Jazz Trumpet: All That Brass

jazz trumpetIt’s hard to imagine quaint coffee shops and sophisticated lounges without jazz music. It’s even harder to imagine jazz music without the likes of Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis, two of the greatest jazz trumpet players that ever walked the face of the planet. Because it has the highest register in the brass family, trumpets give jazz music a distinctly rich and playful sound.

To add a little music theory to the jazz trumpet education you’re about to get, give this course a go.

A Quick History of the Trumpet

Trumpets have been around since earlier than 1500 BC, and present on almost all of the continents of the world. Like the modern day bugle, the trumpets of old were not used for music, but for signaling. It’s just like in the movies where trumpets are sounded off before the king or queen would address their followers.

The big difference between modern trumpets and their ancestors is that the ancient trumpets didn’t have valves that allow changes in pitch. Also called “natural trumpets”, these instruments came in a single coiled tube.

The Middle Ages and the Renaissance referred to the trumpet or the upper register of the trumpet as “clarion”. The music back then was focused on these tones. As melodies became more colorful, composers in the Classical and Romantic periods chose to give the limelight to  instruments capable of producing more diverse sounds. For more on the history of classical music, be sure to take this interesting course.

In an attempt to bring back the glory days of the trumpet, Anton Weidinger designed a keyed trumpet. This version of the trumpet had keyed openings in the body of the trumpet. But when the valved trumpet was eventually invented in the 19th century, we said goodbye to the keyed trumpet. The sound it produced simply didn’t compare to even the older version, the natural trumpet. To train your ears to hear the differences yourself, check out this awesome course.

Because the valved trumpet was only developed recently, classical pieces were still played using natural trumpets until the first part of the 20th century. The 20th century was an era where more music started to be written for trumpets and trumpet solos. This period introduced us to the trumpet as an essential jazz instrument.

Types of Trumpets

In truth, there’s no such thing as a jazz trumpet. It’s the music played on the instrument and the trumpeter’s style and skill that makes a trumpet a jazz trumpet.

Trumpets are usually classified as according to the pitch and sound. These are:

  1. Bb Trumpet – The B flat trumpet’s a typical choice for beginners. It’s also a popular choice for jazz musicians because of the warm tones it can produce.
  2. Piccolo Trumpet – Its sound is an octave higher than the Bb trumpet, and is a good choice for people with smaller hands as it’s the smallest trumpet out there.
  3. C Trumpet – Typically used in orchestras, this trumpet’s tuned to the key of C, and produces a bright and lively sound.
  4. The Bugle – It’s a natural trumpet used for signaling in the military and at racetracks.
  5. Slide Trumpet – As the name implies, this instrument has a slide that’s quite similar to what you’ll find on a trombone. This slide lets the musician use the instrument’s full range. It’s tuned to the Bb key.
  6. Pocket Trumpet – It’s a smaller Bb trumpet that produces a warm tone and almost sounds like the human voice. Don Cherry, a jazz master, is famous for using this instrument.
  7. Herald Trumpet – Mostly used for parades and ceremonies, this trumpet is tuned to the Bb key and has a very long bell extending in front.
  8. Less commonly used trumpets include: A, D, Eb, E, F, and G Trumpets

Jazz musicians are fans of the Bb trumpet. Not only the instrument itself, but the way it’s played is what truly defines a jazz trumpet. The way it’s played can be described in one word: “embouchure”.

Embo-what?

You can’t play a mean jazz trumpet without a great embouchure. It’s actually easier to pronounce the word than to develop the skill. To pronounce this embouchure, all you have to do is say “umm” then take out the “r” in “brochure”.

Embouchure’s typically defined as the way you position and use your facial muscles, lips, tongue, and teeth on the mouthpiece of woodwind and brass instruments. Serious trumpeters will tell you that embouchure is more than that. Because each person has different lip sizes, facial features, and each trumpet and mouthpiece is unique, the embouchure can be considered an entire system.

