Best Jazz Trumpet Albums | Iconic Recordings

When it comes to the most famous jazz albums of all time, the trumpet may be slightly eclipsed by the sheer number of saxophone and piano-led offerings.

That doesn’t mean, though, that there aren’t a big chunk of jazz trumpet albums which should be required listening for every fan out there, as we’ll see in this article! 

The trumpet was, arguably, the original jazz instrument, with early pioneers like Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke popularising it long before the saxophone made its first splash. 

The very nature of the instrument made it a natural choice; jazz evolved out of the marching bands to become a vibrant music and the volume, range and tonal expression of the trumpet made it easily heard.

It was also, in the early days of recording, relatively easy to capture the sound of the trumpet.  As a result, these would be the first sounds of jazz that many would hear through the countless 78rpm recordings that would be made available throughout the 1920’s and beyond.

And whilst the piano and saxophone came to stamp their mark on the genre, the trumpet maintained a position at the forefront of jazz, with a string of virtuosic and visionary musicians bringing something new to each twist and turn along the way.

So, to pay tribute to just some of these, here’s our pick of the most famous jazz trumpet albums of all time.

The Complete Hot Five & Hot Sevens Recordings (1925-1930) – Louis Armstrong (Columbia Records)

Louis Armstrong
World-Telegram staff photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong is of course one of the most recognisable and famous jazz musicians in history.

But whilst his gravely vocals and later rendition of ‘It’s A Wonderful World’ may have brought him mainstream fame and adulation, its the early recordings playing trumpet (and his help inventing scat singing) that provided the biggest contribution to jazz.

This recommended release, The Complete Hot Five & Hot Sevens Recordings, is in fact a five CD set compiled by Columbia Records.

All of the material it contains has been previously released on different labels on single albums, but it is highly recommended to hear these classic recordings over this incredible five year period in their entirety.

The Hot Five recordings made between 1925 and 1926 featured early jazz greats, and along with Louis Armstrong who was still playing cornet at this time were Kid Ory (trombone), Johnny Dodds (clarinet), Lil Hardin Armstrong (piano) and Johnny St. Cyr (banjo).

The tracks, or sides as they were known (one tune for each side of a 78rpm disc), are among the earliest examples of a jazz improviser that was able to break free of simple melodic variations, with Armstrong’s bravura solos that showed an acute harmonic and rhythmic awareness.

In 1927, he increased the line up to Seven with the introduction of Baby Dodds on drums (the younger brother of clarinettist Johnny Dodds) and Pete Briggs on tuba. The brass tuba would add the bass line and Baby Dodds would add to the rhythmic variations that was so essential to Armstrong’s solos.

It’s impossible to highlight just one track from this incredible collection but essential listening for anyone wanting to gain an insight into the role of the trumpet in jazz would include the incredible solos from Armstrong on ‘Wild Man Blues’ and ‘Willie The Weeper’.

The Columbia box set also boast two different versions of ‘Cornet Chop Suey’ in two different keys, and Armstrong’s stop-time chorus is a marvel! 

Bix & Tram – Bix Beiderbecke (JSP)

bix beiderbecke (trumpet)
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Leon Bismark ‘Bix’ Beiderbecke was perhaps the first great white jazz musician, and sadly one of the first casualties of the jazz life.

Born in Davenport, Iowa in March 1903, Beiderbecke was largely self taught on cornet yet would go on to become one of the most influential soloists of the 1920’s.

He was known for having a cornet tone of that was very pure and of such clarity that coupled with his harmonic concept produced solos of exceptional lyricism. In addition to his cornet playing, Beiderbecke also played the piano and composed his own music.

His piano style was influenced both by classical music and jazz. Perhaps too fond of a good time, Beiderbecke was an alcoholic and died at the age of just 28 in August 1928.

Bix & Tram, released by JSP and lovingly remastered by John R. T. Davies, catches all of the sides recorded by Beiderbecke with Frankie Trumbauer’s Orchestra, a setting where he certainly felt at home.

Trumbauer was a saxophonist who specialised on the now seldom heard C-melody saxophone that was pitched between alto and tenor. The two men made much fascinating music together and it is quite possibly Bix’s happiest musical association.

Trumbauer’s Orchestra featured many of the great names of 1920’s jazz along with those would go on to become important figures in the swing era of the 1930’s.

