburgh for several years playing whatever gigs he could find. One day his mentor, Randy Purcell, who had been in Maynard Ferguson's band in the 1970's, hooked him up with the Glenn Miller Orchestra.
Touring with the Miller band led to gigs with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra where he met band members like Ted Nash, Ryan Kisor, and Joe Temperley. "They were mature, monster players," Fiedler says. "There was much more to learn there."
Fiedler moved to New York City in 1993. "It was during the explosion of the Knitting Factory scene," he says. "David Murray was still in town and Ray Anderson; these guys were my heroes from records. I'd go talk to them and it blew me away."
Over the years, Fiedler has made most of his living by playing music where trombone is king: salsa and Latin jazz. He toured with Celia Cruz and still plays with the legendary Eddie Palmieri.
"It's a dream come true," Fiedler says. "He plays a lot of his old hits. It's kind of surreal sometimes when you step back and think, 'I'm playing with Eddie.' He demands so much. You gotta get in there and bring it so hard. He's 80 years old, and he expects you to be playing your ass off.
"We played Lincoln Center last weekend and the hair on your neck is standing up. It's so exciting, and the players are so committed. There's such a reverence for Eddie. The great Barry Rogers was the grandfather of Latin trombone, playing from the 1960's with Eddie's first band. I sit with Eddie and pick his brain about Barry, 'Who came up with this lick? Who wrote this chart?'"
Fiedler also played in the pit band for Lin-Manuel Miranda's first Broadway show, "In the Heights."
"I wasn't trying to get into Broadway," Fiedler says. "In a lot of shows the parts are so lame, you lose your chops if you're not challenged. But they wrote very demanding parts for me, so it was a good situation."
Fiedler's day job for the last seven years has been music director — arranger, orchestrator, and trombonist — for "Sesame Street." He's written more than 250 arrangements and composed more than 5,000 underscoring cues.
"It's kind of a golden opportunity to try things out on a weekly basis," says Fiedler. "A lot of it is what's on my mind. If I happen to be listening to some classical thing in the car, maybe I'll use that combination of instruments on 'Sesame Street.'"
Is there any character who he particularly enjoys writing for?
"Grover to me is the most hilarious puppet, and his body language opens itself up for cartoony, shticky, funny music, like muted trombone. It's easy to write for him because you're just giggling watching him."
Fiedler, who has played on more than 100 records, leads several bands of his own. In the late-80's he formed Big Sackbut, a quartet with three trombones and a tuba. "One of my all-time favorite groups was The World Saxophone Quartet. I always wanted to do a trombones version of that."
His latest album, "Like, Strange," is a decidedly funky affair featuring his new quintet: Jeff Lederer on saxophones; Pete McCann, guitar; Rob Jost, bass; and Michael Sarin, drums. All of them will join Fiedler at the Bop Shop.
"My earlier records came from an avant-garde perspective, which I loved," Fiedler says, "but as I keep maturing I've always wanted to do music that was more tune-based, having the improvisations flow from be-bop language. But also have it be more accessible."