By the age of 20, Tizol was performing with the slide and valve trombones in various bands. Because the valve trombone inherently suffers from poor intonation and inferior sound quality compared with its cousin, slide trombone, its popularity declined from its height in the first half of the nineteenth century. Its popularity in jazz bands continued though, because of the technical advantages afforded by the valves in performing virtuistic flourishes.
In 1920, he was recuited by Ralph Escudero to play in the Howard Theater pit band and moved to the United States. Playing with various bands in the Washington, DC area, Tizol met Duke Ellington while performing in the Howard Theater and later joined the Duke’s orchestra in 1929; a fateful decision that moved his career forward over the next 15 years.
An exceptional musician, Tizol was a major contributor to the band; adding great virtuosity that was well combined with Ellington’s enormous skill in songwriting and arranging. Even in a band replete with highly skilled musicians, Tizol was a standout. Ellington himself helped by taking advantage of the valve trombone’s unique abilities in the hands of the skillful Tizol to quickly cross a wider range of notes and melding it with the skilled trombones of Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton and Lawrence Brown.
Ellington and his band were enormously successful even through the swing era in the 30’s and the rise of many big bands. Tizol was a major part of that success. Yet, in 1944, at the height of competitor Harry James’ popularity, Tizol left Ellington to join James in California. While better pay was perhaps a motivator, Tizol returned to Ellington’s band seven years later. He stayed on for another two years, after which he retired from the grueling tours, preferring to work in Los Angeles area studios for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole and Nelson Riddle.
While not noted as a songwriter, Tizol did compose several songs over the course of his career. Two of these: Caravan and “Perdido” have since become jazz standards, performed by innumerable jazz musician’s and bands. “Caravan” was arguably the first real Latin jazz song, although many would argue that it owed more to songs like “In a Persian Garden” that showed Middle East influences. The lyrics of “Caravan” were penned by Irving Mills, although the version with vocals was performed very infrequently.
The lyrics to “Perdido”, which had much greater success in its vocal version than “Caravan”, were co-written by H. J. Lengsfelder and Ervin Drake. The song was performed and recorded by reknown jazz artists such as Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington.
The legendary artist died in Inglewood, California on 23 April 1984.