Featured in this set are contributions from Jimmy Dorsey on clarinet and alto saxophone, violinist Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang on guitar and the unmistakable yet fleet lines of bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini.

Key tracks in this invaluable set include ‘Singin’ The Blues’ that featured a beautiful solo from Bix that would help define the playing of ballads in jazz.

As well as with the Orchestra, Beiderbecke and Trumbauer along with guitarist Eddie Lang recorded a series of sides as a trio, and none capture this small group better than ‘For No Reason At All In C’ and ‘Wringin’ And Twistin’’ that also featured Bix on piano as well as cornet.

Listening to these tracks it is possible to put Trumbauer and Bix’s importance in jazz in context.

Hearing Trumbauer at close quarters on C-melody saxophone make it easy to understand why Lester Young went on record as saying that Trumbauer was an influence, and Beiderbecke’s cornet playing was the opposite to Louis Armstrong, and these sides offer an early glimpse at a cool way of playing.

Last but not least, mention must be made of Bix’s composition for piano, ‘In A Mist’. The song, written in the key of C-major, captures Bix’s love of late European impressionism with jazz.

More a stitching together of various melodic fragments with the sleight of hand known as improvisation, ‘In A Mist’ is a remarkable piece of music.

While Bix’s recording of September 9, 1927 has been transcribed and studied, Beiderbecke himself never played the piece the same way twice.

Heckler’s Hop – Roy Eldridge (Hep Records)

Eldridge, affectionately known as ‘Little Jazz’, is regarded as the link between early jazz, swing and bebop.

His influence on bebop maestro Dizzy Gillespie is clear to hear, and Eldridge himself had the technique and harmonic sense to improvise at fast tempos with ease.

His command of the middle and lower registers of the trumpet were articulate and accurate but it was his forays into the upper register of the trumpet that led to some of the most exciting music. It was this aspect of his playing that had such an impact on the young Dizzy Gillespie.

Of his own influences, Eldridge was not a follower of fellow trumpeters but was interested in basing his own playing that on that of saxophonists Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins.

Eldridge’s powerful trumpet style graced the big bands of Gene Krupa and Artie Shaw and was also a regular on the concert circuit with Jazz At The Philharmonic.

He was often to be heard in small groups, and played on some of Bilie Holiday’s classic recordings from the 1930’s.

Perhaps the finest example of Eldridge’s firebrand playing is on the album Heckler’s Hop, released by Hep Records.

The music on this iconic jazz trumpet album covers a three period between 1936-39 featuring Gene Krupa, Zutty Singleton and Sid Catlett on drums, along with Benny Goodman on clarinet, and pianist’s Jess Stacey and Clyde Hart.

Eldridge’s solo on the title track is full of invention with some wonderful high register leaps, but it is ‘After You’ve Gone’ that portrays Little Jazz as a master storyteller. His solo is packed with interest, much of it in the middle and lower register until his second solo that simply soars.

Birks Works – Dizzy Gillespie (Verve)

John Birks ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie was born in Cheraw, South Carolina on October 21, 1917.

Played piano from the age of four and started on trumpet at thirteen, going on to win a music scholarship at the Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina. Early big band experience for Gillespie came with Teddy Hill (when Dizzy replaced his idol, Roy Eldridge) and the Cab Calloway Orchestra.

A virtuoso trumpeter, it was only natural that Gillespie was drawn to the New York jazz scene, and through his association with Charlie Parker was one of the founders of bebop in the 1940’s.

Throughout his career, the trumpeter always retained a liking for big bands and would lead several successful bands, and touring these for the State Department in between 1956 – 58.

A true innovator, Gillespie was also central in fusing Afro-Cuban and Latin American music with jazz. He would continue to lead bands and play in his own inimitable style until his death in January 1993.

If Gillespie’s trumpet style was full formed by the end of the forties, he never fully shook of his debt to Roy Eldridge, and the heyday of bebop was on the cusp of giving way to a cooler style of jazz, Dizzy would continue along his own path leading bands of various sizes and instrumentation.

One of the very best is Birks Works, recorded for Verve between June 1956 and July 1957.

All studio cuts with a big band that featured Wynton Kelly, Ernie Henry, and Benny Golson among others.

The music is superbly orchestrated, and the trumpeter is in excellent form. His playing on the poignant ‘I Remember Clifford’ is heartfelt and flawless in execution in a performance that avoids over-sentimentality.

