The Trumpeter’s Cinematic Curse

I’ve written a lot about how jazz is portrayed in film, but never paid specific attention to how we jazz trumpet players have been portrayed. I decided I’d dig into the archives to see how we stacked up against other American icons like doctors, cowboys and bank dicks.

Given our association with the Devil’s Music and the high mortality rate of many of the great trumpeters, I harbored no delusions that we would be portrayed in heroic terms. I did think that we’d make out better than lawyers and politicians, but such was not the case. In fact, it would take a Physician’s Desk Reference to catalogue the dense pathologies that are the common lot of jazz trumpet players in film. I suspect there may be some kind of collective unconscious archetype underneath this, but whatever the explanation, filmmakers portray us as though we’re in the clutches of a “Trumpeter’s Curse,” some ilk of evil miasma that, instead of following the waxing and waning of the full moon, burns with a steady Freudian glow. We don’t recoil from crosses, avoid the sunlight, and sleep in coffins filled with our native soil—but just barely.

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I’ll begin my analysis by noting that filmmakers apply the Curse in proportion to how Important the trumpet-playing character is in the film. So, for example, if you see a trumpeter onstage in a nightclub scene and all he does is play and has no lines, chances are his part won’t require him to stab the bartender or pick his nose onstage. Whenever the producer decides he can afford to cast real musicians, you see these roles being filled with people like Conte Condoli, Shorty Rogers and other L.A. guys who look less inane trying to mime playing the music.

Doris Day and Kirk Douglas in Young Man With a Horn (1950)
Doris Day and Kirk Douglas in Young Man With a Horn (1950).

There is also a way to innocuously introduce trumpet playing into the life story of a main character. That is, let him play as an interesting sideline or hobby, making sure that in blowing a horn, he puts nothing too important at stake. It’s an easy way to add flash or to signal that a character has hidden depths, like Kurt Russell in Swing Shift, or Billy Crystal in Memories of Me. It adds a certain je ne sais quoi, without threatening the protagonist’s ultimate glide to triumph.

There are a few films where the lead character is, in fact, a full-time jazz trumpet player and yet is not particularly self-tortured and manages to avoid the Curse. This is accomplished by proper casting. Take, for example, the stoic Jack Webb in Pete Kelly’s Blues: Does Jack ever sink into self-loathing or despair? No, his alpha-wave brain pattern persona is like a bullet-proof psychic vest. And Danny Kaye in The Five Pennies? Well friends, it’s a Danny Kaye movie.

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Then, there are films where people come very close to being afflicted with the Curse, but manage to veer away. In The Cotton Club, cornet player Richard Gere comes perilously close, but he narrowly avoids the worst by dropping the horn and becoming an actor; maintaining his life and his sanity.

Now for the meat and potatoes; trumpet players in full thrall to the Curse. Watch them at your own risk:

Jack Lord in “Play It Glissando,” Route 66: Sociopathic
Denzel Washington in Mo Better Blues: Flawed; deeply so.
Jack Klugman in a Twilight Zone episode “A Passage for Trumpet”: Deeply troubled; artificially redeemed (happens a lot with trumpet players in the movies).
Mickey Rourke in Passion Play: well, type-casting. Just add the trumpet curse to the list of his other curses.
Dingo, with Colin Friels: enmeshed in a world of self-deception, abetted by the film.
Val Kilmer in The Salton Sea: Messed up, but the film finds a way to make him heroic. (More artificial redemption).
Miles Ahead Don Cheadle: Deeply troubled/drug issues.
In Bird, Michael Zelniker does Red Rodney: Deeply troubled/junkie
Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker in Born to be Blue: Deeply troubled/junkie.
Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity: tortured in a Monty Clift way.
Kirk Douglas in Young Man With a Horn: tortured by the “lost note.”
In A Man Called Adam, Sammy Davis Jr.: Deeply troubled on many levels. Freaks out onstage.
Burt Young in Uncle Joe Shannon. Deeply troubled; artificially redeemed.
Bryant Weeks in Bix: An Interpretation of a Legend: You got it—deeply troubled.
In Blues in the Night, Jack Carson: Relatively sane, but haunted by the idea that he’s not playing “genuine” jazz.
Robert Wagner in All the Fine Young Cannibals: Troubled preacher’s son.
Gary Carr as Buddy Bolden: Insane at age 30. He provides a useful template for future jazz trumpeters.

There are bad boys and anti-heroes of all sorts in American film, but is there any other group that has served this particular cultural niche so consistently? Criminals, I suppose, but even this grisly group is allowed the higher moral ground when they break down at the end and let the priest deliver last rites before they go to the Chair.

The cinematic fate of trumpet players is much less certain. We have few redeeming qualities except the music we make, which is all we are given to comfort us in the next world. Our charisma and charm are not enviable qualities, but symbols of our moral bankruptcy—artificial constructions camouflaging our dissolute natures.

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And yet, it’s quite an important cultural role. I, for one, am proud to act as the repository of our collective guilt. When Kirk Douglas says: “You’re all dirty and twisted inside,” he’s not just talking to Lauren Bacall, he’s talking to you. Don’t bother to thank me. I’ve known it was my lot since I bought my first bottle of valve oil.

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