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Top 12 All-Star Trumpeters of All Time : Music: Horns have played a central role in the jazz world since the first soloist, Buddy Bolden, used the cornet to ornament melodies.

March 11, 1994|LEONARD FEATHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What if they gave an all-star jazz party and no trumpeters came?

More than any other instrument, the horn would be conspicuous by its absence. From the beginning of time--jazz time, that is--the trumpet or cornet has been central to the music. Trumpeters functioned as actual or de facto leaders of the most influential groups.

Legend tells us the first jazz soloist was Buddy Bolden, 1877-1931, a New Orleans cornetist whose band played the honky-tonks of Storyville a century ago. Though it is said that he ornamented melodies rather than improvising freely, he supposedly became a formative influence on trumpeters Freddie Keppard, Bunk Johnson and others.

The impact and influence of such men will never be known; Bolden did not record: Keppard (1890-1933) and Johnson (1899-1949), both prominent in the early 1900s, recorded too little and too late to offer an idea of their reported pristine brilliance. Both, however, were heard in New Orleans and Chicago by the most influential hornman ever, Louis Armstrong.

Keppard, it is said by historians, had a chance to bring a black jazz band to records in 1916, but refused the offer for fear that he would be imitated by rivals.

As it turned out, the first jazz group ever recorded was an all-white original Dixieland Band, led by a trumpeter, Nick La Rocca, in 1917. The first memorable series of recordings by a black jazz band was led by King Oliver, out of whose ranks Armstrong emerged.

What does young America today know about Louis Armstrong or Dizzy Gillespie? Asking for an explanation of their role in history would be as productive as expecting a Tom Cruise fan to explain the importance of John Gilbert. To many young listeners only Wynton Marsalis' name strikes a chord, though his role as an individual stylist remains to be firmly defined.

Sure, there are young talents vying for attention--perhaps too many. Time was when a jazzman served his apprenticeship with name bands before graduating to leadership. Today he may be vaulted from the unknown to become an overnight public relations vehicle, surrounded by producers, record companies and managers.

Of the current crop of players, Roy Hargrove, Terence Blanchard and Wallace Roney may be admired for their exploration of the trumpet roots; Ryan Kisor for his prodigious technique, Tom Harrell for his lyricism; but who among them will make it into the pantheon of the 21st Century?

In listing history's most identifiable or influential trumpeters, no disrespect is meant to those who, while pointing the music in an evolutionary path, left it to others to make the most definitive steps forward.

Louis Armstrong

Conjuring magisterial melodic gems out of deceptively simple lines, with a purity of sound that was unmatched, Armstrong in the late 1920s created a series of masterpieces by small groups (the Hot Five and Hot Seven) that built a worldwide impact. His most durable works from this era are still available on CBS reissues.

Bubber Miley

In 1923 he joined Elmer Snowden's Washingtonians, which became Duke Ellington's orchestra. During almost six years with the band he initiated the practice of altering the sound of his horn through the use of a rubber plunger mute to achieve a growl or "wa-wa" effect. Cootie Williams and Ray Nance, fellow-Ellingtonians, copied the style, as have thousands of other trumpeters. Miley can be heard on the band's early RCA and Columbia versions of "Black and Tan Fantasy," "Creole Love Call" and "The Mooche."

Bix Beiderbecke

The first great cornetist (despite its shorter appearance and softer sound, the terms cornet and trumpet were often used interchangeably; Bobby Hackett and others used both instruments regularly). Though almost unknown to the public during his brief career, Beiderbecke enchanted musicians with his bell-like, lyrical tone, heard in a famous series or small group sessions with saxophonist Frank Trumbauer, and in the bands of Jean Goldkette and Paul Whiteman. He was the first white musician to inspire blacks (Rex Stewart of the Ellington band copied his solos) and is well remembered also as a composer-pianist, whose solo recording of his "In a Mist" was decades ahead of its time. Most of his best work is still available on CBS.

Roy Eldridge

The next giant in the post-Armstrong line, "Little Jazz" Eldridge brought an intensely emotional quality to his solos along with a sense of harmony and technical dexterity that he employed to create a unique sense of crackling tension. Though he led his own bands off and on, he was one of the few great black artists prominently featured in white swing-era bands, with Gene Krupa, 1941-43, Artie Shaw, 1944, Benny Goodman, 1950. Though a pre-bop figure, he was the first major influence on be-bop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie.

Bunny Berigan

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