SOUND THE TRUMPET, BEAT THE DRUM

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Although I find endless possibilities in playing the drums, I often wonder (maybe like other drummers?) what it would be like to play a melodic, front-line instrument. 

In fact, the tenor saxophone has always been my favourite, Lester Young being my favourite musician.

But I did originally get into jazz as a boy by hearing two trumpet players, each through stumbling across a 45rpm EP. First, Louis Armstrong and then shortly afterwards Dizzy Gillespie.

The trumpet, being a high-pitched brass instrument, is pretty in your face. So I don’t find it easy to ignore or be indifferent to trumpet players. I usually tend to have a definite opinion about them – positive or negative.

To the outrage of many of my friends (and probably readers), I find little to enthuse about in Miles Davis’s playing. He deserves enormous credit for leading two of the greatest quintets in history, the 50s band with John Coltrane and Philly Joe Jones and the 60s band with Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams. But I always preferred a  more sparky front-line partner for Bird in the 40s like Dizzy or Fats Navarro, I hated the cool stuff of the early 50s, I felt that Miles’s soloing in the 60s had become sloppy and inaccurate with more fluffs than ever and I found his final pseudo-rock period simply boring and uncreative.

Oh dear. Sorry, everybody. Let’s go positive. I love Rex Stewart, Ray Nance, Buck Clayton, Clark Terry, Dizzy, Clifford Brown, Booker Little, Kenny Dorham, Donald Byrd, Lee Morgan, Johnny Coles, Don Cherry and many others.

And let me share with you my personal experience of working with assorted trumpeters. A few memories and anecdotes:

Joe Newman – very fine soloist and charming, friendly guy at the bar or in the bandroom but awkward and dissatisfied with  everything on the stand.

Nat Adderley, who strode on stage and loudly enquired “How fast can we play?” Detecting a certain bored arrogance in his tone, I cheekily responded “Well, I know how fast I can play but I don’t know how fast you can”. After that unpromising start, the tension dissipated and enjoyment began to flow.

Rolf Ericson, excellent Swedish trumpeter who had had a stint in the Ellington band, gigging in Cologne. We later repaired to a night spot and got hopelessly drunk. In the end he marched up and down the bar doing the John Cleese Hitler strut. I can’t imagine how we got out of there and back to the hotel without being beaten up.

Freddie Hubbard, at the height of his powers in the mid-60s, doing a residency at Ronnie’s and staying at the Hampstead flat of bassist John Hart (where Philly Joe later gave lessons). He was most gracious and friendly to us aspiring musicians and gave up his day off to come and to sit in with us at the Troubadour café in Earl’s Court.  

Fondest by far in my memory of American visitors is Art Farmer. Beautiful, creative flugelhorn player, by turns fiery and lyrical. (Listen to his superb album Sing me softly of the blues with Steve Kuhn, Steve Swallow and Pete La Roca and to the unheard stuff I’ve put up today on the Music page.)

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I first met him on a gig in Birmingham (with Critch on piano) and was nervous about getting in Art’s way. He kept turning round and glowering at me and I withdrew more and more into my shell. In the interval I started apologising but he said “No, man, I love what you’re doing but play out a bit more – I can’t hear you.”

I hadn’t realised that he was suffering from incipient deafness. We became close friends and he asked Ernie Garside, the Manchester promoter for whom he did several tours, to get me on drums whenever he could. Art ended up doing some gigs with my own quartet with Geoff Simkins and Colin Purbrook, which was a wonderful experience.

I haven’t even got round to mentioning any English trumpeters but there are many great ones I have encountered over 50 years in the business. I must single out Kenny Wheeler and Humphrey Lyttleton.

 

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Kenny was a genius and a joy to play with. His compositions, his instrumental brilliance and his highly original time feel (skating ahead of and behind the beat in a couple of bars) were constantly exciting.

Humph was underrated as a trumpeter. Renowned for the daringly progressive bands that he led from trad through to the  modern limits of mainstream, and latterly revered as a national treasure of comic broadcasting, his actual playing was a fiery brand of Armstrong, Clayton and Eldridge. He had a glorious open sound and handled a wah-wah mute with aplomb.

I owe Humph a considerable debt personally. He was about the first “name” to actively encourage me (before I met Tubby), using this raw recruit as a dep in his band before I joined officially for a year. He plugged my name generously when hosting BBC Jazz Club at the Playhouse or Paris theatres. Cheers, governor! 

I leave the last word to the talented Laura Jurd, the latest and youngest trumpeter I have met. She is forging her own up-to-the minute style of music with her band Dinosaur but, as I told her, when she is playing hard-bop with us in the Art Themen quintet and I close my eyes, I could be listening to Lee Morgan.

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In reply, she said she felt there was something particularly special about the combination of trumpet and drums. There you go - SOUND THE TRUMPET, BEAT THE DRUM!

 


 

 

 

 

Spike Wells