15 November 2016


I first noticed and admired the cornet player David Jellema in 2014, when on YouTube I discovered videos of The Thrift Set Orchestra, which is based in Austin, Texas. David was playing some fine music in the company of other outstanding musicians - among them, Albanie Falletta, Westen Borghesi and Jonathan Doyle. If you don't know this group, you may sample one of their performances BY CLICKING HERE.

But I didn't meet David until 20 October 2016 when, during a very brief visit to New Orleans, I literally bumped into him. I pushed open the door to the Yuki Izakaya Bar in Frenchmen Street, and David was immediately on the other side. He was guesting in Haruka Kikuchi's Band.

During the interval, David kindly and generously joined me for a very interesting chat.

In particular we discussed how he goes about mastering tunes and improvising upon them. He felt that, although it is obviously crucial to know the tune's melody and its chords, it becomes more important to internalize those elements (relegating them to the subconscious through repetition and practice - to the point where you would be able to play the song even in an unfamiliar key). With the music thus internalized, the conscious mind can be free to engage with the immediate demands of the performance in the present, i.e., listening and responding to the other musicians, making split-second choices within a solo, etc.

Beyond mastering the scales and arpeggios of chord shapes and inversions in all keys, David said, what is most important in developing jazz improvisational language, style, and a personal voice is to study many masters (by copious listening, transcribing, and copying their solos and licks) in order to let their influence percolate into your playing as you mature into your own voice.   The music you most love will help inform and shape your first steps towards developing your own improvisational style. In his own case, he said the most important master had been Bix Beiderbecke.

I was not surprised. In his fluency, creativity, attack, tone and technique, David's playing always reminds me of Bix.

But here's something astonishing. David plays a cornet that is over 120 years old; and he still gets a beautiful tone from it. The cornet is an 1893 English Besson, a vintage 'Prototype' (serial number 48XXX). David knows that F. Besson was at the time located at 198, Euston Road, London; and that the instruments were distributed in the USA by Carl Fischer of New York. David bought this cornet from an antique store in Annapolis, Maryland, in the 1990s. As the US Naval Academy is based in Annapolis, David surmises that the instrument may originally have been played by someone in the Navy band.

After a few years, David passed the cornet on to his friend Dave Sager, a jazz trombone player in the DC area. Mr. Sager spent a deal of money in having it brought back to a pristine condition. Since about 2011, it has been back in the hands of David Jellema:

and from the other side:

But David has four other very special cornets, including a Conn from the 1890s. I hope - with David's help - to write an article about them for publication early in 2017.

I remember hearing the late great British jazz trumpet-player Humphrey Lyttelton say that some instruments (such as Stradivari violins) improve with age but that brass instruments begin to deteriorate from the first time they are played and go on getting worse.

Well, David's cornets seem to discredit that theory. Or perhaps it is simply that they really knew how to make solid and enduring brass instruments in the Victorian Age.