Horns of Sorrow
Ahamefule J. Oluo's Brief but Sad History of Jazz Trumpeters
Ahamefule J. Oluo is a jazz trumpeter and composer who received a year's worth of advanced education in music from Cornish College of the Arts and has played with numerous local and national acts—Das Racist, John Zorn, Hey Marseilles, Wayne Horvitz, Macklemore, Julian Priester. And he is a member of the powerhouse band Industrial Revelation, which includes Evan Flory-Barnes (bass), Josh Rawlings (keyboards), and D'Vonne Lewis (drums). Oluo is also a standup comic and a pretty damn decent writer—in 2011, he published a well-received piece about his father, a Nigerian he never really knew, for this paper. As if all of this were not enough, Oluo is also something of a jazz historian. He knows not only how to play the music, but also how to explain its past trends and developments, and how to read its many recordings in their historical contexts (Charles Mingus's The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch!, Max Roach's We Insist!). Combine this knowledge with a personality that is often drawn to the dark side of the human experience—madness, misfortune, sickness, violent death (much like those strange flowers that bloom only at night, open at nightfall, and wither at dawn)—and you have a rich resource for morbid tales of musicians who came into life with so much promise and left it in pain and misery.
Because the trumpet is Oluo's instrument, I decided to ask him for a brief history of the sad and terrible things that have happened to influential jazz trumpeters. He began with Lee Morgan.
"If you listen to Blue Train, which was released in 1957 and was John Coltrane's only Blue Note album, the guy on the trumpet is Lee Morgan. He was only 19 at the time, but was on a couple of records before that. So because his career started early in his life, he developed a heroin addiction really young.
"One night, he ended up at this party thrown by a woman who was 13 years older than him (he was 21 or 22 around this time). It's winter, it's cold, it's snowing, and Morgan showed up at the party without a jacket on—he pawned his coat in the middle of winter. For everybody else, Morgan was just washed up and did not have long in this world. But the host of this party, who was in her 30s already, decided to take him under her wing, and the two become romantically involved. She nursed him back to health, helped him kick his addiction, and revived his career. In 1964, the title track for his album The Sidewinder was used in a Chrysler commercial that showed during the World Series. That totally transformed his life financially. A few seconds of a song in the World Series, and that was it—he had lots of money. Helen, that was her name, got very busy scheduling rehearsals and negotiating contracts. She'd brought him back from the brink of death, and now he was one of the top trumpeters in the world again.
"But as soon as he got that money from the commercial, he got heavy into cocaine and started bringing a woman to his house who was his own age. Helen, who was still managing his career, booked him for a high-profile gig at Slug's Saloon in the East Village. The show was sold out. Basically, this is what happened: She showed up at the club, and they got into an argument, and he had Helen, the woman who rebuilt his career, kicked out of the club. She came back in the club with a gun in her purse (he bought her that gun to protect herself), and just as he was about to walk on the stage, she shot him, threatened a bouncer, and was arrested."
"Then there is Clifford Brown. He helped shift a big part of jazz into hard bop. Now remember, bebop split into cool and hard bop. Cool was a lot of West Coast white guys imitating Lester Young—and some were really great players, like Stan Getz and those guys. But Brown was part of the backlash against that kind of watering down of bebop—he intensified bebop into hard bop. Now, what was also notable about Brown was, despite being brought up in the bebop era, a time when everyone was doing heroin, he did not use drugs, he rarely drank, and he didn't smoke. He was clean. He did everything right. Lived life clean, was kind and pleasant to work with.
"Brown was one of the people who began breaking down the drug culture of jazz. He set an example in these terms: You can be as great as Charlie Parker without falling asleep in the middle of your show, or throwing up on yourself all of the time, or losing all of your money, or getting knifed in an alley. You can make money and have a good life and be a great jazz musician. He was really one of the first players to do this. Brown was clean, but could not be called a square. He was jazz's greatest hope.
"Then one night after a show, Richie Powell and Clifford Brown—both played for the great drummer Max Roach—left a show late at night and were driving to another show. Both Powell and Brown were tired, and so Powell's wife drove the car. It's said that she may not have had the best vision. Whether this was true or not, in the end, she drove off the road and they all died. Brown was only 25."
"Max Roach, the great drummer, was devastated by this loss, but he soon discovered another young trumpeter: Booker Little, who is my favorite trumpeter in the world. He was 18 or 19 at the time, and incredibly gifted. Also, like Clifford Brown, he was pretty clean—lived well, exercised, showed up on time to performances. He was another example of how you can make great music and not destroy your life.
"Sadly, he contracted a disease called uremia, which is basically kidney failure. It is a very painful illness, and you end with powdery deposits of urine on the skin. He died when he was 23, but before he died, he released two records, Out Front and Booker Little and Friend. On these two albums, you hear a maturity you do not expect from someone at his age. Now I have toured with Hey Marseilles, and so I have run into a lot of 23-year-olds, and maturity is just something you can't fake. Little went from being a fiery player to expressing this incredible emotional depth. And that is the sound of your beckoning mortality—the sound of the end coming toward you. He captured that sound so beautifully."
I pointed out to Oluo that Julian Priester, a jazz professor at Cornish, played on both of those recordings. He said: "Yes, that's one of the major reasons I went to Cornish. Being close to Priester was as close as I could get to my favorite trumpeter."