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The Great Big Bands


During my career as a lead trumpet player I have been asked many times, often by far superior players, why they themselves have had no success in that field. They had the technique, the range and all the abilities required to play first trumpet, but were never invited to do so. My answer has always been the same: You must have soul.

The lead trumpet in a band is the man soaring about over the top of the ensemble. Whether the passage be thunderous, all–out, roaring, or delicate, whispering and power–controlled, he is the one the listener will be hearing, controlling it from above. He will have the melody.

The weight of the ensemble will come from the other players. The lead trumpet has to inspire them into playing in a certain way. He must lay down what he is going to do in that particular passage, and once having done so, must do exactly the same on every subsequent performance. He must do so with the utmost confidence and, yes — aggression, if necessary. Only then will the others be able to closely follow him. He must have tremendous energy. He must have impeccable style. He must be able to adapt that to fit in with the style of every band he plays in. And he must have soul. Without soul he can forget it.

In the British big band era, roughly between 1940 to 1965, there were a mere handful of really great first trumpet players. They all had soul. One could usually tell, even, when listening to a broadcast, who was playing first trumpet. I remember the wife of Jackie Brown, the organist, telling me that he had once shouted to her from the bathroom, where he was shaving, to go and take a look at the television set. The Dankworth band was playing. I was doing a one–off dep in the band for Derrick Abbott.

‘Go and see if that’s Ron Simmonds playing there,’ he shouted.

Nowadays the young, up–and–coming first trumpet players generally have stupendous technique, incredible range and no soul whatsoever. They all sound the same. Maybe this is better, I don’t know. Whether they inspire the sections they are leading is questionable. They will not be remembered in the way that the stalwarts of the past are today. There are very few players on any instrument today, anywhere in the world, who will become great names to be remembered the way we remember the side–men of Dorsey, Goodman, James, Kenton, Herman and, yes, many of the men who worked in the great British big bands.

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