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"The Lead Trumpeter: An Ultimate Interpreter"

by Vaughn Nark

The lead trumpeter has long been one of the most revered musicians within the musical community. This position requires a vast knowledge of musical styles, interpretative skills, and an uncommon physical stamina. Perhaps more than any other musician, the trumpeter must travel through the physical to arrive at the musical. This is particularly true of the lead trumpeter. For the lead player all the musical knowledge in the world is of no practical value if it cannot be transmitted physically through the instrument.

So impressive have been the contributions of our great lead trumpeters that it is difficult to think of our finest jazz orchestras, past and present, without recalling the gifted lead players who drove them: Snooky Young with Count Basie, Buddy Childers with Stan Kenton, Bill Chase with Woody Herman and Bobby Shew with Toshiko Akiyoshi, for example. What exactly is the lead trumpeter's role? What can a jazz educator do to assist in the development of these unique individuals?

The primary responsibility of the lead trumpeter is to interpret the music being performed with consistency and elan, with maturity and depth of feeling - and also produce the required body of sound from the instrument to project and provide the ensemble with the immediate impact of the jazz orchestra in general. This must be done time after time, sometimes under conditions of great duress that not all musicians can endure. Thus another intrinsic quality needed is the ability to draw on hidden mental and physical reserves once fatigue sets in, to carry the performance to its conclusion. A lead trumpeter is an ultimate musical interpreter who must stand fast and produce constantly and, hopefully, maturely at all times.

Because of the upper-register demands of lead trumpet playing, many jazz ensemble directors may be tempted to assign these duties to the trumpeter who can produce the highest notes. Although this is a somewhat natural thought process, remember the lead player's primary role is to interpret the style and phrase in a mature manner. This is hardly the same thing as merely playing in the upper register. An educator would be wise to choose the lead player by how the student phrases and interprets - not by how high the student can play. Many of our finest lead trumpeters, such as John Audino and Bernie Glow, rarely if ever ventured beyond a "G" above high "C"; and their work has been an inspiration to many. If a director has a student with an extreme upper register but with little ability to phrase and interpret, that student's talents can be used as "icing" to embellish - while the real lead playing is better performed by another. "Strong and wrong" is what we want to avoid.

Musical "time" is an extremely important concept educators should teach their lead players. Whereas the lead trumpeter would perform a Basie-style chart a little behind the time ("lay back"), a Buddy Rich-style chart would usually be performed "on top of the time. " A director should consider sharing recordings of many different styles and explain to the students how "time" is being addressed in each. Advise students that recordings are really textbooks from which they can learn by listening and then apply what they've heard directly in performance.

A lead player should be encouraged to play with just a rhythm section as often as possible. This develops skills focusing on the specific need: perhaps phrasing a ballad or playing a certain tune's "head". Performing with a sparse background can assist in developing the role with the larger ensemble. If a so-called lead trumpeter cannot perform musically in a small format, how can that player be expected to lead a large ensemble? Common sense dictates that most people who cannot ride a bicycle probably can't drive a truck, either.

Lead players must, of course, play the written ensemble figures. But the mature player strives to perform them as if they are really transcribed solos: getting past just playing the notes and instead providing a natural feel and jazz expression. This is the fulcrum of the art, what separates the good from the great. A lead player should be encouraged to improvise, then transferring that feeling to interpreting formal figures. In the heyday of pre-synthesizer studio recording, many lead players built successful careers on their ability to determine immediately the style of music they were asked to record: not only to play the figures but in reality to "own" them. This interpretative level requires a vast amount of study and practical application; so educators should acquaint their career-minded lead-players early on as to what lies ahead.

A jazz educator should also encourage their students to seek out other assistance in their knowledge of lead playing. If in your area there is a lead trumpeter with notable professional experience, developing a relationship with that professional could only enhance your students' educational process. Although trumpeters have been accused of being egotists, I've found with rare exception that the opposite is true: a brotherhood is alive and well within the trumpet fraternity. Making a student a part of this unit will provide yet another enhancement to the learning process.

Encourage trumpeters not to label themselves, thinking "I'm a lead player" or "I'm a jazz player." Be a trumpet player, period! Labeling limits an individual's perspective and opportunity. Time and talent will determine what special abilities a student will acquire and where they are best applied.

Finally, emphasize to your students that although they may feel comfortable in your environment, no institution can be expected to prepare a student for the realities of the "real world." Their ability to prosper will ultimately be determined by their adaptability to the circumstances they encounter. Educators, being the unselfish professionals most are, can then take great pride in hearing the lead trumpeter they've helped mold really "send it out there." When you hear that spirit, you're also hearing your own.

Vaughn Nark performed and toured internationally as lead trumpeter and jazz soloist with the U.S. Airmen of Note for nearly 20 years, receiving the Meritorious Service Medal by order of the President. Cited several times by Down Beat's Critics Poll, he has played with Dizzy Gillespie (terming Nark "something special"), Louie Bellson, Paquito D'Rivera, Freddie Hubbard, James Moody, Arturo Sandoval, Carmen McRae, Slide Hampton, Jon Faddis, Diane Schuur, Marvin Stamm, Wynton Marsalis, and many others. and served as lead trumpeter for the first season of the Smithsonian's "Jazz Masterworks Orchestra," conducted by Gunther Schuller and David Baker. Also a flugelhornist and valve trombonist, Nark is an active studio musician, clinician and adjudicator.


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