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The Greatest Trumpet Legends – 12 Trumpeters of All Time

The trumpet can be traced back in history for thousands of years and has been used for a variety of things. There was one buried with Tutankhamun, and it was in the midst of some of the most famous battles in history.

It has welcomed royalty and has been played at royal weddings and other state occasions. It has become a fixture in Classical music as well as the Rock, Pop, and Jazz genres of today. And today, we can look back on the greatest trumpet legends.

Hardly Recognizable

The trumpet has changed just a little since the days when people fashioned animal horns into instruments to blow. And there is an interesting fact to note.

The trumpet isn’t actually a horn, even though it is often referred to as such. Horns have a tube that thickens, known as a conical bore. The trumpet has a tube with a constant diameter or a cylindrical bore. However, they are both considered brass instruments and are found all over the world.

It has been in the hands of some great musicians. And that is what we are going to look at here. So here are a dozen of the very best.

Harry James (1916-1983)

A man that has been a big influence on many of today’s top players. He was one of the greats of modern jazz and admired for his technical skills and the tones he generated.

Additionally, he was well-known for his Harry James Orchestra, which helped to bring us the likes of drummer Buddy Rich and Frank Sinatra. He had already received a decent musical education because before forming his own band, he worked with Benny Goodman.

The Legacy Lives on

During his illustrious career had a hit record with “You Made Me Love You,” and his orchestra was featured in several movies. He died in 1983, but his orchestra, directed by Fred Radke, is still playing today. 

Harry James is a jazzman that is still highly thought of and regarded as one of the greatest trumpet legends. You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want To Do It) is his most famous popular song.

Harry James

Lee Morgan (1938-1972)

Lee Morgan was considered by some as one of the best trumpet players we have seen. He was considered a bit of a child prodigy when he became a professional trumpet player at just 15. 

He learned a lot from working with another great trumpet player, Cliff Brown, and also spent time playing with Dizzy Gillespie. But even in that distinguished company, his playing skills still shone.

The Problems Arrive

Like a good number of jazz musicians who started young, he got involved with the wrong people. Almost inevitably, his career was constantly hampered by drug addiction which reached a peak in his 30s.

It affected his personal life, and when his wife could take no more, she shot and killed him. A sad and tragic end to a great musician at just 34 years of age. Fortunately, we have plenty on CD and vinyl to remember him by. An example of his talent is Sidewinder by Lee Morgan.

Lee Morgan

Chet Baker (1929-1988)

Chesney Baker Jr., or Chet, as he was known, started his musical journey when he was still at school in Oklahoma. He honed his skills with the trumpet in the Army, where he played in the band. But it was with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet that he began to attract attention.

It was his skills at combining his trumpet with Mulligan’s baritone sax in intricate patterns that brought accolades from his fellow musicians. He released a string of great albums, especially of note, is “Chet Baker and Crew” with tenor sax player Phil Urso.

Non-Stop Work

However, his later years were like so many others of his time, ruined by drug addiction. Some use drugs, so they don’t need to rest, and it may have been that which finally killed him while in Amsterdam. He just would not slow down.

Some speculate he took his own life for what is still an unexplained reason. Whatever the reason, we lost another great player too early. Check out some of his greatest songs on Chet Baker & Crew (Expanded Edition).

Chet Baker

Alison Balsom (1978- )

Let’s change timeframes and genres briefly to take in something a little different. English trumpeter Alison Balsom is very well-known in some circles, although you are unlikely to find her in the jazz clubs. She specializes in other genres.

Born in Hertfordshire in the UK, she attended the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. She graduated with First Class Honours. She continued her studies at the Paris Conservatoire.

From Bach and Beyond

You will hear Alison demonstrating her considerable talent in more Classical environments. Especially in Chamber music and the world of the Concerto. In those fields, she has established herself as the greatest living female classical trumpet player.

Her command of the instrument is exceptional, and listening to her; you could imagine her excelling at whatever genre she played. But it is in the Classical world, and especially with Bach, she is most at home. An excellent example of her work is Bach: Works for Trumpet – Alison Balsom.

Johann Sebastian Bach

Maurice Andre (1933-2012)

Staying with the Classical theme, let’s recognize another internationally respected trumpeter in Maurice Andre. He was born in 1933 in Ales, France, and is recognized as one of the great classical musicians on the trumpet.

He took the instrument and not only mastered it to the highest level but set the standards for others to follow. At a time when the trumpet was more associated with jazz and big bands, his concert tours reminded people of its alternative presence.

