Top 50 JAzz Blog

Friday, July 7, 2017

Movies and the Tortured Trumpeter

I recently posted about the generally abject way in which actors mime playing the trumpet on screen. But separate and apart from that, there are the parts themselves. I sat down with a Physician's Desk Reference and a copy of the The Road to Milltown and, after viewing and or reading the plots of these films, I emerged with a precise formula to describe the subtle psychological subtext of these parts: JAZZ TRUMPET=TROUBLE.

This is not true in the films I cited that use trumpet playing only 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.


And, there are other films where the lead character is a jazz trumpet player and is not particularly tortured, but that can be explained. Take, for example, Jack Webb in Pete Kelly's Blues: does Jack Webb ever play anything other than his usual low-affect persona? No. Red Nichols and His Five Pennies with Danny Kaye: Duh, its a Danny Kaye movie. Or, Richard Gere in-Cotton Club: He's sane, but he survives by dropping the horn and becoming an actor.

As for the rest, we are dealing with trumpet players with some serious issues:
Jack Lord in Play It Glissando, Route 66: Sociopathic
Denzel Washington in Mo Better Blues: Flawed; arguably, 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.
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 fronts.  
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.

There are bad boys and anti-heroes of all sorts in American film, but is there a group that has served this particular cultural niche so consistently? As a trumpet player myself, I'm not sure I say this with pride or humility: We have a lot to live up to. 


Tad Richards said...

The Gig? It's been too long since I've seen it, and I don't remember it well enough, but isn't the trumpet player the one guy who's not troubled? He's the only one with real talent, but he'd rather just go after the good times.

Steve Provizer said...

That was the real cornet player Warren Vache. I'd call him pretty sane.

gmoke said...

In "The Gig," as I recall, the trumpet player was married to a rich wife and didn't have to worry about making a living.

Knew a woman once who was working her way through the men who played various instruments. She told me a little about the differences in bedroom technique between saxophone players and trumpet players. She really loved jazz.

Steve Provizer said...

I suppose it would be indiscreet to ask about the difference between the sexual technique of sax players and trumpet players. The sax players might be embarrassed.