New Orleans Trumpet: A Down-Home Conservatory Method

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Jim Thornton has been active as a trumpet player in New Orleans  since moving there in 2006, and obviously loves the city and all its traditions. This ring-backed publication has something of an affectionate scrapbook layout, its text interspersed with various memorabilia – posters and newspaper cuttings, recipes for gumbo and beignets, how to make a voodoo love doll, etc. Thornton states that his down-home conservatory method “uses traditional New Orleans jazz” ( which he thereafter condenses to “trad”, doubtless to the consternation of UK and European purists) “to teach various core concepts of music and trumpet playing”.

As in any standard tutor, basic explanation and advice is given, with diagrams, covering embouchure, valve functions, fingering etc, plus fundamental musical theory relating to scales, chord structures, time signatures, and so on. This is done simply and clearly, integrated with the text as it progresses in stages under themed headings. The writing style is informal and anecdotal, enthusiastic and encouraging, positive in expressed opinions, but with some lapses into sentimental waffle and debatable advice (e.g., “Don’t be afraid to write out your solos… you don’t have to improvise”).

“…please realise that any note you play in addition to the root, the third, and the fifth will not be immediately cognizable or comfortable to the audience”. The more notes you pile on a given chord, the more you are asking an audience to think

Coming to grips with the core concepts of his “method”, for learning to lead and solo in New Orleans traditional style, Thornton defines the melody line of a tune as consisting of “point” notes (i.e. key – most important – notes) linked by less important “moving notes”, generally to be avoided in solos, insisting that using notes within the triad is enough. Here’s his summary: “…please realise that any note you play in addition to the root, the third, and the fifth will not be immediately cognizable or comfortable to the audience. The more notes you pile on a given chord, the more you are asking an audience to think. Thinking uses a different part of the brain from what emoting uses”. Drastic stuff! Nor are notes above high C to be coveted. In another eyebrow – raising overstatement, Thornton declares that Armstrong later “realised that his focus on high notes should have been on playing good music”.

There’s very little reference to the blues (so important in New Orleans jazz) or to the basic “blue” notes, the flattened seventh and flattened third. A flattened fifth, admittedly rare in New Orleans jazz, is dismissed as “dissonant”. I don’t find these restrictive notions in Thornton’s “method” particularly helpful. Perhaps more attention could have been paid to actual playing style – e.g., integrating the lead and interacting with a balanced, improvised collective ensemble without over-dominating; use of vibrato, dynamics, backing riffs and hot phrasing building towards a climax, and so varying the texture of the ensemble.

The last section of the book contains very basic chords for 27 traditional standards, arranged in nine sets of three tunes to represent commonly used chord sequences; a helpful idea. There’s also a useful bibliography and advice on leading a band.

This is a well intentioned and attractively published book, perhaps mission impossible in attempting to define a workable technical approach to the expressive cohesive rapport of the New Orleans style. I blinked at some of the more extreme of Thornton’s concepts, but there’s also much sensible advice. Listen, learn and practise hard is unarguably mandatory. Intuitive understanding and creative talent, as Thornton admits, are not to be learnt from any book.

New Orleans Trumpet, A Down-Home Conservatory Method
By Jim Thornton. Sher Music Company, PO Box 445, Petaluma, CA 94953, 110pp. $26 ISBN 978-0-9976617-1-2.