Why the cornet?


by Jim Cullum

Jim Cullum

There's a question I hear over and over: "Is that a cornet?" Almost always, it's followed with: "Why a cornet and not a trumpet?"

At the present time, there are quite a number of great cornetists blowing up a storm: Warren Vaché Jr., Tom Pletcher, Tommy Saunders, Randy Reinhart, Peter Ecklund, and my favorite of all, Bob Barnard. Of course there are many others.

But why the cornet?

Louis Armstrong himself, 30 years after his death, now finally acknowledged as the greatest of all contributors to jazz, showed his clear preference for the trumpet. Louis' soaring trumpet was the inspiration for all the great swing era trumpet stars. As a group, they completely dominated jazz brass playing. A list of the most famous in this camp would include Bunny Berrigan, Ziggy Elman, Hot Lips Page, Yank Lawson, Pee Wee Erwin, Charlie Shavers, Billy Butterfield, and Harry James. All were serious trumpet players and serious disciples of Louis.

With the exception of Wild Bill Davison, the only well-known jazz cornet players of those days were those who were so captivated by the beautiful cornet tone of Bix Beiderbecke that they chased that elusive holy grail throughout their careers and stuck with their cornets. It was the sound that they were after. There were not many: Bobby Hackett, Maxie Kaminsky, Jimmy McPartland. A few others played the cornet from time to time, but were mostly trumpet players. Rex Stewart and Ray Nance come to mind. None were big stars, although Hackett finally sort of hit it in the 1950s with his solos on the Jackie Gleason records.

Many of us who are followers of both the Armstrong and Beiderbecke traditions end up with collections of cornets and trumpets. At one point I was carrying three gig bags around--one with a trumpet, one with a flugelhorn and one with a cornet.

In 1979, our band made its first visit to Europe where we played for a couple of festivals, including the annual Breda Festival in Holland. There I found a very high-powered flea market selling instruments at high prices. On a whim, I stopped by with my trumpet and flugelhorn and negotiated. They went on sale and were gone in an hour. I've been strictly a cornetist ever since.

My pockets lined with flea market cash, I beaded for Paris and the factory of the Courtois Company, makers of fine cornets. Courtois is the oldest instrument maker in the world, and they will proudly tell you that they made brass instruments as far back as the late 1700s (they even made instruments for Napoleon).

The Courtois factory on Rue de Nancy, Paris is quite amazing. There, about five workmen still hand-hammer bells. It is obvious that everything in the shop is quite old. As I remarked on this, the owner exclaimed, "Oh, this our new place. We moved here in 1860!" Soon I was on my way with two shiny new Courtois Cornets.

That night, my Parisian pal Pierre Atlao took me around to sit in at several "Caves" (basement jazz bistros thick with smoke--there are still some in Paris today). At the famed "Slow Club" we found the even more famed soprano saxophonist Claude Luter and his band.

As I showed off my new Courtois cornets, Luter laughed. The French brass players can't wait to get their hands on American instruments, he said while here I was in Paris chasing Courtois cornets on Rue de Nancy.

Why the cornet? It's the sound, the flexibility, and also I'd say its the magic of the Beiderbecke model.

I now have quite a collection of cornets. In a later articles, I'll run down the list. Each comes with an interesting story.

© Riverwalk Jazz. Published with the permission of Riverwalk Jazz.

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January 18, 2008 · 1 comment

  • 1 Dick Parks // Jan 21, 2008 at 04:48 PM
    There are technical reasons for prefering a cornet to a trumpet for jazz playing of certain kinds. Where the player wants a sound with fewer overtones - mellow, if you will, the conical bore cornet gets you there. That's why Hackett sounded like that, and why Bix must have sounded that way live. For that kind of tone on a trumpet, the musician has to find a mouthpiece with a deep cup.