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Jazz Corner: The Trumpet Tradition

Some of the great pillars on which jazz has achieved its lofty status have been trumpet players

Sunil Sampat Jan 31, 2022

Miles Davis. Photo: Tom Palumbo/CC BY 2.0/Wikimedia Commons

The saxophone is seen as the glamorous poster boy of jazz. It is the sight of a saxophone that, more often than not conjures the image of jazz. That romance notwithstanding, even a glamorous star needs a supporting cast! Actually, a number of other instruments also make jazz the music it is.

The trumpet holds as exalted a position in jazz as the sax. Some of the great pillars on which jazz has achieved its lofty status have been trumpet players.

In any case, looking from the outside, few jazz musicians have as much fun plying their trade as trumpet players. Just to watch Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie or Clark Terry play and sing for an audience radiates their joy. Also, coincidentally, these three gentlemen double up their trumpet playing with excellent jazz singing too. Somehow, saxophone players don’t vocalize much, the exceptions being quite random, like a James Moody or George Adams, who have made the odd vocal recording.

On the other hand, Chet Baker was an excellent jazz vocalist along with his prowess as a leading trumpet player. Arturo Sandoval is another who lends an excellent singing voice to add to his great trumpet play. Sandoval is also an excellent pianist and percussionist to boot.

Looking at the progression of the jazz trumpet (which includes the closely related cornet), Buddy Bolden was the pioneer of jazz trumpet, forming his first band way back in 1895, followed by King Oliver, a big name in the New Orleans of the 1920s. Playing in King Oliver’s band was Louis Armstrong.

Armstrong, known famously as Satchmo was a big innovator and a major influence in the progress of jazz. His career extended from the 1920s right up to the 1970s when he died. Satchmo kept up with the times and always sounded contemporary. Louis Armstrong’s talents took him into the world of Hollywood, where he acted in several films as a jazz musician and his influence extended onto the stage at Broadway. In the 1950s and 60s, when the American government wanted to spread the message of jazz to the world, Louis Armstrong was officially nominated a Jazz Ambassador and traveled for the cause. He is indeed a major jazz pillar.

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The next trumpet player who was also a jazz innovator was John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie. Along with Charlie “Bird” Parker, Dizzy Gillespie was the innovator of bebop, a new movement in jazz from the early 1940s, which took jazz from its big band sound into the modern era. Bebop is still a challenging jazz art form. It certainly defined a new jazz direction.

Some excellent trumpet players from the 1930s swing and big band era were Roy Eldridge, Buck Clayton, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Charlie Shavers, Bobby Hackett, Clark Terry among others, emerged in the years intervening between Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie.

In later years, Howard McGhee and particularly Fats Navarro were terrific bop trumpet players and looked like taking jazz to a new level in the 50s. However, Navarro, full of promise, died at a very young age.

Emerging from Charlie Parker’s band of the late 1940s was another huge pillar in jazz history. Miles Davis made his presence felt not so much as a Charlie Parker sideman but when he first collaborated with Gil Evans’ orchestra and emerged with the album, Birth of the Cool.

Let’s get to Miles’ long career a bit later after looking at some big jazz trumpet players from the 1950s and 60s.

The wonderfully talented and potentially pathbreaking Clifford Brown had a deep impact on jazz. His quintet, The Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet was and has been one of the most brilliant jazz groups ever. “Brownie” as Clifford Brown was affectionately called was one of the prime innovators of the Hardbop sound in jazz. In his trumpet play, Brownie was second to none and was already thought of as a jazz great when he died in a car accident at 26 years of age. His short career, fortunately, has left a legacy from his several recordings.

Trumpet greats like Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan have been hugely influenced by Clifford Brown. In fact, Lee Morgan has a sound reminiscent of Brownie.

Some superb trumpet players have emerged throughout the decades. Art Farmer, Blue Mitchell, Woody Shaw, Nat Adderley, Thad Jones, Chet Baker, Kenny Dorham, Don Ellis, Booker Little, Don Cherry and others have had an influence on the progress and shape of jazz as it has grown through the years.

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In more recent times, Arturo Sandoval, Jon Faddis, Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton, Randy Brecker and particularly Wynton Marsalis have impacted jazz substantially. Arturo Sandoval, inspired and mentored by Dizzy Gillespie is a shining star in contemporary jazz.

It is to the credit of Wynton Marsalis that he stood strong in the face of the sound of fusion that had prevailed through the 1970s and revived the more traditional acoustic sound of jazz by sheer perseverance. Which brings us back to Miles Davis!

Miles Davis is to be credited with the innovations he brought into jazz.

He brought about the sounds of Cool, Modal, aided the hardbop movement, as also the sounds of Avant-Garde and introduced fusion into jazz. He literally changed the way jazz sounded a few times over.

His creative instincts also gave him the uncanny knack of choosing just the right musicians for a particular concept of his. He was brilliant in opting for Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley in his most famous period in the late 1950s, culminating in the album, Kind of Blue, the all-time bestselling jazz album. Before that, his quintet with John Coltrane and pianist Red Garland created some fabulous jazz recordings as well, as did his recordings with his Birth of the Cool collaborator, Gil Evans. Later he led an acoustic band with pianist Wynton Kelly and saxophone player Hank Mobley which resulted in some quite superb record releases.

He then got into his innovator garb again and trod into the sound of electronic instruments and into fusion, a sound that seemed tangential to conventional jazz, and a topic of controversy and divided opinions.

Miles’ experiments in jazz sounds stretched from the early 1950s to the late 1980s and his legacy will stretch to generations of jazz musicians, trumpet players, or otherwise. Miles Davis was perhaps the only jazz musician to achieve superstar status along the lines of American sports stars.

Sunil Sampat is a jazz critic and Contributing Editor of Rolling Stone India. Write to Sunil at [email protected]

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