A further nod to the late Clifford Brown can be heard in a lively version of Brown’s composition ‘Jordu’.

Making the best of the talent he has within the band, Gillespie plays exceptionally on saxophonist/composer Benny Golson’s ‘Whisper Not’, and indeed we are also treated to two alternate takes that are well worth hearing.

A compilation of three albums recorded for Verve, this is a somewhat overlooked release, but the music has stood the test of time and is unmissable for anyone interested in Gillespie’s work and jazz trumpet in general.

Milestones – Miles Davis (Columbia)

Undoubtably one of the most influential jazz musicians ever, Miles Dewey Davis III changed the course of the music no less than five times in as many decades.

There have been many debates about whether Davis was an innovator or merely the catalyst that brought everything together at just the right moment, but his recorded legacy is testament to both the man and his music.

In at the beginning of bebop, the 18 year old Davis moved to New York allegedly to study at Julliard School of Music, but with the aim of tracking down Charlie Parker.

Upon finding Parker, the young trumpeter found himself playing nightly in the alto saxophonist’s quintet, making some of the classic bebop records of the forties.

Once describing it as a ‘curse’, Miles was never able to stand still musically and always looking to change and move on.

This he did throughout his career firstly with Parker, then with the Birth of the Cool nonet, his quintets and sextets of the fifties and sixties, along with the orchestral albums with Gil Evans.

The end of the sixties again found the trumpeter looking to change direction as he embraced the new electric piano and incorporated rock rhythms into his music.

Arguably one of the greatest of all jazz albums is Davis’s seminal Kind Of Blue recorded in 1959, but before that came Milestones in 1958. Somewhat overshadowed by Kind Of Blue, the earlier recording is still a great jazz record, and gets a place on our list of best jazz trumpet albums for the way in which is sowed the seed of what was to follow. 

The band was Miles’s classic quintet with John Coltrane on tenor, pianist Red Garland, Paul Chambers on bass and drummer Philly Jo Jones, with the addition of Cannonball Adderley on alto.

In a programme of all original material (not a single jazz standard in sight!), the sextet laid down some wonderful tracks.

Key to the record are two pieces written by the trumpeter. The first is ‘Sid’s Ahead’ with it’s almost ponderous opening theme. The mood quickly changes as Coltrane begins his solo.

His carefully paced offering is beautifully developed, accompanied by some dark and heavy piano chords played by Miles himself (pianist Red Garland was absent due to being late arriving for the session).

Miles takes over from Coltrane with an equally considered solo, with his trumpet tone ringing out clear and concise.

Soloing at length accompanied by just bass and drums, Miles is majestic, offering up an awe-inspiring solo. 

The other important track is credited on the album as ‘Miles’ but subsequently known as ‘Milestones’. The trumpeter’s modal composition hints at the concepts which would appear, fully formulated, some twelve months later.

Miles is also heard on flugelhorn giving the ensemble a softer texture.

Played at a quick tempo the theme is cleverly arranged giving the impression that the tune slows down by switching the horn lines from staccato quarter notes to half notes, while Philly Joe Jones disturbs the flow of the 4/4 time signature by allowing his rimshots to fall on irregular beats in the bar.

By contrast, Adderley’s solos is fluid and drenched in the blues. A delightfully melodic solo that is matched by Davis’s graceful flugelhorn solo before Coltrane enters with a more turbulent offering, leading back into the exuberant theme.

Clifford Brown & Max Roach Study In Brown (EmArcy)

Clifford Brown
Associated Booking Corporation, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Another life tragically cut short…

Clifford Brown was killed, aged just 25, in a car crash that also claimed the life of pianist Richie Powell.

His importance as an emerging new voice on the trumpet was obvious from the very beginning and it his early death was a huge loss to the scene.

Clifford Brown was blessed with an impeccable technique and was able to execute fast runs and attack with a big round sound, and a lyrical tone that made his phrases sing.

An original member of Art Blakey’s Quintet that would shortly become known as the Jazz Messengers, it was his co-led band with a very different kind of drummer, Max Roach, that provided some of the finest jazz trumpet albums of all time.

Such is the quality of the music produced by the Brown/Roach groups that any could serve as an excellent point of reference and introduction to Brown’s mastery.

However, this particular album – Study In Brown – has been selected as it features tenor saxophonist Harold Land whose contribution is often overlooked in favour of his replacement, Sonny Rollins.