A Student and a Professor As Well As a Player

He was a professor of trumpet studies at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Paris. There, he encouraged the use of both Piccolo and Baroque trumpet. A master craftsman, he left behind some memorable trumpet recordings, such as Great Trumpet Concertos – Maurice Andre.

Maurice Andre

Tine Thing Helseth (1987- )

Let’s stay with the Classics for one last mention of a Classical trumpet player, this time from Norway. Like Alison Balsom, she is known for her work on Concertos and with Chamber music.

She was born in Oslo and started playing trumpet at the age of seven. She attended music school and graduated from the Norwegian Academy of Music. 

The All-Female Brass

She has performed with a variety of orchestras, including the Wiener Symphoniker and The Beethoven Academie. Also, the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra and the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. She now leads “tenThing,” an all-female brass ensemble.

She has recorded an impressive catalog of work so far. An example is Trumpet Concertos – Tine Thing Helseth.

Tine Thing Helseth

Wynton Marsalis (1961- )

Leaving the Classics only partly behind, but staying in this time, we have Wynton Marsalis. Possibly the most well-known jazz trumpeter these days, he has been the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize.

In his early years, he played with Art Blakey and also Herbie Hancock. Later, he formed some very successful quintets. He launched the Lincoln Center’s Classical Jazz Summer event, which has become very popular amongst the younger breed of enthusiasts.

Classical Jazz

But he is not only a great jazz trumpet player; he plays the classics as well, as you can hear in Wynton Marsalis – The London Concert. His technique and style have brought jazz up to date in that he has ushered in a new period of jazz appreciation.

Wynton Marsalis

Maynard Ferguson (1928-2006)

Change of nationality now to Canadian trumpet player Maynard Ferguson. This was a man, according to his saxophone player Lanny Morgan, who scared you. Such was the power of his high notes when he played solos that were two octaves above the rest of the band.

Many players can hit some extraordinary high notes. But not many with the clarity and richness of tone of Maynard Ferguson. But he was more than just a one-trick pony, playing some great solos on ballads to go with this screaming jazz. 

As A Young Player

It was very obvious from his childhood in Montreal, Canada, that he was going to be an exceptional musician. In his teenage years, he led his brother’s band, and by his early 20s, he was playing with people like Stan Kenton.

He formed his own band in the late 50s and recorded over 60 albums. He was heard in movies and seen on TV in a long and successful career. A multi-instrumentalist who is sadly missed by many, but fortunately can be heard on Live & Well In London – Maynard Ferguson.

Maynard Ferguson

Herb Alpert (1935- )

A man with many faces. In some circles, he is known for leading his Tijuana Brass to some big records and huge success in various parts of the world. In others, he is a singer and balladeer.

His early career was as a songwriter and singer. He co-wrote “Wonderful World” for Sam Cooke and sang his own big hit, “This Guys In Love With You.” Along with Jerry Moss, they formed A and M records.

Down Mexico Way

It was on a trip to Mexico that he heard a Mariachi band which inspired him to write and set up the Tijuana Sound. After recording success, there was a clamor for live performances, so he recruited some session musicians, and the rest is history. Success on record and stage led to a TV special on CBS.

The success was spectacular, and they went from strength to strength. Even outselling the Beatles in 1966 in worldwide record sales. At the time, that was unthinkable.

A New Beginning

He disbanded the Tijuana Brass in 1969, although they did get back together for the opening ceremony of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. He toured as a solo singer and artist and continued his level of success.

There were five number one albums out of 28 recorded, 14 of which were platinum-selling. But what was often forgotten was that underneath all this glitz and glamor and success, he was a trumpet player. And a very good one.

It can’t be denied that he enthused many young players to pick up the instrument and have a go. That is the reason he is included. The trumpet isn’t just about jazz or any other genre; it’s about making good music. All of which you can hear on The Very Best of Herb Alpert.

Herb Alpert

Louis Armstrong (1901- 1971)

“Old Satchmo” is a jazz trumpet legend and is certainly one of the greatest trumpet legends in the last 100 years. Born in New Orleans in 1901, he saw and came through much of what were the great years of Jazz. But he was a bit more than just a jazz trumpeter. He is just as well-known for his work away from Jazz.

His wider range of activities started with the 1956 film High Society. And until his death, his voice and playing popped up in the most unlikely of places. He had a big record with “What A Wonderful World” and followed that up with “Hello Dolly.”

