Regardless of which style you’re listening to – from early Dixieland to Bebop to Hard Bop and contemporary music – there are jazz trumpet players who’ve played an essential role in the development of the music.
In this article we’ve put together a chronological list of some of the most famous, or dare we say it ‘best’ jazz trumpet players in history.
Don’t miss our pick of their most influential recordings to discover too.
Ask the average person to picture a jazz musician, and there’s a good chance they’ll think of a trumpeter.
Louis Armstrong’s grin, Dizzy Gillespie’s inflated cheeks, or perhaps Miles Davis the style icon.
The use of the trumpet in jazz dates back to the music’s very beginnings in New Orleans, where the influence of the marching band tradition and bugle calls were key and, as the highest pitched member of the brass family, the trumpet was the natural leader of the band.
In fact, the very first jazz musician (according to many) was a trumpeter: Buddy Bolden is a legendary figure who influenced many important early New Orleans musicians, including Armstrong, but, sadly, no recordings of him are thought to have survived.
So, in roughly chronological order and covering a range of styles, here’s our guide to some of the best jazz trumpeters ever…
After growing up in extreme poverty in New Orleans, Louis Armstrong broke down racial barriers and became a huge mainstream star at a time when this was unusual for African Americans.
He was arguably the first major soloist in jazz, and – with his rhythmically sophisticated, operatic style – remains the greatest according to many.
Armstrong helped invent ‘scat’ singing, and his gravelly voice was later heard on hits like ‘What a Wonderful World’.
But, at least amongst jazz musicians, he is most revered for his brilliant trumpet playing, and particularly for the 1920s recordings with his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, which helped to change jazz’s focus from collective improvisation to individual soloists,
Essential Louis Armstrong listening: The Complete Hot Fives and Hot Sevens Recordings
This 1920s material contains classic tracks like ‘Struttin’ With Some Barbecue’, ‘Potato Head Blues’ and ‘Cornet Chop Suey’, which all feature incredible improvisations, and ‘West End Blues’, with its famous solo introduction.
To hear the jazz trumpeter’s later work and vocal stylings, try Ella and Louis, with Ella Fitzgerald.
Born 1903 in Davenport, Iowa, Bix Beiderbecke originally started out studying classical music before falling in love with jazz and, inspired by the playing of Nick La Rocca, purchased a cornet.
He had a beautiful tone, a cool style, harmonically advanced ideas that still sound modern today, and an up and down life that paralleled the Roaring ’20s.
It was not long after his passing aged just 28 that he became jazz‘s first cult hero; a musician whose every recorded note was treasured and analysed.
Much is made of the difference in style between Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke and, whilst much of this maybe down to the different personalities and influences of the two great soloists, there is also the difference in the instruments they played.
Although initially learning cornet, Armstrong would make his name as a trumpet player, with the clear and lively sound proving ideal for his daring runs and rhythmic way of playing.
The cornet, on the other had, has a deeper and broader sound which Bix found it perfect for his lyrical pure-toned style and his melodical improvisations.
Cornet vs trumpet?
Generally smaller in size, the cornet like the trumpet is commonly pitched in the key of Bb, but the playing technique can be quite different.
The mouthpiece for the cornet is a deep v-shaped, while the trumpet mouthpiece utilises a shallow bowl-shaped design. As a transposing instrument the cornet also comes as an Eb soprano which producing a higher sound than the more common Bb model.
In terms of design, both have three valves and therefore the fingering is the same on both trumpet and cornet, however the trumpet has two 180 degree curves in its tubing, where the cornet has four.
Essential Bix Beiderbecke listening: with The Wolverines
In Oct. 1923 Bix joined a new band called the Wolverines.
They were an up-and-coming jazz band that could hold its own with any other group in the Midwest. Beiderbecke made his recording debut with the group on Feb. 18, 1924 and one can trace his rapid development in the recordings that the band made during the next eight months.
Nicknamed ‘Little Jazz’ due to his short stature, Eldridge came to prominence during the Swing era of the 1930s, playing trumpet with major bands led by Gene Krupa, Artie Shaw and Fletcher Henderson, and later with Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald.
With Krupa he recorded the concerto-like ‘Rockin’ Chair’, one of his most famous features, and on joining the group in the early 1940s became one of the first black musicians to have a permanent chair in a white-led big band.
He was influenced by saxophonists Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins, creating a style that was particularly innovative in its use of harmony, including pioneering use of tritone substitutions.
Famously competitive, he would seek out jam session ‘cutting contests’ wherever he went.
Best Roy Eldridge album: Little Jazz
Eldridge’s classic recordings from the 1930s and ‘40s predate the album era, although they are certainly worth seeking out on various compilations. On this 1954 session he is accompanied by an all-star rhythm section – the Oscar Peterson Trio with Herb Ellis and Ray Brown, plus Buddy Rich on drums – on a relaxed programme of jazz standards.
