Trumpets and cornets are the highest-pitched modern brass instruments, all of which are lip-vibrated aerophones – that is, instruments in which a vibration is produced within the air column by means of air blown between the player’s lips, which are pressed against a mouthpiece. Trumpets in the broadest sense of the term – a length of (usually) metal tubing with a flared bell and a mouthpiece that is more or less cup-shaped -have existed for millennia. Upon the invention and application of valves early in the nineteenth century, brass instruments became fully chromatic, no longer limited to the notes of the overtone series. Most modern trumpets and cornets are pitched in Bb, with three piston valves and a tubing length of about 51″ (130 cm). Orchestral players generally prefer to play C trumpets most of the time, with occasional use of instruments in B#, D, E#, F, G, and high A and B# (piccolo trumpets). However, in popular music, the standard B# trumpet has been almost universally used since the late 1920s.
Cornets are distinguished from trumpets by their more compact shape (tubing of the same length is differently folded), a more conical bore and a softer, mellower sound. Cornets were generally favored over trumpets in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; in certain respects more agile than trumpets, cornets are, however, capable of less brilliance, power and upper range. Louis Armstrong also remembered the difference as one of cultural prestige, at least in the second decade of the twentieth century:
Of course in those early days we did not know very much about trumpets. We all played cornets. Only the big orchestras in the theaters had trumpet players in their brass sections. It is a funny thing, but at that time we all thought you had to be a music conservatory man or some kind of a big muckity-muck to play the trumpet. For years I would not even try to play the instrument. (Armstrong 1986, 213-14)
Armstrong and most other jazz players switched from cornet to trumpet in the following decade, but the brilliant and powerful style of much jazz trumpeting can sometimes make it difficult to discern by ear whether a trumpet or cornet is being played on a given recording. The flugelhorn, a similar instrument with a larger bell, deeper mouthpiece and correspondingly darker sound, was used in jazz from the 1930s, and especially after Miles Davis popularized it in the 1950s. Noted players of the flügelhorn include Clark Terry and Art Farmer. Most jazz trumpeters now double on it at least occasionally.
There have arguably been four great styles of trumpet virtuosity: the valveless, high-range ‘clarino’ playing of eighteenth-century Europe; the cornet soloists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; modern orchestral and concert trumpeting; and twentieth-century jazz and jazz-influenced popular genres. The second category includes virtuosos such as Herbert L. Clarke, who was for a time featured with John Philip Sousa’s immensely popular band. This was the peak of a tradition of trumpet use by military and civic bands that continued throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, it is the last of these categories that is of primary importance to popular music, since twentieth-century players of jazz and other popular music reinvented the trumpet, extending its power, lyricism, agility and expressive potential. The sheer volume produced by the trumpet facilitated its leadership role within a host of modern musical styles, and trumpet mutes allowed a great range of timbres.
Early jazz cornet players of note include band leader Joe ‘King’ Oliver, whose bluesy solos and use of mutes were widely imitated, as well as the legendary Buddy Bolden (who never recorded) and Freddie Keppard. The most influential cornet and trumpet player of this era, and arguably of the entire century, was Louis Armstrong. He set new standards for the instrument in terms of range, endurance, brilliance and power. His sense of rhetoric, swing and timing, together with his thrilling imagination and technical precision, brought him fame as the first great jazz soloist and affected virtually all jazz musicians who followed him. Armstrong’s white contemporary, Bix Beiderbecke, was an imaginative soloist in a restrained, cooler style; appropriately, he continued to use the cornet throughout his career.
The swing era was marked by saxophonists’ challenges to the trumpet’s dominance, but trumpeters continued to be central to popular music both as soloists and as members of sections of up to five players. The ‘growlers’ of Duke Ellington’s band – trumpeters Bubber Miley and Cootie Williams, as well as trombonist Joe Tricky Sam’ Nanton – developed a rough, expressive manner of playing that Ellington used for what he called ‘jungle’ music. Roy Eldridge continued to develop the brilliant approach of Armstrong, and the trumpet’s technical possibilities began to rival those of the saxophone. These were glory days for the trumpet: players such as Armstrong and Harry James were stars of mainstream popular culture – a phenomenon that would not really occur again, except for such anomalous successes as Eddie Calvert or Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass in the 1960s, or flügelhorn player Chuck Mangione in the late 1970s.
With the birth of bebop in the 1940s, trumpeters were among the musicians who strove to set new speed records for instrumental virtuosity and musical imagination. Foremost among them was Dizzy Gillespie, whose fantastic agility and inventiveness gained him recognition as the co-founder (with alto saxophonist Charlie Parker) of bebop. After Gillespie came many bebop trumpet virtuosos, including Kenny Dorham, Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown and Art Farmer. Some players of the 1940s and 1950s, notably Cat Anderson and Maynard Ferguson, continued to stretch the upper range of the trumpet until they had surpassed even the extraordinary demands of late eighteenth-century practises.
The most artistically restless musician in jazz, Miles Davis, started as a bebop trumpeter but went on to pioneer cool jazz, hard bop and jazz fusion; his last album even mixed jazz with hip-hop. Davis made use of a variety of risky techniques – pressing the valves down only halfway, bending notes, using a great range of timbres and articulations and, later, electronic effects such as echo units and wah-wah pedals – in order to articulate musical sensibilities and models of virtuosity that were quite distant from the beboppers’ fiery technique (Walser 1993). Free jazz trumpeters pushed even further in this direction. Don Cherry used a ‘pocket trumpet’ (of normal length but tightly coiled), which contributed to his strained sound, flexible sense of intonation and seemingly unstable technique. Don Ellis developed a four-valved trumpet that could play quarter tones, reflecting Eastern European influences that also fueled odd-meter improvisations; he also distorted his tone electronically. Players such as Freddie Hubbard went in the opposite direction, cultivating the technical perfection of Gillespie and his followers, but with a warmer, fuller sound than Gillespie used.
Wynton Marsalis, the most popular and acclaimed jazz musician of his generation, came to fame as a trumpeter and band leader during the 1980s. Marsalis’s impressive technique and improvisational facility helped him become a respected spokesperson for jazz, and he created new institutional berths for the music. Other influential players of the late twentieth century included Tom Harrell and Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, both of whom often used the flügelhorn.
The trumpet’s virtuosic potential was most effectively exploited and extended in the twentieth century by jazz musicians. Thus, nearly all the innovative, influential players mentioned above were American; most were African American. But their influence has been global, as the trumpet has been an important element not only of non-US jazz, but also of a great variety of popular styles worldwide. From banda and other Mexican genres, with their brilliant trumpet duets, to Chinese political pop songs featuring former orchestral trumpeter Cui Jian, from jazz-influenced Cuban popular music to the traditional music of Afghanistan, from Polish-American polka bands to jazz ensembles in schools and pops orchestras in parks, from jazz-rock fusions to ska and swing revivals – in all these, the trumpet has maintained a significant presence in a musical landscape dominated by electronic sounds.