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
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
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
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.