Along with saxophonist Charlie Parker and pianist Bud Powell, Gillespie was one of the founding fathers of the bebop movement as it took root in New York in the 1940s.
Initially inspired by the swing era trumpeter Roy Eldridge, Gillespie developed a new style of playing that was chromatically complex and utilised the trumpet’s high register.
An influential teacher and advocate for the music, he was known for his extensive knowledge of sophisticated harmony and rhythm. He also pushed the envelope in fusing bebop with Cuban music to create Afro-Cuban jazz, as well as leading an influential big band.
Some of the most distinctive compositions of the bebop era were penned by Gillespie: ‘Woody ‘N’ You’, ‘Groovin’ High, ‘Salt Peanuts’ and ‘A Night in Tunisia’.
With his inflated cheeks and bent trumpet, Dizzy Gillespie is an instantly recognisable jazz icon.
“His rhythmic sophistication was unequalled. He was a master of harmony—and fascinated with studying it. He took in all the music of his youth—from Roy Eldridge to Duke Ellington—and developed a unique style built on complex rhythm and harmony balanced by wit. Gillespie was so quick-minded, he could create an endless flow of ideas at unusually fast tempo” – Wynton Marsalis
Key Dizzy Gillespie album: Jazz at Massey Hall
This famous live concert features some of the biggest names in bebop: Gillespie on trumpet alongside Charlie Parker on alto, Bud Powell on piano, Charles Mingus on bass and Max Roach on drums.
You can learn more about it as part of our selection of the best bebop albums and artists in history.
One of the most important and influential jazz musicians of all time, Davis was a relentless innovator who was a key player in numerous stylistic developments in jazz.
He featured on classic bebop sessions with Charlie Parker in the mid-1940s, fronted the nine-piece Birth of the Cool band, made some of the best hard bop records of the 1950s with his First Great Quintet and pioneered modal jazz on Milestones and Kind of Blue.
His Second Great Quintet experimented with freer forms in the ‘60s, while In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew ushered in the jazz-rock and fusion era.
As an instrumentalist Davis is noted for his use of space and cool use of the trumpet’s mid register, although some of his post-‘50s work reveals a wilder side.
While other famous jazz trumpeters could play higher and faster than Miles, his ability to put together fabulous bands and create classic albums is virtually unmatched.
His influence can be heard in many of the best jazz trumpeters today.
Key Miles Davis album: Kind of Blue
Regularly named as the best jazz album ever, Kind of Blue features Miles at his cool, considered best.
For a lesser known record set that features him, unusually, in an explosively virtuosic mood, try The Miles Davis / Tadd Dameron Quintet in Paris Festival International de Jazz from 1949.
Brown was already recognised as one of the greatest trumpeters in jazz when he was tragically killed in a car crash in 1956, aged just 25.
A brilliant technician with a warm, round sound, he was primarily influenced by Fats Navarro, and would himself prove to be an inspiration for Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Donald Byrd and countless other famous trumpet players in years to come.
His quintet with Max Roach is considered one of the most influential hard bop groups, and he also worked as a sideman with Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, Helen Merrill and Sarah Vaughan.
Brown was by all counts a warm, modest and clean-living character who avoided the various addictions that were common amongst jazz musicians in those days, and many heart-felt tributes were written or recorded for him following his death, including Benny Golson’s ‘I Remember Clifford’.
Brown’s own compositions include the blues ‘Sandu’ and the tricky ‘Joy Spring’.
Key Clifford Brown album: Study In Brown
This famous album by the Clifford Brown/Max Roach group features Harold Land on tenor saxophone, George Morrow on bass and pianist Richie Powell – Bud Powell’s brother who also died in the car crash that killed Clifford.
Brown takes a classic trumpet solo on the up-tempo jazz standard ‘Cherokee’.
One of the most famous jazz trumpet players of all time, Chet Baker is primarily associated with West Coast or ‘cool’ jazz, as documented here, and always sounded completely relaxed and natural.
In the early 1950s he was a member of Gerry Mulligan’s quartet, which was unusual for its lack of a chordal instrument, before a series of records that featured his light, delicate singing voice helped turn him into a major star.
He struggled with addiction for years, and the jazz documentary Let’s Get Lost juxtaposes his sunken appearance in the late 1980s with his earlier film star good looks.
However, prior to his mysterious death in Amsterdam in 1988, he had actually had something of a revival, making some of his most technically impressive recordings whilst spending most of his final years in Europe.
We published an in-depth look at the life & times of the jazz trumpet great here.
Essential listening: Chet Baker in New York
The vocal records Chet Baker Sings and It Could Happen To You are more famous but, from a trumpet perspective, this 1958 recording might be more interesting.
