Kings of The cornet
We tend to associate the cornet with mining villages, marches and pints of beer, but did you know that the history of this wonderful instrument goes beyond the shores of Blighty and into the jazz scene in the late 1800s and early 1900s? I didn't, until a sad revelation occurred where I realised that the history I know is completely and utterly white-washed. Now I could blame the education system for this (heaven knows my history lessons at school were nowhere near as diverse as they should have been), but at the age of twenty-four and living in a time when the internet and therefore a wealth of information is literally at my fingertips, this is no excuse. So, I started researching and I fell into an incredible rabbit hole of information that I never knew before and discovered the history of some of the most influential black cornet players in the music world, who I had never heard of until now, which I am angry and rather ashamed about.
So here is a quick introduction to five amazing kings of the cornet who helped to shape the jazz world and gave the cornet a life that we don't normally associate with it. These incredible musicians need to be spoken about more, there was even a film made about one of them which I never knew about, so chances are there are other people who haven't. This is just the beginning of my exploration into the incredible black musicians whom the music world needs to thank and admire, I hope you enjoy!
Let's meet the kings!
Buddy Bolden (1877-1931)
Buddy Bolden (born Charles Joseph Bolden) was one of the first jazz legends long before the days of Quincy Jones and Louis Armstrong. He is a bit of an enigma and there isn't a lot of substantiated stories about his life and there are no known recordings of his work, however he formed the bands that some of the other legends of the early jazz era played for before they became famous themselves. Stories say that he began his musical life as an accordion player before finding a cornet in the street and deciding to take this up instead. He led the most successful band of its time in New Orleans in the late 1800s and was a leading figure in the ragtime genre, which was the forerunner to jazz. Sadly his mental health began to deteriorate and he was admitted into a mental hospital at the age of 30. In 2019, a film titled 'Bolden' starring Gary Carr as Buddy Bolden was released. Using creative license to the max, given the lack of information available about Buddy, and an incredible soundtrack written, arranged and performed by cornet/trumpet superstar Wynton Marsalis, the film imagines the incredible, pioneering journey of one of the early inventors of jazz.
King Oliver (1885-1938)
King Oliver (born Joseph Nathan Oliver) was a jazz cornet player and pioneer who played a vital role in making jazz popular outside of New Orleans. He spent most of his career in Chicago where he formed the famous King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band. During his career he developed a reputation for being a strong player and was known for his interesting use of mutes. As a mentor, he took his role seriously and was meticulous in his teaching to ensure his students learned the correct technique. His success as a teacher was proven with one of the most famous brass players of all time - Louis Armstrong. Not only did King teach Louis how to play, he taught him how to be a bandmaster, a skill that was going to be essential during his later success. Without the input of this incredible musician and mentor, the jazz scene would not be as we know it today and one of its most famous stars would, more than likely, never have entered the spotlight.
bubber Miley (1903-1932)
Bubber Miley (born James Wesley Miley) was an American jazz cornet and trumpet player who was known for his innovative use of the plunger mute. His influences included King Oliver, but by 1926 he had become an influential player himself by mastering the use of the plunger mute to create a distorted growl effect, which Duke Ellington utilised during Miley's time in 'Duke's Jungle Band' (1926-1928). He was one of the few early jazz legends who was not brought up in New Orleans. Bubber's playing style was rarely relaxed and featured great musical lines, as well as unusual dissonances and sound effects, including his creative use of the rubber plunger (or wah wah) mute. Many musicians experimented with the use of mutes during the early jazz era, but it was criticised that some musicians used them due to their lack of musical inventiveness. This was not the case with Bubber. He used the mute to embellish his already creative improvisations, without diminishing its melodic quality. Despite his short life, his musical intelligence and ability to find the balance between melody and effect made him a legend in the jazz genre.
Rex Stewart (1907-1967)
Rex Stewart (born Rex William Stewart Jr.) was a renowned American jazz cornetist who played for various ragtime and big bands, the most famous of which was the Duke Ellington Orchestra. His improvisation style became famous due to his use of expressive effects, such as note-bending and half-valve playing, as well as making quirky noises that sounded like the instrument was laughing or crying. Ellington included specially tailored passages to showcase Rex's incredible ability and the pair co-wrote pieces that have now become famous classics, such as 'Boy Meets Horn' which shows off tones that (in the words of Ellington) 'weren't supposed to be made on trumpet [Duke was referring to Stewart's cornet rather than an actual trumpet]. 'Boy Meets Horn' is a fabulous piece that tells the story of a player discovering his instrument and is usually performed with humour by the player imitating the journey of a beginner learning how the instrument works.
Nat Adderley (born Nathaniel Adderley) was an American cornetist and songwriter. He began playing the trumpet in his teens but switched to the cornet in 1950 when he played for the US Army Band, which was led by his brother Cannonball Adderley (can we just appreciate how cool his name is) who was an accomplished sax player. He played in popular quintets formed by his brother, but it was during the era of hard bop (music that incorporated gospel music with rhythm and blues) in 1959 that Cannonball's second quintet, the Cannonball Adderley Quintet, was a major success. This group highlighted the complimenting contrast between Nat's warm sound and lyrical improvisation ability with his brother's bright and energising saxophone solos. In 1960, he recorded an album called 'Work Song', of which the title track would go on to become a jazz standard in both instrumental and vocal form and quite frankly it's not hard to see why, this song is an absolute TUNE!
More than an article
It's an ongoing mantra in the banding world that it's 'music that matters', but there is no music without people. People matter, lives matter more than anything else in the world and black lives continue to be persecuted and destroyed. These astounding musicians are part of a community who have suffered and continue to suffer from the powerful impact of racism. It has gone on for too long and now is a chance for us to change this. Please check out the following petition links and donation sites to help stop racism and to build a world were amazing individuals like the 5 kings I have talked about today and every black King and Queen of this generation and the generations that follow do not have to wait for their talent to be discovered by a google search because it has been white-washed from the media or are denied opportunities and basic rights because of the colour of their skin.