The trumpet is synonymous with the sound of jazz, but just who are the best jazz trumpet players of all time? Here are the greatest jazz trumpet players ever, but have we ever missed your favourite? The list is in alphabetical order.
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Louis Armstrong (1901-1971)
In jazz, all roads lead back to Louis Armstrong. He is the supreme example of the vitality of the past animating and challenging the present. Trumpeter Art Farmer acknowledged him as ‘still the mark people go after when it comes to sheer emotion speaking through music’, and the contemporary British star Guy Barker declared that any jazz lacking the Armstrong spirit was ‘going to be missing a lot’.
The best place to experience Armstrong’s perennially galvanising effect is the astonishing set of records he made between 1925 and 1929, collectively known as his Hot Fives and Sevens. These dazzling small-group performances transformed jazz once and for all, from a jolly accompaniment for dancing to a language of limitless expressive power and virtuosity. Wonders abound, from the breathtaking stop-time solos in ‘Cornet Chop Suey’ and ‘Potato Head Blues’, to the perfect structure of ‘Savoy Blues’, and the exuberant swing and effortless technical fireworks of ‘Hotter Than That’. Besides his startling playing, Armstrong’s unique scat vocals brought a new dimension to improvisation: a piece like ‘Heebie Jeebies’ seems an outpouring of pure joy, a song that doesn’t need words to convey its rhythmic and melodic gusto. And on the magnificent ‘West End Blues’. his trumpet and vocal powers combine to produce a masterpiece of searing emotion.
Every one of the Hot Fives and Sevens proclaims Armstrong’s genius, with the same immediacy as when they first appeared. It is worth having the complete series, to marvel at the consistency, mastery and surprise of his invention, raising even the most trivial novelty to another level. The four-CD box on JSP provides the basic canon, well-mastered, and also offers some of Armstrong’s subsequent work with a big band, as he began to cross over from jazz genius to international showbiz star.
And that, of course, is how most people know him – Satchmo, the beloved, gravel-voiced entertainer. But the Hot Fives and Sevens reveal his real achievement – the creation of a body of music which is truly classic: once heard, unforgettable an enduringly new.
Chet Baker (1929-1988)
Angel, devil or both, Chet Baker is the stuff of jazz legend. By his mid-20s, the Oklahoma country boy was famous, leaping to stardom in 1953 with saxophonist Gerry Mulligan’s trend-setting West Coast quartet and winning polls on trumpet. His reputation was no mere publicity bubble. After playing with Baker in his pre-Mulligan days, bebop pioneer Charlie Parker told his trumpet protégé Miles Davis, ‘There’s a little white cat out on the coast who’s going to eat you up.’
But in the event, Chet Baker spent most of his life devouring himself. Endowed with huge natural talent and clean-cut good looks, he was a poster boy for West Coast cool, his effortless, lyrical playing and singing the epitome of carefree youth.
His own pleasure, however, turned dark and destructive. Around 1955, he embarked on a lifelong servitude to drugs; the focus of his career became finding and bankrolling the next score, every gig and relationship a means to that obsessive end.
His hand-to-vein existence took its toll in prison sentences, beatings, and domestic chaos, reflected in his wrinkled, ravaged face. But none of that seemed to affect his music. As a Baker sideman put it, ‘When he was on, he was still magic.’ And he went on producing that magic until his mysterious death in a fall from an Amsterdam hotel room in 1988.
Some ten years later, Hollywood acknowledged the enduring Baker spell: in The Talented Mr Ripley, Matt Damon’s sinister conman croons Chet’s greatest hit, ‘My Funny Valentine’, imitating his yearning vocal style. Still a classic, the original is the first track on Chet Baker Sings, a CD of vintage performances from the 1950s. The album is a classic, a testament to gifts of extraordinary purity. Backed by a first-rate rhythm section, Baker delivers a sequence of evergreen standards with consummate taste and ease, his diction impeccable, intonation flawless. His trumpet playing provides the perfect foil, subtle, inventive and fresh. From beginning to end it’s a delight, making his nightmare life all the more inexplicable.
Ruby Braff (1927-2003)
In 1957, a critic referred to Ruby Braff as ‘the 30-year-old traditional trumpet player’. The description implies the slightly barbed subtext that dogged Braff in his early days. What business did a young jazz musician have cultivating an old-fashioned style when his contemporaries were all going in the heady new directions of bebop? But Braff’s status was made even more complicated because he also rejected the approved reaction against bebop, the deliberate archaism of ‘trad jazz’. To Ruby, the real jazz tradition was the kind of rich, melodic invention effortlessly embodied by the star soloists of the swing generation, leading back to Louis Armstrong.
