Long have I been haunted by the cornet. There’s something mystical about them. They contain a human element that is difficult to grasp from a technical perspective. Here’s a horn that plays a vital role in our history, going all the way back to Pops Cornet Chop Suey and Bix Singin’ the Blues. Even further, to King Oliver, and all the way to Buddy Bolden himself. I wondered recently if Buddy might have been a literal ghost. He certainly seems that way in the one surviving photograph. Going deeper on Bolden, the story of mental illness and playing jazz starts with him. Bolden, the first great soloist, spent the last 24 years of his life in a mental home. It certainly doesn’t mean something detrimental. Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Donald Ayler, and Giuseppi Logan all spent time in these kind of places. I like to think that if you look into the eyes of God with your music, coming back to focus on a fallen world becomes difficult.
Back to the cornet. The fat little horn that sings. Cornets aren’t built to shout you into submission like trumpets, they invite you inside. (Though that didn’t stop Bolden from summoning people to his bandstand from across the river) Not all cornet players embrace it for what it is. Rex Stewart, Ray Nance, Thad Jones, Nat Adderley, and Bobby Bradford came alive on cornet. These days, there are several specialists that play new music through the cornet, sometimes from the outer limits. Many of us trumpet players have had affairs with cornets, usually lasting about 7 months. Flugelhorn? Clark Terry is the Louis Armstrong of the horn for me. Clark taught me the Ellington tradition plunger modifications. I’m still out here with a flugel, with Hugh Masekela and Roy Campbell urging me forward. I sold Roy a flugel and Hugh a cornet actually!
Sometimes horns come with a story. I play a 1965 Super Olds trumpet, and I have no idea where it was or who was playing it until it came to me about 5 years ago. I had a silver Bach cornet that I played for 7 months trying to make it my number one horn, but then I sold it to get a bass clarinet. I don’t know who had the horn before me, or who plays it now. To get that cornet, I actually sold a different bass clarinet to a woman now playing it in Argentina. I like knowing the horn is so far away, if that’s where it still lives, and hoping that wind still flows through it. That horn came to me when I walked into a horn repair shop in upstate Kingston New York and asked if they had any used bass clarinets. I had never even held one. The alto clarinets and bass clarinets I have now all have stories before they reached me that I will never know. Their stories will end with me.
There was one horn that I know the entire story of, at least up to today. About 15 years ago, my cousin sold me an Olds Ambassador cornet that I named Rose. He played it new in high school in the 60’s and my grandfather heard him play it. Rose joined my team. I left her in Italy at one point with the great bassist Silvia Bolognesi. The horn came back to me. Then Hurricane Maria came to Puerto Rico, and my brother Ras Miguel, nephew of the great Fats Navarro, lost all his horns, seeing the wind literally take them away. I gave Rose to Miguel, as no horn man should be without a horn. Now a few months later, I’d been thinking of that cornet feeling again, missing it. Next thing you know, the great trombonist Art Baron writes me, and says he has the cornet of the late great Thomas Chapin, and would I like to have it. Sure enough, after a great oat-milk coffee and mustard cheddar scone with Art over at the Third Rail on second avenue, I’m back with a cornet. To complete the cycle, I brought the horn back to Sam Ash to get fixed up. I worked there for 10 years or so. I still miss that E-flat trumpet that I bought, played once on the George Washington Bridge, and then returned. At the Ash, I used to hang with the great James Carter, and believe me, with saxophones, the stories behind them reaches the level know as next. The question remains, did the cornet I have now come to me because I gave mine away when someone needed it?
As Art and I were getting into deeper realities, and after he told me a great Paul Gonsalves story I never heard, I reflected on why we do what we do. I went back to the wake of Roy Campbell Jr, and how at one point, the energy of the room just shifted and we all became quiet. Roy then spoke through his sister Valerie. I’ve been reflecting on these words recently, a reading from the book of Tazz.
“There’s a lot of Love in this room, and I Loved each and every one of you. The purpose of life is this simple: You’re here to learn how to love one another. That, and the music. It’s all about the music.”
As I was walking with Art to the subway we reflected on just that. How can we learn to love each other when so many people seem so bent on the opposite view? Human beings have been around now for quite some time. Why do we grow so slow?
What I know with certainty is this.
We’re all in this together
All together now . . . . . .
To Be Continued January 25th with the 12 Houses at Michiko Studios
For Art Baron