Respected

But despite these successes, he is still fondly remembered by the jazz society as being one of the best trumpet players there has been. And you can’t argue with that. He was a virtuoso on the instrument and could create great phrasing.

He played on the New Orleans River Boats in his early days. Then he moved to Chicago in the 20s, where he recorded some great work. He worked through the decades and only stopped touring and playing a few years before he died in New York.

A measure of the man is that he is fondly thought of and remembered by the jazz fraternity but also by those on the outside. Some of his great recordings are on The Essential Louis Armstrong.

Louis Armstrong

Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993)

This man was a legend in the jazz community for three reasons. Firstly, he must have had the biggest cheeks in existence. Second, he played with a “bent” trumpet. And thirdly, he was just great.

A Great Improviser

He was one of those that could just improvise away on a theme, and whatever the form, he would never repeat himself twice. He would build layer upon layer of harmonic complexity and then add rhythms never before heard in jazz.

In the 40s, along with another musical hero of the age Charlie Parker, they made a major contribution to the development of bebop.

This Man ‘Was’ an Influencer

For those on social media who consider themselves “influencers,” take note of Dizzy Gillespie. He was. He influenced, and in some cases, even taught some of the greats that were to follow. Lee Morgan, Cliff Brown, Fats Navarro, and the great Miles Davis. They all recognize what he gave to jazz.

But there was even more to him. He was a great composer and played trombone as well. Furthermore, he made a huge contribution to music and jazz trumpet and his styling of modern jazz. He gave it a subtle beauty that attracted more people to the genre.

 This Dizzy Gillespie Collection 1937-46 also includes contributions from Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and others.

Dizzy Gillespie

Miles Davis (1926-1991)

Words can sometimes be used in an exaggerated context. The word “legend” is bandied around to just about anyone these days. It is the same as the word “awesome.” Walking on the Moon was “awesome.” The taste of a cheeseburger isn’t. Miles Davis, as are many of the people on this list, was awesome.

No Guttersnipe

He was no poor boy; he was born into a very wealthy Illinois family. His mother, herself a good blues pianist, wanted him to follow her. But he knew what he wanted, and at 13, he got his first trumpet. It wouldn’t have mattered what he played. Give him a triangle, and he would still have made it sing. That was just him.

The 40s Classics

Many of those classic bebop tracks from the 40s from Charlie Parker also feature Miles Davis. His creative spirit, matched with his stunning ability, placed him right at the front of what was evolving in jazz at that time.

He was one of the first musicians that understood the power of space. Something that some guitarists could do well to learn today. While other trumpet players were racing up and down, he used breaks to create a feel.

It is true; others could play a higher register and could play much faster. But no one could “play” like Miles Davis. And remember, he was playing amongst some great musicians, and yet he still stood out.

His Personality

The way he was, was reflected in his playing. At times, reflective, at times soft and gentle, and at other times the wild side emerged. He was all of these and more.

In his later career, he moved a little more into a jazz-rock style. And that seemed to suit his creative side even more. Let’s pay the man one last accolade. Many people, when asked what was the greatest jazz album ever without hesitation, say Kind Of Blue by Miles Davis. I can’t argue with that.

Miles Davis

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And don’t miss our handy articles on the Best Jazz Albums of All Time, the Best Jazz Musicians, the Best Jazz Saxophone Players, along with What’s the Difference Between a Cornet and TrumpetAre Eastar Trumpets Any Good, and How Much Do Used Trumpets Sell For for more useful trumpet information.

The Greatest Trumpet Legends – Final Thoughts

Are legends made? It is often said that great musicians are born, not made. There may be some truth in that. But these 12 shaped generations of musicians, and they can rightly be called the greatest trumpet players in history.

If I had to pick one of them, then it would have to be Miles Davis. He has just got that “something.” I am sure you will have some that you would have thought should be included. And there are, of course, lots that could have been. But that is the beauty of opinion. That said, there is enough here to be getting on with.

Until next time, let the music play.

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About Warren Barrett

Warren has spent nearly half a century (now that's a long time!) as an ink-stained wretch writing for music magazines and websites and has no plans on giving up soon.

He is curious about all types of music and instruments apart from any genre with 'Urban' in the title. He's also not so keen on Plastic Potted Plants, Reality TV, and any movies with Kevin Costner in them.

He lives in Delaware with his wife Wendy and lots of great memories...

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