As he began his career around his native Boston, he was naturally drawn to players some 20 years his senior, such as clarinettist Edmond Hall and trombonist Vic Dickenson, who welcomed him as a rather unlikely kindred spirit. The diminutive young man was obviously one of them, with a fat sound that could encompass colour and nuance, a buoyant sense of swing, and technique as agile and supple as the beboppers’. From the beginning, the key jazz challenge was, in his words, ‘How does somebody play a well-written, well-constructed song, keeping the character of it and then adding something to it?’
He does just that in every track on the Vanguard compilation, Linger Awhile, drawn from records he made in the 1950s with the likes of Dickenson and Hall, and Count Basie’s great rhythm team of Walter Page and Jo Jones. Braff’s manifest talent in such illustrious company made him impossible to ignore or patronise, especially as jazz became less doctrinaire. Over the decades, until his death in 2003, he won a global following, despite his prickly personality.
He preferred the more intimate cornet to the trumpet, and his favoured settings were small groups, enhancing his instinct for structure and eloquence, his lifelong quest ‘to evolve a way of playing’. One of his favourite partners was pianist Ellis Larkins, and their 1994 duo CD, Calling Berlin, Vol. 1, is a masterpiece. Full of romantic opulence, rococo flourishes, wit and invention, it defines Braff as not just a traditionalist but a classic.
Clifford Brown (1930-1956)
In its post-World War II heyday, bebop was known as much for its precarious lifestyle as for musical daring. Generated in no small part by the aura surrounding the mythic, self-destructive Charlie Parker, drug addiction became an occupational hazard among aspiring jazz players. But amid this chronicle of disaster, Clifford Brown presented a shining alternative. The most brilliant young trumpeter of his generation, he was completely drug-free, a model both as musician and man – disciplined and good-natured. Thus it seemed a particularly cruel trick of fate that, in 1956, he died in a car accident, aged just 25.
Though he had only been recording for four years, Brown left a considerable legacy on disc. He enlivened every session with his bright sound, impeccable facility and, above all, the sense that everything he played was driven by delight, an insatiable urge to say something new in each solo. Sheer fluency is perhaps his most striking quality, carried along by a rich tone, and an attack as crisp, intelligent and varied as the buoyant logic that informed his improvisations.
In the last 18 months of his life he had found his ideal medium, the quintet he co-led with the nonpareil drummer Max Roach. Brown and Roach were perfectly matched in their technical mastery and swing, and their shared conviction in the group’s creativity. Joining them on tenor was, first, the sinewy Harold Land, and then – in the band line-up at Brown’s death – a talent comparable to his own, the inventive Sonny Rollins.
Understandably, the quintet dominates the Clifford Brown compilation in Verve’s ‘Finest Hour’ series. The selection shows the range of both trumpeter and band. Check out the blithe ‘Joy Spring’, a sultry ‘Delilah’ and the eye-popping ‘Cherokee’, a bebop challenge piece which Brown races through at a lightning clip, unfazed by the pace and bubbling over with ideas. Though these wonderful recordings have continued to inspire trumpeters and delight listeners, is it hard not to invest them with a tinge of regret for what else Clifford Brown might have achieved if he had simply had more time. In the fitting words of Schubert’s epitaph, they enshrine ‘even far fairer hopes’.
Miles Davis (1926-1991)
Most jazz musicians are happy just to achieve some popularity, but Miles Davis was a genuine icon. Famously fashionable even in his early days – a Davis biography was subtitled ‘The Man in the Green Shirt’ after a particularly stylish album cover – his adoption of jazz-rock in the 1970s and ’80s made him a superstar, bewitching audiences with not just his spare, declamatory trumpet-playing, but also his brooding persona. Dubbed the ‘Prince of Darkness’, he prowled about the stage in extravagantly hip garb, mercurially cueing his heavily amplified ensemble, creating a delicious aura of mystery and occasional menace.
Musically, Davis’s foray into fusion divided his fans. Older listeners preferred the Davis of the ’50s and ’60s, whose brilliant bands reinvented and extended the bebop tradition as well as launching such seminal talents as John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock. But change seemed the driving principle of Davis’s artistic and personal life, and embracing rock seemed a necessary progression.
However, a constant factor through all phases of his career was his close association with arranger/ composer Gil Evans. Mild-mannered, Evans acted as friend and musical advisor, making his crucial contribution as Davis’s orchestral partner in a great trilogy of albums from the late ’50s, Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain. Evans’s hovering impressionist colours and peerless feeling for space and texture provided the ideal foil for the trumpeter’s vulnerable lyricism, intensity and sly, sure-footed swing.
