on Hotter Than That: The Trumpet, Jazz, and American Culture, by Krin Gabbard (Faber and Faber)

“Sometimes I feel the need for metallic sounds; in jazz you can hear knives singing. Knives rip up the psyche’s fabric to shreds and strengthen it in the process,” wrote the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski in Another Beauty. The trumpet has shredded without peers since the first ancient call to arms. Two trumpets buried with King Tutankhamen in 1350 BCE are the oldest metal specimens on hand. Last week I visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for a look at the oldest surviving Greek trumpet, a salpinx which is “made primarily of ivory and measures a little more than five feet. We know that trumpet was played at the Olympic Games and at the drama festivals,” according to Krin Gabbard. It seems that the trumpet was invented expressly to fix the attention, on the battlefield, in the royal court, and in the Hebrew temples. In Zechariah 9:14, God Himself is portrayed as a trumpet player.

trumpet.jpgA professor of comparative literature at Stony Brook University, Gabbard crams a lot of notes into a few bars: history, biography, sociology, music theory, and memoir. Hotter Than That begins with the story of Buddy Bolden, a provisional starting point for the trumpeter as individualist (he played the cornet). In the second chapter, Gabbard types out his notes from historical trumpet research. Louis Armstrong is the focal point of chapter three. By mid-book, Gabbard reminisces about his own experiences with the trumpet, and discusses the instrument’s modern evolution and means of production. In “Caution: The Trumpet May Be Hazardous to Your Health,” he traces the myths and prototypes of the trumpeter’s fatal attractions, though the more interesting sections track the physical hardships caused by the strain of playing the instrument. The final chapter deals with Miles Davis.

Gabbard played the cornet as a youth and only recently resumed lessons and playing. “The first note I played in the year 2004 might have drawn a belly laugh from Satchmo,” he says. “It sounded like it came from my ass, not from my horn.” As the tone of this sentence suggests, Gabbard wants Hotter Than That to be heard as the avid narrative of a mature amateur rediscovering not just an instrument but a diverse tradition. For this reason, he touches on fact and theory, anecdote and legend, identifying closely with the general reader. Hotter Than That succeeds as an informative, affable and multi-vectored overview of the trumpet and a few of its masters.

trumpet5.jpgThe book’s loose thesis depends mainly on the trumpet’s aura as a sexual apparatus. “Whether they knew it or not,” he writes, “African American trumpet masters figured prominently in the long history of whites looking to blacks for models of masculinity.” At the same time, black musicians took up the trumpet for its built-in testosterone accumulated “for more than thirty-five hundred years … in male-centered activities.” Gabbard notes that the Greek geographer Pausanias attributed the invention of the trumpet to Tysenus, a son of Heracles: “The trumpet, in other words, begins only one degree of separation from the single figure in Greek myth most associated with unreconstructed masculinity.” (Two hundred pages later, Gabbard repeats this fact almost verbatim, including the phrase “unreconstructed masculinity.”) When a black man in Louisiana in 1900 took up the trumpet, provocatively expressing his individuality, he was performing a death-defying act, since “between 1895 and 1907, when Bolden was working as a musician in New Orleans, more than fifteen hundred black men were lynched in the United States.”

trumpet2.jpgGabbard filters his material through a sexual and racial sieve, building a self-evident case for the rise of the jazz trumpet as a seminal American event. The Old Sanctified Churches of New Orleans, houses of vigorous and ecstatic worship, are the founts of this music. Following the development of Louis Armstrong, Gabbard begins with the musician’s upbringing (home for waifs, sheltered by the Jewish Karnofsky family, influenced by King Oliver’s flashy “growling, talking cornet”) and competitive drive. “Regardless of what instruments they play, classically trained musicians learn to play arpeggios quickly and cleanly,” Gabbard writes. “In Armstrong’s day, very few jazz musicians bothered with these kinds of exercises. Louis saw an opening. He realized that he could stand out with arpeggios, sounding fleet and darting while the competition was still playing old blues licks and freak sounds.”

trumpet4.jpgWhile playing on the riverboats, Armstrong may have met Bix Beiderbecke who represents another channel for interpreting the role and expressiveness of the trumpet. But Gabbard doesn’t have enough bandwidth in Hotter Than That to wander too far beyond his sexual/racial orientation (perhaps the occupational hazard of today’s comp lit professor). We can turn instead to Chip Deffaa in Voices of the Jazz Age who describes Bix as follows:

“Beiderbecke, by contrast, preferred the mellower sound of the cornet, whose timbre more closely approximated the human voice. He worked within a limited range, uninterested in showing how high he could play or how long he could hold a note. He was making the cornet sing. His sound was clear and ringing. He wasn’t out to produce growls or slurs, to sound ‘dirty’ or low-down. His playing was more generally circumspect, more restrained, in keeping with his middle-class background.” Hotter Than That is a point of departure for meditating further on musicians like Chet Baker, Clifford Brown, Shorty Rogers, Thad Jones or Jack Sheldon and what their playing may signify. The unique psychological and artistic energies of individual players are too often obscured by what are by now culturally sanctioned generalizations. Lee Morgan and Chet Baker were both junkies, but similarities then diminish. Wynton Marsalis may now owe as much to Beiderbecke as to Armstrong, though perhaps one would be foolish to expect (or demand) such an admission.

trumpet3.jpgJohn Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet once said, “For the younger musicians this was the way to react against the attitude that Negroes were supposed to entertain people. The new attitude of these young Negroes was: ‘Either you listen to me on the basis of what I actually do or forget it.’” Miles Davis criticized Louis Armstrong for smiling too broadly. As Gabbard says in his chapter on Miles, “So much was happening in the elaborate solos of Parker and Gillespie that only the aficionados could get it. Or at least some if it. Inaccessibility was, of course, what the boppers had in mind, but Davis and [Bill] Evans realized that they could slow the pace and orchestrate the harmonic ideas but still create something as elegant as pop.” Now everyone could get it. Miles had hit pay dirt. He could literally turn his back on white audiences while delivering the utterly unique sound that simultaneously expressed his coolness (you can’t touch me) and their desire for hipness (we’re hipper than our parents). Did Miles simply put a deeper chill on the cooler playing of white players? It's a virtual heresy to open the question for discussion.

“There is no question that the trumpet is the most difficult of all instruments,” Gabbard writes. “Two hundred muscles are mobilized when a trumpeter plays a single note.” Meeting the demands of the instrument, the player has already surrendered something of his body, or at least exposed its frailties. (Gabbard takes pains to say that women also can play. The first one I heard was Cynthia Robison of Sly and the Family Stone.) Hotter Than That is a compassionate telling, struck by difficulties – in American culture, in the horn itself – that Gabbard sweetly converts (Clifford Brown style) into a bright, smooth, and entertaining story.

[Published November 4, 2008, 251 pp., $25.00]