Like Art Pepper’s Meets The Rhythm Section, this set features a great West Coast soloist accompanied by a fabulous New York rhythm section, and it certainly doesn’t get much better than Paul Chambers (who we profiled in-depth here) and Philly Joe Jones. Al Haig and Johnny Griffin also feature on piano and tenor saxophone respectively.
Morgan was a jazz trumpet prodigy, who was proclaimed as Clifford Brown’s heir apparent when he burst onto the scene as a teenager in the mid-1950s.
He was a long time member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and had an extensive relationship with Blue Note Records, with his boogaloo-tinged ‘The Sidewinder’ becoming a massive hit and helping to establish the label’s signature sound.
A run of albums in the 1960s, including Delightfulee, Search For The New Land, Cornbread and The Procrastinator are all packed with brilliant tunes, largely written by Lee Morgan himself, and played by wonderful bands.
He was only 33 when he was shot and killed by his common-law wife Helen outside the New York nightclub Slug’s Saloon.
The excellent 2016 documentary I Called Him Morgan explores the couple’s complex relationship and features material from interviews with Helen herself.
Best Lee Morgan album: The Sidewinder
The title track of Morgan’s most famous album is an infectious bluesy boogaloo, the success of which kickstarted a formula that Blue Note would try to emulate on many subsequent records.
It features a young Joe Henderson, with whom Morgan had never played prior to this recording session.
Freddie Hubbard is perhaps best remembered for his supremely confident trumpet solos on his own 1960s hard bop albums like Open Seasame, Ready For Freddie and Hub Tones.
But as well as this, he made sideman appearances on some of the all-time classic albums including Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil, Herbie Hanock’s Maiden Voyage, Bill Evans’ Interplay and Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth. He also replaced Lee Morgan in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.
An incredibly versatile improviser, he also appeared on some of the most important records of the era’s new Avant garde scene, including Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, John Coltrane’s Ascension and Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch (all of which made our list of the greatest free jazz albums in history!)
In the 1970s he embraced radio-friendly fusion, which reached wide audiences but was received poorly by critics.
Returning to acoustic jazz in the late 1970s and ‘80s, he played with V.S.O.P, which was essentially Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet with Hubbard in the trumpet chair in place of Davis.
An infected lip injury in the early ‘90s severely hampered his ability to play trumpet in his later years.
Best Freddie Hubbard album: Open Sesame
Hubbard came racing out of the starting blocks on his 1960 debut for Blue Note. Tina Brooks is on tenor saxophone and contributes two tunes; a few days later he and Hubbard would record together again under Brooks’ name on True Blue.
Shaw was a major innovator in the jazz trumpet lineage, who was particularly noted for his striking use of wide intervals, and for his application of patterns and pentatonic shapes in modal jazz settings.
A virtuosic technician, he was also famed for his perfect pitch and photographic memory.
His career began with sideman performances with Eric Dolphy and Horace Silver, with whom he recorded the excellent Cape Verdean Blues, and organist Larry Young, whose Unity is an essential classic that features three Shaw compositions.
He also spent a period of time living in Paris in the mid-‘60s, working with fellow expats Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke and Dexter Gordon.
In the ‘70s he began recording as a leader with albums like Blackstone Legacy, Rosewood and Stepping Stones: Live at the Village Vanguard, remaining largely faithful to the straight ahead acoustic jazz tradition during a period when fusion and jazz-rock were becoming dominant.
In the ‘80s he started to explore more standard material, and also acted as a mentor figure to emerging younger musicians like Terri Lyne Carrington, Kenny Garrett and Wynton Marsalis.
Key Woody Shaw album: Rosewood
Woody Shaw is on top form on this programme of modal music played by a medium sized ensemble that features long-time collaborator Joe Henderson.
Marsalis came to prominence in the 1980s as part of ‘The Young Lions’, an unofficial collective of musicians who tended towards swinging acoustic jazz rather than the fusion or Avant garde styles that had been dominant for the previous few decades.
The jazz trumpeter has been a highly visible and occasionally controversial public advocate for jazz, working as artistic director of New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Centre and as director of Jazz Studies at the Julliard School.
As a technician he is considered one of the finest trumpeters ever to have played the instrument, having made highly acclaimed classical recordings and becoming the first person to win Grammy Awards in jazz and classical music in the same year.
His composition Blood on the Fields was the first jazz work to win a Pulitzer Prize.
Key Wynton Marsalis record: Black Codes (From The Underground)
Wynton Marsalis is sometimes painted as a conservative, no doubt in part because of his outspoken views on various subjects including late-period Miles Davis and rap music, but this 1985 effort still sounds fresh and highly distinctive.
The rhythmically complex music is played by a band including Wynton’s brother Branford Marsalis on saxophone.
Thanks for reading!
Remember, if you’re looking for some more contemporary listening tips, check out our pick of the great modern jazz trumpeters today.
International jazz booking agent, manager and host of Jazzfuel.
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