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Iconic trumpet players who defined jazz history

Since emerging at the beginning of the 20th century, jazz music has been a staple in American culture. Historians are not clear on when exactly jazz was born or who first started playing it, but it can be agreed upon that New Orleans, Louisiana is the First City of Jazz. Amidst the inventive be-bop beats filling up NOLA bars are the iconic trumpet players who still continue to inspire musicians and new music every day.

Buddy BoldenBolden had a magnetic personality and a musical gift that combined ragtime and the blues. His career defined jazz and he was crowned the first jazz trumpeter. He was very popular in turn-of-the-century New Orleans and kept local crowds returning to his lively shows. Even though Bolden never recorded any of his music, he was an inspiration to all the jazz legends that came after him.

King (Joe) Oliver – Oliver was praised for being an excellent band leader, imposing discipline on his musicians while skillfully playing along with them. His music was expressive, theatrical, and known for its wa-wa effects. He later enlisted Louis Armstrong to play in his band and the group was a national sensation on the jazz scene. His career as a top band leader in New Orleans and Chicago dissipated in the 1930s, but his influence on Armstrong was the beginning of jazz history.

Louis Armstrong – Affectionately known as “Satchmo” and “Pops,” Armstrong is one of the most influential people in jazz and the Harlem Renaissance. His recognizable name and iconic sound reached audiences beyond jazz and established him as a monumental force in music. In his lifetime, Armstrong toured internationally, recorded almost 1500 tracks, and was the first jazz musician to appear on the cover of Time (1949).

Louis Armstrong, jazz trumpeter. 1953. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Louis Armstrong, jazz trumpeter. 1953. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection.

Dizzy (John Birks) Gillespie – As one of the pioneering innovators of jazz, Gillespie lead the way for bebop and set a new standard for jazz music. Growing up, Gillespie had little formal training. He practiced the trumpet incessantly and taught himself music theory. His exuberant personality and prankish ways earned him the nickname Dizzy. In his six-decade career, Gillespie played alongside the likes of Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington.

Lee Morgan – Deemed one of the greatest trumpet players of all time, Morgan was hailed for his individual style and rich tones. Morgan’s talent landed him a spot in Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra soon after his high school graduation. He enhanced his popularity with his own recording, “The Sidewinder.” It was an instant hit that sparked a mini jazz-funk movement. Morgan’s vibrant career and life came to an end after a jealous female friend shot him in a nightclub.

Miles Davis – American jazz trumpeter and bandleader, Miles Davis led the cool jazz movement with his relaxed rhythms focused in the middle register. Described as a ‘living legend,’ he got his start at the ripe age of 13. Not one to stick to standards, Davis was the most consistently innovatory musician in jazz from the late 1940s until the mid-1970s. He bounced from bop to modal playing to jazz rock and built an impressive musical resume. His technical mastery and progressive approach remains a teaching tool for aspiring musicians to follow.

Chet Baker – Baker developed a distinct emotionally-detached sound while playing the trumpet in army bands. It’s estimated that he recorded over 900 songs in his lifetime. He was a hallmark of West Coast cool jazz and dominated the domestic and international jazz scenes. After battling drug addiction, two imprisonments and losing teeth, the post-war trumpeter regained his intellectually complicated sound and recorded some of his best work in his later years.

Art Farmer – Farmer was always in high-demand for his smooth interpretations of complex arrangements and his talent of sounding laid-back. With the rise of rock and political unrest, Farmer moved to Europe and established a music career in Austria. Before his death, Farmer invented the Flumpet, a fusion of the flugelhorn and the trumpet.

Donald Byrd – Trumpet legend Donald Byrd cultivated a vivacious career with his hard-bop beats and warm tone. He studied the trumpet and composition and played in bands while in the military. Playing into a post-jazz movement, Byrd turned towards R&B and funk music leaving his faithful fans disappointed. The commercial success of his pop-oriented albums overshadowed the trumpet but his musical legacy in jazz remained.

Wynton Marsalis – Hailed as an extraordinarily gifted trumpeter, Marsalis is also an exceptional educator and composer in jazz. He is the first musician to win Grammy Awards for a jazz recording, classical recording, and his recording of trumpet concertos by notable musicians. Marsalis tirelessly made it his mission to educate the masses and reel in a young audience to the world of jazz.

Headline image: Trumpet Macro by Jameziecakes. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Mark R.

    No list of iconic jazz trumpeters is complete without Clifford Brown. He brought jazz trumpet a full, polished sound that was new to hard bop world in the early 1950’s. Art Farmer might not have made your list had he not been influenced by Clifford Brown. Check out David H, Rosenthal’s book “Hard Bob” on Oxford University Press.

  2. Don H.

    Not mentioning Clifford Brown in a list of iconic jazz trumpet players is like not mentioning the Beatles or the Rolling Stones in a list of influential bands from the British Invasion.

  3. JazzLore

    Sorry but replace Lee Morgan with Clifford Brown. I consider honoring Lee Morgan as well by putting Clifford Brown on the list becuase he was his biggest influence and he influenced many other trumpeters as well. Not to mention Brownie was probably the best jazz trumpet soloist as well.

  4. John Smith

    Harry James is also conspicuous by lack of mention. He was a sensational player by any measure. He was HIGHLY respected by the likes of Miles, Diz, Clark Terry ancient many others. There has rarely been a more versatile trumpeter.

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