It’s also notable for the introduction of Brown’s composition ‘Sandu’ and the cheeky ‘Gerkin For Perkin’. Harold Land solos superbly on both and is a fine foil for the trumpeter, and just as lyrically inventive.

(On the subject of invention, check out Brown’s playing on the incredibly quick ‘Cherokee’ in which the trumpeter fires out notes at speed yet careful listening reveals a carefully constructed solo.)

Chet Baker – The Best of Chet Baker Plays (Pacific Jazz)

The young Chet Baker seemed to have it all.

Film star good looks, a trumpet style and sound that had popular appeal and he could sing. But despite this, the story of Baker’s life is also one of tragedy and drug addiction.

A natural musician, his singing had a charm and vulnerability that was immediately likeable. As a jazz trumpeter his sound was soft and gentle even on uptempo numbers, and he played very melodically in his solos.

He would make much use of the trumpets middle register with his critics indicating that this as due to lack of technique.

However, this playing to his strength ensured that his lines were cleanly articulated and with his natural sense of how to get the best from a melody had a major influence on the development of the cool jazz coming from the West Coast.

Early breaks led to Baker being invited by Charlie Parker to play in his quintet on the West Coast, and most famously the piano-less quartet Baker co-led with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan.

Their recording of ‘My Funny Valentine’ with Baker’s exquisitely posed solo became the trumpeter’s greatest solos, and it would have been an obvious choice to select from their album.

However, as a best trumpet album the sensible choice is The Best of Chet Baker Plays which features Baker only on trumpet with no vocals to distract from his pure tone and beautifully constructed solos.

Recorded for Pacific Jazz between July 1953 and October 1956, this was a highly productive time for the trumpeter, producing many fine recordings.

He was frequently accompanied in quartet performances by pianist Russ Freeman, and there is no better place to get acquainted with their playing than on Freeman’s blues ‘Bea’s Flat’.

The tempo is medium fast, yet comfortable enough to play over without being overstretched. Chet’s solo is tightly controlled yet has a free flowing lyrical nature that ensures that the music does not sound forced.

This does not sound like the music of a player with limited technique and is a great introduction to Chet Baker as legendary jazz trumpeter, as indeed is the rest of the album

The Sidewinder – Lee Morgan (Blue Note)

Lee Morgan was probably the definitive hard bop trumpeter, and his recordings of the mid fifties and sixties are some of the most defining albums of the genre.

He played on John Coltrane’s Blue Note classic Blue Train, and a stint with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers certainly helped the trumpeter hone his craft. He played on the equally classic jazz album Moanin’ with the drummer, but it is as a leader in his own right that Morgan makes his most important artistic statements.

For better or worse, Morgan’s music will forever be remembered by his own Blue Note classic, The Sidewinder.

The album is important not just for the superb laying of the quintet that featured Morgan with Joe Henderson on tenor, pianist Barry Harris, Bob Cranshaw on bass and drummer Billy Higgins, but also for showcasing the trumpeter’s emerging talents as a composer.

Responsible for writing all the tunes for the album, the trumpeter proved himself capable of composing some excellent hard bop themes, all with an interesting twist, as evidenced on ‘Hocus Pocus’ and ‘Totem Pole’.

However, the killer tune is the title track.

From the opening rhythmic groove, the trumpeter has the listener’s attention and refuses to let go.

The rhythm section nail down the theme before Morgan takes the first solo. The trumpeter floats easily over the turbulent and insistent groove from the rhythm section, before kicking back and injecting a little attitude into his playing.

By contrast, tenor saxophone player Joe Henderson seems to gently ease into his solo. Unfazed, he steadfastly sticks to his guns as his tenor lines unfurl, following their own path through the chords.

As Henderson’s solo ends having reached its climax, Harris’s piano solo provides instant relief to the tension built up the saxophonist.

A mixed blessing, ‘The Sidewinder’ was an instant success and thereafter both the trumpeter and the record label almost felt compelled to find a similar style composition for subsequent albums that often led to rather formulaic and pale imitations.

Open Sesame – Freddie Hubbard (Blue Note)

Another of the young generation of trumpeters that made their reputations in the hard bop era was Freddie Hubbard.

If lacking Lee Morgan’s bravura, he was none the less a major stylist in the development of hard bop.

