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Genius Guide to Jazz

Bix, Bubber, and the Giant Lollipop of the Apocalypse

By Published: August 29, 2004

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.

I think we know each other well enough now for me to take you into my confidence and share with you all of the deepest, darkest secrets of jazz. Of course, I can't do it here , where powerful forces may conspire to silence me before the truth can come out. So each and every one of you will have to come to the Geniusdome in person. Casual attire and BYOB. Hors d'oeuvres may be served, depending on how long the pizza rolls hold out.

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).

But seriously.

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").

So then.

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.

Subsequently.

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.

When Oliver went to Chicago in 1922 to play with at the Lincoln Gardens (built in the middle of Abraham Lincoln's garden, which is why his tomatoes never really turned out), he sent for his protégé Armstrong and soon unleashed young "Satchmo" on the world. An interesting side note, Armstrong's nickname "Satchmo" was derived from "satchel mouth," a moniker he acquired because he used to carry his overnight travel needs in his mouth. In fact, his unique gravely voice came from an incident where he accidentally swallowed his shaving kit.

As Armstrong was rising to prominence in Chicago, there was a young cornetist in Davenport, Iowa, (home of the davenport sofa, and sister city of Divan, Indiana) who was beginning his ascent to jazz immortality. Leon "Bix" Beiderbecke (I before E, except after Bix) was a naturally gifted musician who gravitated towards the cornet because, even in the 1920's in staid rural America, tuba players rarely if ever scored. Distressed by young Bix's increasing love of jazz music, his strict and disapproving parents decided to send him to a military school near what just happened to be the absolute center of the jazz world at the time, Chicago, which constitutes one of the great moments in the history of irony. It was in Chicago, exposed to some of the greatest players of the age, that Bix soon developed the astounding tone and unique phrasing that set him apart and made him among the elite of his era. Unfortunately, Bix would never have the opportunity to fully explore his potential, as his personal demons and alcoholism eventually consumed his genius and left him a shadow of himself even before his untimely death at 28.

Chastened by that cautionary tale, I'll be drinking just plain Coke for the remainder of this article.

By the late thirties, jazz had primarily become an ensemble art with the rise of the big bands. Although soloists the caliber of Armstrong and Beiderbecke were in short supply, there were still plenty of great players such as Harry James and Harry "Sweets" Edison (who went by Sweets because James had won the right to be called Harry by knocking Edison out in the fifth round of their Harryweight bout at Madison Square Gardens in 1934. On the undercard, Edward K. Ellington won the name "Duke" from Archduke Ferdinand who was disqualified when it was discovered that he had, in fact, been dead for 20 years).

By the end of the forties, as Be-Bop was beginning to take root and return jazz to the realm of the soloist, the trumpet was once again in the forefront. Dizzy Gillespie introduced new dimensions to the instrument, with his unconventional playing style and blistering runs. Fats Navarro had a sound so large and luxurious you could get in it and drive away. Clifford Brown's clean lines and natural melodic invention composed a veritable textbook on how to play jazz trumpet. I could put some kind of obvious textbook gag here, but I think we respect each other a little more than that.

A player of particular note emerging from this period was the great Miles Davis, who resisted the blazing, high-register acrobatics exhibited by other players and favored a sparser, more intimate sound. Often accused of lacking technical faculty, Davis responded to critics either by flipping them the finger or pretending not to understand English (which is where his brilliant Sketches of Spain came from, maybe). 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.

Moving into the sixties, perhaps one of the great unsung heroes of the instrument was Lee Morgan. A prolific sideman (and a tasty side dish. For recipe, send SASE to AAJ and hope for the best), as well as a respected leader in his own right, Morgan's bright, clear tone and bold, imaginative runs set the standard for trumpet players of the era. Perhaps the only thing that kept Morgan from becoming a household name was the fact that he was shot by his mistress in 1971 at a club called Slugs in New York.

And chastened by that cautionary tale, I will not be taking a gun-toting mistress to any place called "Slugs." It's just common sense.

Moving into the seventies, we meet Miles Davis again. Wave hello to Miles. Hello, Miles! Now, don't you feel foolish waving at a computer screen? I hope you've learned your lesson.

So then.

Beginning his career in the forties, basically inventing "cool" jazz in the fifties, and being a force in jazz through the sixties, Miles Davis reinvented himself yet again through the seventies. Combining the electric instrumentation of rock with the free-form improvisation of jazz, after a failed attempt to combine the heartfelt simplicity of country music with the rousing marches of John Phillip Sousa, the new form was named Fusion (and its Confirmation name is Mary Catherine). Thus, Davis made possible the very narrow career path of rock trumpet player.

One of my favorite players from the seventies is one that is sure to draw some controversy. Chuck Mangione would probably be considered by most to be among the Kenny G's of the past, a technically adept player whose light, uncomplicated style is probably considered a homogenized derivative of jazz. But it was Mangione's Children of Sanchez that was responsible for my high school jazz ensemble (with me on bass trombone) winning a silver medal at a band festival in Toronto in 1985, in return for which I made a promise to Mangione that if I were ever to have my own column on an influential jazz website I would give him a paragraph in an article on jazz trumpet players. Technically, though, Mangione is not really a trumpet player.

His instrument of choice is the flugelhorn, a relative of the trumpet and very much like it in every respect except that it is covered with a layer of light, flaky pastry. No, wait. I'm thinking of the strudelhorn.

Moving into the eighties, we are once again confronted with the specter of Wynton Marsalis, whose roundheaded shadow casts across the last two decades of jazz like a giant lollipop of the apocalypse ( I have absolutely no idea what in the hell I meant by that). A Julliard-trained classical musician with an enviable jazz pedigree (his father, Ellis, was a well-known jazz pianist and educator who also produced musicians Branford and Delfayo. And I've got to say, the Pontiac Delfayo was one of the coolest cars of the eighties), Marsalis almost single-handedly revived the jazz trumpet to popular sensibilities.

Then, of course, there are the nineties. A century since Buddy Bolden blew bold on Bourbon Street, begetting such bigwigs as Bubber and Bix Beiderbecke, who built bastions of brilliance befitting the barons who braved the brickbats of banal bourgeois to bring forth a brighter brand of be-bop and beyond. But the bright benchmarks born by these Brobdingnagian bosses behoove a better bandwagon than the bilious blather of some bumptious bastard who barely bothered to break open a book for the benefit of the brigade of burgeoning blowers now bursting boundaries.

And if you figured out that I really haven't done enough research to comment on trumpet players of the last ten years or so, and attempted to hide that fact with a bit of ham-fisted alliteration, then you win this month's AAJ Genius Challenge. Simply mail your computer to AAJ for verification of your winning entry, and we'll send you a cashier's check for $4. All entries become property of AAJ. PA and VA residents need not send entire computer, just the monitor. Especially if it's one of those really nice flat screen deals.

So here we are, a more-or-less authoritative history of the trumpet and its relationship to jazz. If, after this Guide, you feel I may have omitted some of your favorite players like Arturo Sandoval and Maynard Ferguson, I welcome you to keep it to yourself. No one likes a complainer.

Next month, I'll be exploring the history of the saxophone and the players forever associated with the instrument. From Traumbaur to Young to Coltrane (that legendary sax-wielding double-play combination for the Phillies back in the 40's) to some of the great iconoclastic avant-garde players like Ornette Coleman and Pharaoh Sanders. And to prove that my jazz knowledge isn't just rooted in the past, I'll be discussing modern players like Joshua Redman and that other guy who isn't Joshua Redman.

Till then, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.


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