The Essential Instruments of Jazz Part 1

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The Trumpet

Not the natural choice of the musically gifted child, the trumpet is often regarded as an instrument that belongs in an orchestra or a military ceremony. Said to be over 3500 years old, the trumpet precedes jazz somewhat as you can imagine. Of course, the trumpets of those days were not particularly sophisticated. They weren’t musical instruments at all, in fact. They were designed to make a sound that would serve as a signal to someone at a range where shouting would be of no use. Ancient militaries used them to warn the army of the approaching foe. It was only sometime around the XV century when the trumpet’s musical potential was being discovered, mainly thanks to brass becoming an increasingly ubiquitous material.

Jazz has a special place for the trumpet. Unlike an orchestra or concert band, in jazz the trumpet can stand alone and be central to the music being played. We recognise it by the sounds of the 20’s, and 30’s where the trumpet brought the fast and playful vibe, or a sense of romance that came with long and slow trumpet sounds, especially when accompanied by a piano. It can also be credited with a lot of the sounds we like to label “noir”. For those who remember, the composition “Whisper Not” by Thad Jones is a wonderful example of a vibrant noir tune carried by a trumpet.

Watching someone play the trumpet make it seem like playing the trumpet is easy. Afterall, it’s just a brass tube you blow air into with three or four valves to control the pitch. True, but this reductionist view of the trumpet is exactly why so many beginner trumpeters fail to produce sounds even remotely musical. Many of the most famous jazz trumpet players came into the genre with a musical education in the instrument. Playing jazz with a trumpet is particularly difficult, as in classical genres the transitions and standards are seldom as quick as in jazz. You need to learn to emulate part of a jazz composition before you can attempt playing all of it. You have to be able to read the notes while simultaneously synchronising your fingers with your breath and maintain rhythm while you’re at it. And that’s only half the battle. You must then advance to listening to other musicians and complementing their sounds with yours. This is especially difficult is Jazz as improvisation is the trademark method of playing.

Also, the valves are not the only way to change the sound of your trumpet. There are plungers and mutes that are used to change the entire sound profile for the trumpet for a particular piece. So while the trumpet may not have as much “street cred” in the classical music scene as, say, a violin, it still represents a greater level of sophistication than most expect. That is why good jazz trumpeters are so valuable, and the trumpet legends are authors of some of the most frequently player records in jazz lounges and high-end parties.