Though the Miles-and-Gil projects are all classics, Porgy and Bess may be the most consistently moving. Arranger and soloist transmute George Gershwin’s familiar melodies into new marvels, a series of soliloquies encompassing a rich array of emotions,
with Davis playing all parts. The record as a whole stands as a monument to the distinctive splendour
of Davis’s sound and imagination. Those abiding qualities communicate at once, regardless of his sometime status as cultural icon. But then jazz makes its ultimate appeal to art, not fashion.
Dave Douglas (b.1963)
What makes jazz ‘jazz’ today? Improvisation, blues and swing, passionate individuality – the music may hark back to its classic qualities, but today’s scene has splintered into a plethora of postmodern fragments, from which every player has to construct a distinctive voice. No one has met this challenge with more imagination than trumpeter Dave Douglas. In fact, he has mixed feelings about what he calls ‘this beast called jazz’: though he’s always wanted to play it, he wants to incorporate all the other aspects of music and life that compel him, too. In 2003 he celebrated his 40th birthday with a concert given by ten different groups he has led, including the Tiny Bell trio, with guitar and drums (inspired by Balkan music); Charms of the Night Sky (a chamber group with accordion); a sextet devoted to works by neglected jazz masters; and a quintet with cello and violin whose repertoire includes Douglas originals, Webern and Stravinsky. What unites all these ensembles is Douglas’s virtuoso ability, and his protean skills as a composer.
He’s said he likes to explore ‘that boundary line between composition and improvisation, as a means to making beautiful music that is fun to play’. Every piece for every group is different, reflecting the distinctive character of the music and the performers. Nothing feels pre-ordained, yet dissonance and consonance, lyricism and wit combine as each work evolves into a spontaneous organic shape.
That sense of creative immediacy is what gives Douglas’s work its strong jazz identity, whatever his material’s source. His quintet CD, Convergence, includes a madly swinging version of a Burmese folk song, atmospheric treatments of Messiaen’s ‘Desseins éternels’ and Weill’s ‘Bilbao Song’, and among other originals his lament for the Gulf War.
In 2006, Radio 3 listeners experienced Douglas live with the premiere of Blue Latitudes, his meditation on the voyages of Captain Cook, featuring two of his regular partners, percussionist Susie Ibarra and bassist Mark Dresser, with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (who commissioned the work).
Roy Eldridge (1911-1989)
Not long after he arrived in New York in 1930, the teenage Roy Eldridge was dubbed ‘Little Jazz’, acknowledging both his compact build and musical intensity. From the start, the trumpeter was keen to make his mark, seeking out ‘every jam session going’, and taking on all comers in battles of speed, range and daring. Instead of the broad, heraldic character usually associated with the trumpet, the young Eldridge cultivated a super-charged fluency, imitating saxophonists like Coleman Hawkins.
Though his elders were impressed, they had reservations regarding his musical substance, which Eldridge himself came to share. In his words, ‘I was very fast, but I wasn’t telling no kind of story.’ With that realisation, his talent began to flower. His facility for high-voltage, bravura excitement was deepened and enhanced by an instinct for musical structure, so that an Eldridge solo became even more thrilling.
Through the 1930s, he was the pre-eminent jazz trumpeter, producing the kind of performances displayed in a Proper compilation, Roy Eldridge – Little Jazz Trumpet Giant. A feature like ‘Heckler’s Hop’ is
still a stunning experience: Eldridge seems barely able to contain himself as he blazes through his choruses with ecstatic logic. As a member of the Swing Era elite, he is surrounded by all-star company, including Hawkins, Benny Carter, Benny Goodman, and his favourite partner, tenorist Chu Berry.
As his fame increased, Eldridge’s stature was such that he was able to defy racial prejudice and join the top-flight white bands of Gene Krupa and Artie Shaw. Though engrained racism exacted a painful toll, his gifts are showcased on the Krupa classics ‘After You’ve Gone’ which leaves the band panting to keep up – and a heartfelt ‘Rockin’ Chair’. His influence on young trumpeters was immense: he provided a model for such bebop pioneers as Dizzy Gillespie, who described Eldridge as ‘the Messiah of my generation’.
In later years, Eldridge continued to inspire players and listeners, in concert and in a ten-year stand at a New York club. By his death in 1989, his nickname had been shortened to ‘Jazz’ – the thing itself, defining him.