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What Is Jazz Trumpet?

By Wanda Marie Thibodeaux
Updated May 17, 2024
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Jazz trumpet is trumpet music played in a jazz style. This often, but not always, means that the music has a relaxed rhythmic feel, with eighth notes sounding more like a quarter and eighth note grouped as a triplet. Complexity of melodies and harmonies is a common element, as well, with many jazz trumpet works requiring incredible virtuosity. Jazz trumpet is very loosely defined, however, because so many different genres of jazz exist. It can mean anything from big band swing of the 1930s and 1940s to contemporary improvisation.

This genre of trumpet music can be separated roughly into two categories: solo playing and ensemble playing. Solo playing simply means the jazz trumpeter is featured, not necessarily that no one else is performing with him. Ensemble playing means that the jazz trumpeter plays as part of a group, often with other jazz trumpeters in a jazz ensemble having trumpets, saxophones, trombones and similar instruments.

Ensemble jazz trumpet is most popular for special events. Examples include weddings and fundraisers. This type of jazz trumpet usually takes the melody for the group, with the top-ranked performers sometimes doubling the melody very briefly up the octave for special effect and high impact. Solo jazz trumpet is featured with more regularity in clubs and on recordings. Often there is some overlap, however, such as if a jazz ensemble performs a work that highlights the principal trumpet player.

Regardless of whether a jazz trumpet player performs in an ensemble or group, he is expected to understand basic jazz music theory. For instance, he must understand how to phrase his improvisation based on the chord progressions found in the music, which requires the ability to use basic tonal analysis. He also is expected to be able to have full expressive control over his instrument, being able to produce everything from a sultry, soft jazz ballad in the low register to powerful blasts and technical passages. This allows the jazz trumpeter to perform in more jazz styles and, subsequently, to get more gigs or performances. Understanding this, some jazz trumpeters do become well known for excelling in a particular area, such as the ability to play in the upper register with facility.

Due to the amount of music theory knowledge, technical expertise and natural expressiveness jazz trumpet requires, many jazz trumpeters study for years to become truly proficient and make a name for themselves. Often players get their first taste of jazz from recordings or community groups as teenagers, sometimes discovering the trumpet and their knack for it "by accident." Later, formalized music training, either from a private tutor or academic institution, becomes increasingly necessary, although some of the greatest early jazz trumpeters were primarily self-taught.

Some of the early jazz trumpeters who are best known include Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Maynard Ferguson, Joe "King" Oliver and Roy "Little Jazz" Eldridge. These trumpeters were instrumental in developing jazz trumpet and expanding the boundaries of what was acceptable in jazz music. Other players of renown include Wynton Marsalis, Arturo Sandoval, Freddie Hubbard, Tom Harrell and Jon Faddis.

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