Bix, Bubber, and the Giant Lollipop of the Apocalypse
“ Davis understood that the space between the notes was sometimes just as important as the notes themselves. But he also understood that too much space between the notes, and people would think that the concert was over and go home. This is partially why he is considered a genius today. ”
As for this month's Guide, I suppose I ought to slap together something to chew my normal amount of Web space. By which, of course, I mean that I will deliver my usual brand of finely hand-crafted neo-classic humor that is known and loved by Americans of virtually all heights (including pituitary giants, which is a hard demographic to reach, so to speak).
I thought I might use the next few Guides to explore the principal instruments of jazz, their origins and developments, and the great players with which they are associated. It was either that, or a 4-part series on the history of the quarter note (Warning: Prolonged exposure to Ken Burns' films can cause verbosity, loss of basic motor function, and inability to say "when").
We'll start this month with the trumpet and cornet, which were the first true "lead" instruments in the New Orleans tradition. Alike in virtually every respect, the only major difference between the trumpet and cornet is that the trumpet is a cylindrical instrument which means that it remains essentially the same size from bore to where the bell begins to flare, giving it a bright, brassy sound. The cornet is a conical instrument, which means that it gets gradually larger through the length of the horn, giving it a darker, more mellow sound. Think of it as the difference between Mounds and Almond Joy, wherein the Mounds-like cornet features the dark chocolate and chewy coconut, and the Almond Joy-ish trumpet has rich milk chocolate and a whole almond on top. And what the hell that had to do with anything, I'll never know; except that I haven't heard anything from the Hershey people about that corporate sponsorship (see May's Genius Guide ) and I'm not getting any younger or funnier.
The Angels in Heaven are said to play the trumpet, although I'm certain there are at least a few in the rhythm section to round out the group. But the known history of the trumpet is said to go back to at least ancient Egypt (they may have played them before that, but no one bothered to post any information about it to a Website and what do I look like, a librarian?). From the Egyptians until pretty much the 19th century, the trumpet was essentially just an uninterrupted metal tube with a mouthpiece on one end and dour-faced critics on the other. Till around 1813 (by my watch), the only way to change the notes on a trumpet was by skillful manipulation of the lips and tongue (which is still a good way to get a woman to speak your name with whispered awe). As clever as we give the Egyptians credit for being, it still took thousands of years for man to figure out that an entire range of notes could be produced simply by adding valves to the trumpet which, if you ask me, lends some credence to that whole "aliens built the pyramids" theory.
Once the trumpet received valves, it seemed to set off a wave of innovation in trumpet technology. The B-flat cornet was invented, as were various sizes and tunings of trumpet. There were bass trumpets, piccolo trumpets, pocket trumpets (which aren't as naughty as they sound), E-flat, C and F trumpets. Entrepreneurs seeking to capitalize on the craze came up with edible trumpets, disposable trumpets, steam-driven trumpets, and a briefly successful chain of Tea 'n' Trumpets restaurants.
By the end of the 19th century, the cornet had found its way to New Orleans (traveling mostly by rail, with a stop in Asheville, NC, to visit relatives). Here it came into the hands of Buddy Bolden, widely accredited with being the first master of the instrument. This is a matter of debate, however, since no recordings of Bolden exist and everyone who heard him play is either dead or deliberately not returning my phone calls.
From Bolden came a slew of musicians, most notably Joe "King" Oliver. A gifted musician with a talent for eliciting all sorts of unusual sounds from the horn, Oliver cemented the relationship between the cornet and the burgeoning musical form that would one day (Thursday, October 12th) be called jazz. Oliver's influence was indelible in the development of the instrument, as musicians like Bubber Miley (which is just a lot of fun to say) and young Louis Armstrong learned from him and built on the foundation he laid. Armstrong built an extra bedroom, later used as a den when the kids moved out, while Miley built a sun porch.