Louis Armstrong was never exactly sure what day he was born, but the histories say circa the Fourth of July and that was the day he celebrated. So when the brass bands march on the Fourth, I always give a mental salute to Satchmo and think of him as a child, playing in the band at the Waifs Home in New Orleans where he got his start. Armstrong was first assigned to the drums, actually, but there must be a force of destiny and it led him to the trumpet.
When I took up the cornet the whole neighborhood knew it, painfully. The distinguished French Champagne-maker, Charles Fournier, who had come from Reims to work in Hammondsport, N.Y., one day invited me to his house to hear his Armstrong recordings, 78s that were priceless even then.
I'm not sure if his motive was to urge me to get better or to give it all up. I no longer remember the titles but the glorious sound helped wed me to the cornet for 40 years or more, and I realized the other day that I'm not quite cured yet.
The young son of a friend of mine picked up an old Conn trumpet at a yard sale, intending to learn to play. But he couldn't seem to make it work and asked me to look it over.
The case appeared to have been salvaged from the Titanic and the horn's lacquer finish was so far gone it resembled terminal psoriasis. But the valves worked effortlessly (a sticking valve is the trumpet player's nightmare, ranking right up there with a collapsing lip).
I blew a few bars of "Sweet Georgia Brown" and a couple of snazzy riffs, all rather blurry and breathy and sounding terrible to everyone but me. But I realized I was as close as I'd ever come to acting out a fantasy I've lived with for years.
In my half-waking dream I always come upon a magic horn and a magic mouthpiece which solve all my embouchure problems and let me blow like Gabriel . . . or Louis. The fantasy didn't come true the other day and I was puffing hard to get much beyond an octave, but at least I made the thing work, and my fingers remembered where the notes were.
The horn still fascinates me and, as I reported a few months ago, I spent an awed evening listening to the Paul Cacia big band with its roaring, high-flying brass section, two of whose players were women.
I'd never thought of the trumpet as being a woman's instrument. When Prof. Harold Hill assembled the school band, the girls were usually automatically handed clarinets or flutes or maybe the odd saxophone and, possibly, a French horn. It was yet another vestige of sexism, conscious or otherwise.
I later heard from one of the women in Cacia's band whose name I had spelled wrong. It is Louise Baranger and I arranged to meet her to discover how she came to seize upon the trumpet and in particular how she feels about the high-register playing, which I regard as the equivalent of the 3:50 mile.
"You've got to be able to play a good strong G above high C. It goes with the territory these days," she said at lunch. "It makes all of us all have to work harder." She views it with mixed feelings because playing high and playing good jazz are not necessarily the same thing.
She remembers attending a performance by the late Cat Anderson, who was with Duke Ellington for years and was one of the first of the stratospheric players.
"Before the concert he told me he was going to play high notes only at the end of the first half. He said, 'I want to play good jazz but you watch 'em come alive when I play the high notes; that's all they want to hear.' He was right."
Baranger can play anything, and you'd better be able to, if you want to stay solvent as a trumpet player these days, she says. This includes playing even complex band arrangements at sight, no rehearsal at all. The week in which we spoke her dance card included playing a trumpet voluntary at a wedding, doing one gig with a Latin orchestra and two with a German band.
She toured with the Harry James band in the last years before James died and was in the band on what proved to be his last public performance, when he was already seriously ailing with cancer. "He couldn't play beyond the staff but he was still hanging in there."
Her love is playing jazz and her ensemble and solo work amid Cacia's hair-raising and gut-testing charts was amazing to an ex-cornetist who never got within shouting distance of G above high C.
Baranger's grandmother had played trombone and tuba and her grandfather was a composer, so she inherited something of a family tradition. She took up the trumpet first when she was in fifth grade at a junior high school in Irvine, but dropped it quickly, partly because the instruction was so intermittent.