There are probably very few people who are natural trumpeters. A good number of these instrument players really struggle to find their comfortable place. It takes a lot of trial and error, commitment, training, and patience to be able to find that right position for great trumpet playing.

It takes the combination of four elements to know if you have a good embouchure:

  • Producing a clear and full tone or sound
  • Having enough endurance to play the entire piece or trumpet parts in a piece
  • Playing the trumpet’s full range
  • Being able to do 1, 2, and 3 without straining or damaging your muscles or lips

Seasoned jazz trumpeters wouldn’t recommend reading up too much on good embouchure. There are just so many books and articles on good embouchure, and you’ll likely end up with too much information and “analysis paralysis”. The best jazz trumpet players recommend choosing practical advice and constantly experimenting while practicing to finally find that sweet spot.

Now that you’ve got some ideas on the trumpet and what it takes to make it sound great, let’s talk about what transforms an ordinary trumpet into a jazz trumpet – Jazz music.

Snapshots in the Long History of Jazz

Until the outbreak of the civil war, African slaves would hold music and dance gatherings. Particularly, the slaves in New Orleans would organize festivals at Congo Square (now Louis Armstrong Park). New Orleans is said to be the birthplace of jazz music, and these festivals are its roots.

When slavery was abolished in the United States, opportunities opened up for African American musicians and entertainers. It was in this period that Scott Joplin made ragtime popular around the world. Ragtime was one of the earliest types of jazz music.

The blues and swing are other early forms of jazz. Even if they can be considered as separate genres themselves, they are still considered as precursors to what we now know as jazz music.

It was in the roaring 20’s and the 1930’s that jazz music saw its golden age. Jazz bands ruled the music world, and icons such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Artie Shaw made the world dance despite the prohibitions happening all over. Louis Armstrong’s vocal and trumpet solos, in particular, helped more people appreciate what jazz is all about.

From the 40’s up to the present, elements from earlier jazz music types gave birth to the newer, more familiar forms such as:

  • Cool Jazz
  • Latin Jazz
  • Soul Jazz
  • Jazz Fusion
  • Smooth Jazz
  • Acid Jazz
  • Rap Jazz

Iconic Jazz Trumpet Players

These are the men who not only showed mean jazz trumpet skills, but who also helped define jazz music and made it evolve into the music genre that it is today:

  • Louis Armstrong (1901-1971)

“Satchmo” or “Pops” Armstrong is undoubtedly one of the most influential jazz musicians in history. Also considered as an innovator in popular music, Louis Armstrong practically invented this really cool way of improvisation in singing called scat singing.

  • Miles Davis (1926 – 1991)

Recently honored with a New York street bearing his name, Miles Dewey Davis III is not only a trumpeter, but a highly-respected figure in the history of music, in general. He lived to see the early part of the 90’s and introduced innovation in jazz through his many projects fusing jazz with other genres.

  • Dizzy Gillespie (1917 – 1993)

John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie is known by music critics and fans as one of the greatest and most prolific jazz trumpeters of all time. On top of his complex playing style, his signature bent trumpet, puffed cheeks and easy-going personality made him someone very easy to admire and remember.

  • Clifford Brown (1930-1956)

With only four years’ worth of recordings, dying from a car accident didn’t stop Clifford Brown, aka “Brownie” from being a major influence in future generations of jazz trumpeters. Unlike other celebrities, Brownie lived a quiet life and showed a good example to his fellow musicians who were victims of substance abuse.

All That Jazz

The next time you step into a cafe or posh restaurant, pay attention to what’s playing in the background. If it’s jazz music, you might just get lost listening to a track or two featuring Louis Armstrong’s distinct signing voice, or Dizzy Gillespie’s complex runs. Just remember to enjoy the coffee and the company, too.

If you’re sold on the trumpet and are eager to learn to play, this course will get you started on the right foot. Or if you’ve just got a passion for jazz but aren’t crazy about the trumpet, this blog post will tell you more about other key instruments in the genre.