The trumpet has always been an integral part of the traditional big band, both as a lead instrument and as a soloist. The section consists of four players, with the first chair being labeled the “lead” chair and the second part generally considered the “jazz” chair. Although improvised solos can be played by any of the four players, the second trumpet is usually depended upon to cover the solos within the section when needed.
It is the “lead” trumpet that carries the melody over all other musicians during full band sections. This important position carries quite a large responsibility, mainly because it is he/she who is called upon to play the highest notes within the ensemble sections.
Melodic and Harmonic Roles
In traditional big band repertoire, the trumpet section provides both melodic and harmonic roles. Melodies can be played by one or up to all four players at one time. Melodic roles are often coupled with instruments of similar timbre, such as the alto saxophone. As a melodic instrument, the trumpet is generally in the middle range when matched with other instruments. The upper register is used for full ensemble sections where the lead player must carry the melody over the rest of the band.
When fulfilling a harmonic role, the section is usually voiced in either three or four distinct parts. Since the trumpets are set in the upper register of the ensemble, they have the responsibility of covering the upper extensions of the given chord. In harmonic roles, the section often extends the basic chord tones (i.e. root, 3rd, seventh) that are played by the trombone and saxophone sections. These upper extensions often take the form of a simple triad when played alone, but create sophisticated extended chords when playing with saxophone and trombones.
Mutes and Utility Instruments
Modern trumpeters today are expected to own and carry a variety of mutes to alter the sound of the instrument. In every trumpeter’s bag are a straight mute, a cup mute, a harmon mute and plunger. Each of these “tools” are designed to alter the color and sound of the instrument by bringing out low (cup and plunger) or high (straight and harmon) overtones. The use of mutes can significantly alter the overall sound of the section with a wide variety of colors. Gil Evans was one famous arranger that used muted trumpets extensively in his arrangements and compositions.
In addition, most professional trumpeters today own a flugel horn. This instrument looks like a large trumpet, but sounds much more mellow and with a limited high range. Flugel horns are used primarily for melody, but can also be used as harmonic pads with the big band. Modern writers such as Maria Schneider utilize flugel horns in this role quite often
Famous Big Band Trumpeters and Sections
Trumpet players and big band trumpet sections can be found throughout the history of jazz. Maynard Ferguson, for example, made his debut with the Stan Kenton Orchestra during the 1950s. Maynard played lead trumpet and was featured as a high note virtuoso at a young age. He later went on to lead his own big and small bands for more than half a century. High note artists such as Stan Mark and Lynn Nicholson were members of famous Maynard Ferguson trumpet sections.
Bill Chase led one of the more famous trumpet sections in the 1960s with the Woody Herman orchestra. Known for his high range, Bill Chase provided the high note excitement for the band. In 1974, Chase met an untimely death in a plane crash near a small airport in Minnesota, Among the most famous trumpet sections of all time might have been in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Cootie Williams and Cat Anderson filled soloist and high note roles, respectively, for Duke’s band for many years. Duke often wrote entire compositions to feature Cootie (Concerto for Cootie) on trumpet.
The trumpet will always play an integral role within the realm of big band jazz ensemble music. Because of this, skilled lead players and gifted soloists will always be in demand in the jazz and commercial music industry.