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Notes from the Trumpet Section

David Berger

I just joined the International Society for Jazz Arrangers and Composers and read Ryan Keberle's interesting article on what he's learned about arranging from playing trombone in bands.  That got me thinking about some of the things I've learned from my perspective in the trumpet section.  I also played piano in bands when I was younger, so I'll comment on that as well.

1.  In the hierarchy of jazz instruments, the trumpet is the king.  Louis Armstrong established that 100 years ago.  Trumpets create excitement and exert power.  Too much of that bright sound or too many high notes becomes irritating.  Save the trumpets for when you need them.  

2.  Give everyone in the band an integral part that is fun to play.  Fun can come from groovy or surprising rhythms.  It can also come from interesting intervals within a particular instrument's line or the interval between instruments.  Whole notes can be deadly boring or great fun depending on the linear context, the harmony, and the intervallic relationship between parts.  When arranging, get into the players' minds, capture their personalities, and make them sound good.  After a rehearsal, Billy Strayhorn would ask the individual players if they liked their parts. 

3.  Give each section satisfying sonorities that sound good by themselves.  Vary the sonorities.  

4.  Use techniques that are idiomatic to the style of music and the instrument.  For instance: fall offs, glisses, trills and shakes.

5.  Make sure that the person you are writing for is in the best register of his/her instrument to express the meaning of his music.  Don't write the trumpets pp above the staff.  Even if they can play it, the message is conflicted.  

6.  Balance the opposites: consonance and dissonance, tension and release, high and low, loud and soft, near and far, etc.  Great opposites form the core of great music.  Integrate them.  

7.  Integrate improvisation into your written material. This goes double for the rhythm section.  Let them function like how they do in small groups.   

8.  In big bands and orchestras, the piano should not double the horn or string voicings.  He/she should create an independent part.  

9.  If you are writing for acoustic instruments, don't trust electronic playbacks.  Get your music played as often as possible, and spend time rehearsing it.  Take it apart, and put it back together.  Make demands on the players until the music sounds exactly right to you.  

10.  When playing, listen to all the other players in the band.  Get the proper blend (dynamics, phrasing, intonation, tone quality and style).  Encourage the band to interact.  Make everyone sound good.

11.  Don't be afraid to take chances.  Study and learn the best of what came before you (don't waste your time on mediocrity), and try new things.  

12.  Most of all, never compromise your integrity.  As Herbert T. Gillis always told his son, Dobie, "The first step down is a long way."  Pretty good is not good enough.  An artist gives 100%, 100% of the time.


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  • Bob Schwartz on

    Marilyn – where can I find some nasty glued strips with staves printed on ’em!

  • Marilyn on

    Oh, yeah!! Especially #9. When I copied for Gil Evans, he was always reworking his voicings on his charts – frequently I didn’t need fresh manuscript paper, only white-out and those nasty glued strips with staves printed on ’em! :-) XO – M



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