Modern Range Expectations

Gary Morgan trumpetsection Stefan Cohen

This post addresses the range requirements of a modern professional jazz trumpeter, so it may be a little too specific for most people. You know… high notes and stuff…

Professional jazz trumpet players are expected to play higher today than ever before in the history of the instrument. Perhaps the closest historical comparison would be during the baroque era, or, as Ed Tarr would say, “the golden age of the trumpet.” The picture above is a great example of a typical working trumpet section (L-R: Kelly Rossum, Seneca Black, Andy Gravish, Alex Norris).

Tarr claims that the golden age of the natural trumpet lies between 1600-1750 (can’t argue with that). The virtuosity required to perform even the simplest baroque trumpet music is often beyond the modern trumpeter’s abilities. To perform baroque melodies based upon stepwise motion and other standard melodic shapes, the trumpeter must stay in the uppermost register of the instrument for the duration of the piece. The composers of the baroque era almost primarily wrote for individual performers, whom they knew personally, in order to assure the level of proficiency needed to execute their parts. These performers would occasionally take apprentices, to share the secrets of playing the trumpet. Only then would the master’s knowledge and experience, forged through years of heat (have You ever tried to play these things?!?!) be passed along to the next generation. Guilds of the time were very strict in allowing only highly trained trumpeters into the ranks of the artist class.

There are three primary factors contributing to today’s situation: 1) Jazz, 2) Technology, and 3) Population.

Louis Armstrong was a beast on the trumpet. Period. His influence went far beyond the virtuosic skills he so brilliantly incorporated into his improvisations; his persona influenced an entire nation’s cultural contribution to the world. The explosion of jazz across the globe (with Louis leading the charge) renewed a sense of wonder for the upper register of the trumpet. Trust me, the 19th Century wasn’t so happening for high notes.  Jazz also championed the individual skills of the performer, much more so than the previous focus upon the composer. This focus on individuality led to unusual techniques and upper register specialists. The first generation of individual jazz artists not only greatly influenced subsequent generations; they left unspoken technical challenges evidenced within their recordings.

The discovery and popularization of recorded music cannot be underestimated when discussing technical aspects of musical production on acoustic instruments (i.e. high notes). We do not have any aural records of Johann Altenburg or Goetfried Reiche; we truly do not know what they sounded like. With recorded sound, we can continue to study and learn decades after the actual performance. Modern technology also influences the production of the instruments themselves. Although a trumpet has primarily stayed the same over hundreds of years (buzz your lips in one end – sound comes out the other), the sheer availability of quality instruments has changed so radically over the past 100 years we forget to consider its global effect. And of course, we are now in the Age of Information, essentially connected to the combined consciousness of the human race through this little glowing screen in front of us. We can see and hear thousands of trumpeters, through decades of recorded media, at any moment. The next generation of trumpeters will be a sight to behold indeed! Technology has changed the world and we have yet to understand its long-term effects.

In this modern era, more people are playing the trumpet throughout the world, simply because there are more people. If we were to keep the same approximate percentage of virtuosic playing, as say the Golden Age of the Baroque Trumpet, and then factored in today’s global population, that would give us thousands more outstanding trumpeters today. This will only continue.

The results of these three contributing factors are most evident in today’s Big Band trumpeters.

The big bands of the 30’s and 40’s were so numerous; there were literally hundreds of working trumpeters. Out of that number, only a relatively small percentage of them had the chops and training to play lead. Even the big name outfits only had one or two cats covering lead, the others really couldn’t (or wouldn’t) deal with the range requirements of the charts. I’m not knocking any of these players, far be it, the situation of today has just changed, that’s all.

The GRP big band from 1992 is an example of a band comprised of “stars”; now it’s commonplace for name big bands to be comprised entirely of absolute monsters, including the trumpet sections. The soloists are often lead players, and the lead players will often improvise. This could arguably be due to the increase in skill amongst the professional ranks in conjunction with the current number of working big bands.

The common division of roles still found in academia is simply not true in the professional arena. Most college bands are reading music that was actually written for college jazz ensembles. This of course creates a vicious circle of low expectations for big band trumpeters. The need isn’t there to develop a section of skilled individuals, because the charts are expressly written for their “assigned skills” (i.e. 2nd = solo, 1st = lead, 3rd & 4th = section). High school bands are even worse. Everyone SHOULD solo and everyone SHOULD play some lead. Before you think I don’t understand the difficulties of academia, consider the expectations of a professional symphonic orchestra musician. Nobody would ever expect a young professional to successfully audition for an orchestra after only focusing on the fourth trumpet part throughout his or her entire academic studies! Why is this considered OK for a jazz musician? In NYC, every chair can play every other chair on 97% of the charts. Plus, solos are often determined by the leader; when they point at you, blow!

When I listen to modern jazz trumpeters, especially when they are playing within the high-energy environment of a large ensemble, I realize the overall level of individual skill has risen dramatically during the past 50 years. They are not only heavyweight soloists, but are also outstanding section players (tone, pitch, blend), sight-readers, and can hold down a lead book if needed. Some of the names you may recognize are: Greg Gisbert, Sean Jones, Ryan Kisor, Wynton Marsalis, Alex Norris, Terell Stafford, Jim Seeley, and there are many, many more out there burning it up.

I believe we are entering a new golden age of the jazz trumpet. Dig it!

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