With his burnished tone and ability to play both inside the changes and more freely, Hubbard found himself performing on many of the key recording of the sixties including Ornetre Coleman’s Free Jazz, John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass and Out To Lunch by Eric Dolphy.

Another trumpet player that also served his apprenticeship with the Jazz Messenger’s, Hubbard was also very much his own man with an agenda of his own.

His recordings throughout his career are a little uneven in quality, and forays into more commercial playing in the seventies and eighties often led to less than impressive results.

History may reveal that Hubbard’s purple patch was the 1960s, and his ability to play hard bop with the best, and also contribute meaningfully to some of the most adventurous albums of the free jazz movement, being his lasting contribution to the evolution of the genre.

Certainly, some of his best work as leader were as young man when the fire still burned bright and there is no better place to hear this than on Open Sesame recorded for Blue Note in June 1960.

The title track may have shown his facility and speed of thought at a quicker tempo, but it is on Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen’s ‘But Beautiful’ that Hubbard shines with two solos that are the epitome of good taste and invention, and delivered with a big round sound.

Mention too, must be given too to the underrated tenor saxophonist Tina Brookes who also solos magnificently.

Bemsha Swing Live – Woody Shaw (Blue Note)

Woody Shaw was yet another jazz trumpeter to suffer an early death. And, as if to add insult to fatal injury, he has never received the attention and acclaim his playing deserved.

Acknowledged as one of the great hard bop trumpeters, the lineage runs something along the lines of Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, and then Shaw; yet despite this he is often no more than a footnote in the history of the music.

His early influences were Louis Armstrong and Harry James, but his next great influence would be is friend and saxophonist Eric Dolphy. Shaw was quick to adopt and absorb Dolphy’s concepts into his own music, and this would mark him out as anything as a typical hard bop player.

As a musician, if he never received due recognition during his lifetime, he did influence the younger generation of modern jazz trumpet players.

Some of his finest playing can be heard in an offering recorded live at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit. With a rhythm section of Geri Allen on piano, Robert Hurst on bass and drummer Roy Brooks.

There is a fascinating choice of repertoire with material by the leader, pianist Geri Allen and Wayne Shorter’s ‘United’; but it is the three compositions by Thelonious Monk that truly ignite on this late recording.

The opening ‘Bemsha Swing’ gets things off to a blistering start, while Shaw’s trumpet solo on ‘Nutty’ is relaxed and well paced.

It is, however, on ‘Well You Needn’t’ that the trumpeter really digs deep.

In an exploratory solo, he seems to investigate every nuances of every phrase in minute detail, repeating some again as if looking for a different outcome.

Throughout the rhythm section is solid, but it is Geri Allen who is playing close to her peak, matching the trumpeter at every turn.

J Mood – Wynton Marsalis (Columbia)

Yet another trumpet student from the Art Blakey school of hard bop, Wynton Marsalis has gone on to be his very own keeper of the flame.

He has frequently gone on record as a defender of jazz in the purist sense of the work (whatever that may mean); and almost stepped back from his initial stance in the music as an advocator of the music of the fifties and sixties, to rework earlier forms of jazz from New Orleans with more than a hint of Ellingtonia in his own expanded projects.

J Moods catches the trumpeter at the stage in his career when he realises that he does not have to be beholden to others and is his first major artistic statement.

Yes, the music is somewhat in awe of the Miles Davis Quintet of the 1950s at times, especially on ‘Skain’s Domain’, but elsewhere Marsalis is using original material to put his own stamp on the music that he believes in.

The title track is a slow blues that that deliberately never fully ignites, a slow burner that generates its heat from Marsalis’s intense and tightly controlled solo.

This sense of control and building tension by never quite letting go completely is felt throughout the album, until…

Marsalis finally lets go and lets his emotions take over his technique on ‘After’.

This is a beautiful ballad written by his father, Ellis Marsalis, and here one can hear him totally immersed in the music on a personal level that is sometime missing from his playing. This is how you play a ballad!

Thanks for reading. 

Of course, picking 10 jazz trumpet albums from the history of jazz risks doing a disservice to the hundreds of exceptional recordings out there.

However, used as a springboard, we hope you’ll dive into the discographies of the iconic jazz trumpet players listed here, as well as many more.

Looking for more? Check out our guest article by Isobel Marquez which highlights some essential listening from female trumpet players.

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