In 2001, Ken Burns released his epic 20-hour documentary entitled Jazz. In twenty hours, he was able to include more jazz history than had ever been put on film in one project, and yet, even still people complained about all the things he left out. I guess, when it comes to including everyone's favorites, you simply can't please all the people all the time. And that is likely to be my issue here in this brief article on great jazz trumpeters. In just a few hundred words, it will be nearly impossible to list all the trumpet players who have truly influenced the art of playing jazz trumpet.
So, I will instead approach this with a "chapter" mindset. Instead of listing every great player, I will list the six major trumpeters who, in my opinion, created a new "chapter" in jazz trumpet playing. Within each chapter, many players emerged to add their own influence. Hopefully, for those of you new to this area, I can give you a little head start in exploring the truly legendary trumpet players.
Arguably, Louis Armstrong is the most important musician in American music. He not only defined the art of jazz trumpet, but took the instrument itself (regardless of style) to heights never before attained. Classical players accused him of having a trick horn! Beyond this, he helped define the very music known as jazz. And since it was the "pop" music of its day, he literally helped define all modern pop music in some way. Even Lady GaGa owes him a debt. To top it off, he influenced every major singer after him, beginning with Billie Holiday. Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra…all paid homage to him.
As a trumpeter Louis Armstrong had no equal. To this day, players struggle to recreate his incredible sounds and phrasing. While many players came after him who could play higher and faster, their work was based on his earlier innovations. As Dizzy Gillespie once said: "No him, no us."
Roy came along after Louis had already begun to influence every player. Roy took Louis' influence and brought it out of the traditional "New Orleans" realm, heading a movement that would help lead the horn into more modern, evolving styles. He helped to define the instrument for the Big Band and Swing Era of the 1930's and 40's.
Dizzy was highly influenced by Roy Eldridge, but his innovations were a giant leap forward in terms of modern harmony and rhythm. Every jazz player after him—on any instrument—relies on the then-modern innovations spearheaded by Dizzy and his cohorts, namely saxophonist Charlie Parker, pianists Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and drummer Kenny Clarke. They took all the music from before and looked for ways to turn it on its ear without much regard for whether or not an audience would like it. (Audiences did, however!). As a trumpeter, Gillespie played with a speed and agility unheard of up to that time. Harmonic and rhythmic ideas flowed out of his horn at breakneck speeds. In terms of harmony, very little has been added to the jazz lexicon since Dizzy's era.
Miles, while influenced by Dizzy, never attained Gillespie's speed and range. However, he did usher the horn into an even more modern era by creating a haunting sound, almost voice like, that would help define a whole new approach to the horn. His "Cool" sound, straight-toned, little vibrato if any, use of space and silence in his solos, and his modal harmonic innovations not only created a new palette for jazz players but also created a style of jazz that is still very sought after today and has never sounded dated.
I include Clifford because, while he died very young and his output was light in comparison to these other players, his very sound and style defined a new standard of beauty for the instrument. His soloing and tone, while somewhat of a cross between Dizzy and Miles, was awe inspiring and continues to influence players to this day. And Brown's work helped pave the way for the trumpet's current state.
Known as a proponent of the "West Coast" sound, Baker was clearly influenced by Miles Davis. Chet's sound and style is easily recognizable and became popular well outside of jazz audiences due to its very romantic and smooth nature. In fact, much of the "Smooth Jazz" you hear today owes a debt to Chet Bakers's style of approaching the instrument. That isn't to say he was at all "Smooth Jazz" in the current sense of the word, but that his seemingly effortless playing and romantic sound influenced a whole generation of players who perform in that style.
While not the first player to play high, Ferguson helped define the standard for screaming trumpet playing, infusing not just range, but power and clear tone into the upper octaves. While others played high and loud, Ferguson made it sound easy. And literally every lead player and high-note specialist today owes Maynard Ferguson a debt of gratitude for setting the standard for this style of playing.
Freddie Hubbard emerged as a young player in the late 50s and early 60s who, along with his contemporaries Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan, would usher in the culmination of the horn's evolution from all that had come before. Combining Louis' power and bravado, Dizzy's harmonic and rhythmic innovations, Miles and Clifford's sound, Freddie would go on to take the horn to its most modern heights. He played with a fire and intensity that made it seem as if the horn were an actual extension of his body. It was as if you could tell whether he was feeling angry, happy, funny, romantic, or even just in a mood to show off.
Since Freddie's time, there have been many great and important players—Randy Brecker, Arturo Sandoval, Wynton Marsalis, Tom Harrell, and many others. However, I look at the guys on this list as each having defined a new era in playing. Most of the great players today are essentially building on the foundations laid by these innovators. I hope this article encourages you to dig deeper into the music and playing of these true jazz trumpet greats!