The Voyage of the Flugelhorn Through Jazz

The flugelhorn has become a staple in the jazz brass player’s arsenal. Its large bore and conical tubing make the tone mellower than the trumpet and the cornet and especially favored in ballads and Latin tunes. What the jazz audience may not know is that the flugelhorn was already being used early on in jazz (There’s speculation that Buddy Bolden and other very early jazz players used it, but that’s unproven). There are perhaps half a dozen listings in jazz discographies of the flugelhorn being used by the 1920s (including Freddie Jenkins with Ellington) and, in the 1930s, Jimmy Lunceford’s band was known for using them. However, the most steadfast early individual practitioner was multi-instrumentalist Joe Bishop. Before we get into the details of Bishop’s career, let’s look at the history of the flugelhorn. It goes back a lot earlier than you might suspect.

Like many technological advances, progress in instrument-making actually happened simultaneously in different places. It’s difficult to follow the trail of a process that happened hundreds of years ago and credit for an advancement is often retrospectively given to whoever was the best promoter. Because of this, descriptions of flugelhorn history can be slightly contradictory.

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As a general principle, however, we can say that the instrument had ancient Roman roots, was developed by both the British and the Germans in the 17th and 18th centuries and was advanced by the creation of the saxhorn family by Adolph Sax. I’ve found three possible explanations for the name “flugel” horn: It might come from the German word meaning “wing,” referring to its shape. It may derive from the “flugelman,” the player who marched on the wing or flank of the front rank in German and Austrian bands. Or, it may be that it was used by huntsmen who watched in the “flugeln,” or paths cut through the wood, to signal the approach of game.

By the 1860s, flugelhorn had found a place in European brass bands and soon made its way across the Atlantic. However, the early flugelhorns and soprano saxhorns (closest to flugelhorns) were less popular in America. This means there were fewer available as military band surplus instruments to the early creators of jazz, like Buddy Bolden.

Okay, back to Joe Bishop.

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Bishop was born in a small town, Monticello, Arkansas, in 1907. He learned piano, trumpet and tuba and attended Hendrix College. He may have seen the mellophone (which is almost never used in jazz) and flugelhorn in marching bands or circus bands that passed through the area, but I imagine it was at Hendrix that he had a chance to play them.

Bishop played professionally in the 1920s with four solid outfits—Mart Britt, Al Katz, the Louisiana Ramblers, and Austin Wylie. His first recording session seems to have been with Al Katz and His Kittens on May 3, 1926, where he played tuba. “Ace In The Hole,” Victor 20081, resulted from that session.

Yamaha Bb Flugelhorn, model YFH-8310Z. (courtesy Wikipedia)

In about 1932, Bishop joined Isham Jones, playing flugelhorn and arranging for the group. Listen to recordings he made from the mid-1920s to mid-1930s and you’ll hear that he started out in bands playing New Orleans style and made the transition to Swing.

He had a solid reputation as an arranger and composer and several of his compositions—“Midnight Blue,” “Woodchopper’s Ball,” and “Blue Prelude”—are very well-known. His 1933 arrangement of “Blue Prelude” for Isham Jones uses a wide and interesting palette of instrumental colors, including a vibraphone hit at the end. Bishop exploited the mellow timbre of the flugelhorn and sometimes uses it as a part of the brass section and sometimes in the reed section.

In 1936, Woody Herman led a spinoff group from Jones’ band called Isham Jones’ Juniors. In that same year, Herman formed his own group and brought Bishop on board as a founding member. Apart from recordings he made with Herman in the late 1930s, he played and soloed on recordings with blues/jive artists Jimmie Gordon and Cow Cow Davenport.

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A case of tuberculosis in 1940 forced Bishop to leave Herman, but he returned as a staff arranger later in the 1940s, and his arrangements and compositions appeared on about 50 Herman recordings. You can hear Bishop solo on flugelhorn with Herman on “Dupree Blues” from 1937 and “Twin City Blues” from 1938. Herman always had very strong trumpet sections and Bishop, while competent, was not an exciting soloist and probably got little time to solo on wax.

In the 1940’s flugelhorn seems to return to a background role as just a member of a brass section, but in the early 1950’s, Shorty Rogers changes the story. He was a solid trumpet player, with Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, and actually comes to the flugelhorn by chance. In an interview he says: “The story I recall is that [Chet Baker] didn’t have a trumpet, and there was a flugelhorn in a pawnshop that was very inexpensive; so he got that to have something to play on. He didn’t stay with it; as soon as he got a little money together, he got rid of it and got a trumpet. But I’d heard the sound, and just loved it.”

Rogers was lent a horn by a musician from a Latin band and that’s when he began the transition from trumpet to flugelhorn. Rogers first significant recording on the horn was in 1955 on the album Bud Shank – Shorty Rogers – Bill Perkins. Rogers’ playing actually reverberated outside Jazz into the Classical music world. According to an interview with Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Stravinsky’s idea to use the flugelhorn in “Threni” was inspired by Shorty Rogers’ playing.

In the case of the soprano saxophone, it only took the influence of John Coltrane (and to a lesser extent Steve Lacy) for many reed players to pick up the soprano sax. But in the case of flugelhorn, it took the cumulative influence of a number of players. There was Shorty Rogers and Clark Terry, who started playing it more steadily in the mid to late 1950s. Roy Eldridge brought one back from France in 1955 and Miles Davis checked it out (although there’s no evidence he played the flugelhorn anywhere except his collaborations with Gil Evans). The great British musician Kenny Baker played a lot of flugelhorn. Art Farmer took it up around 1960.

Another reason many players picked up flugelhorn in the late 1950s was the growing popularity of Bossa Nova—often called “Latin” music—in which the mellower horn fit so well. As the 1960s proceeded, it became more and more a necessity for a trumpet player to double on flugelhorn. The instrument has settled into its position as a solid contributor to jazz, and probably reached the height of its popular visibility with Hugh Masekela’s “Grazin’ in the Grass” in 1968 and Chuck Mangione and his 1977 hit song “Feels So Good.”

I find it somewhat mysterious that the flugelhorn didn’t enter more completely into the jazz musician’s toolkit before it did. Some say that resulted from the unavailability of well-made and in-tune instruments, but reputable manufacturers like Courtois, Besson, Selmer, and Couesnon were all making flugelhorns in the 19th century and Conn soon after that. It’s possible that a relative lack of interest did slow down the evolution of the instrument, but if so, it’s an open question why there was so little interest before the 1950s.

After all, the widespread use of mutes showed how much brass players looked for variations in tonality, and there have always been ballads. Imagine Bix playing “I’m Comin’ Virginia” or Roy Eldridge playing “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” on flugelhorn.

Maybe if there’d been one or two in pawn shops in 1929…

Steve Provizer is a brass player, arranger and writer. He has written about jazz for a number of print and online publications and has blogged for a number of years at: brilliantcornersabostonjazzblog.blogspot.com. He is also a proud member of the Screen Actors Guild.

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