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24 November 2017


When you are in your eighties and still trying to play the trumpet, you have to keep things simple. You are unable to play very high notes because your lips have lost their strength.

Lionel Ferbos is my inspiration. He went on playing in New Orleans almost right up to his death at the age of 103. In his final years he kept things very simple indeed, using only the lower notes. And yet he was still playing some very pretty traditional jazz. 
Lionel Ferbos, who died in 2014.

All was fine with me until recently, when my legs and arms rapidly became very weak and I was feeling unusually tired most days. I hardly had the strength to lift a trumpet to my lips; and my walk became a slow shuffle.

I put it down to old age. But Mrs. Pops Coffee ordered me to see the doctor; and it is never a good idea to disobey Mrs. Pops Coffee.

Blood tests showed I had polymyalgia rheumatica – something of which I had never heard. My doctor prescribed a course of steroids – 15 mg. a day of Prednisolone, to be exact, with the intention of reducing the dose a little in the weeks ahead.

How lucky I am to have such a doctor (and such a wife)! After a few days of the treatment I was able to walk steadily again, to hold my trumpet and to need less sleep.

Yesterday when I was doing what I pretentiously call practice, I discovered to my amazement that I was able to play some of those high notes above the stave. They sounded rather squeaky but they were there all right. I can only put this down to the steroids which must have strengthened my lips as well as my arms and legs. Another curious side-effect has been that my fingernails and toenails are growing much more quickly than before and need trimming every couple of days.

However, I have no intention of using my new-found steroid-induced ability to attempt high notes when playing with my friends in traditional jazz bands.

In my view, traditional jazz with a soul does not require trumpets producing lots of raucous high notes which seem to be mere exhibitionism and do not contribute much to the beauty of the music, especially in ensemble work.

Think of Shaye Cohn. She is probably the best and most creative traditional jazz cornet player in the world today and yet she opts for subtle, inventive musical phrases that rarely go above the stave. In fact, having listened to her in about 450 videos, I have never heard her play a note higher than Concert A above the stave. Music theorists call it 'A5', equivalent to vibrations at 880 times per second (880 Hz). You can hear Shaye using this note when playing Dallas Rag.

Shaye is an example to us all. There are trumpeters who can frequently be heard squeezing out notes at 1046 Hz (the note called 'C5') and even higher. But what's the point?
I must add the footnote that in January 2018 we finally heard Shaye play a high Bb (in Echo in the Dark). This was not mere exhibitionism. She was merely copying precisely the trumpet lead in the original recording of this pretty tune by The Original St. Louis Crackerjacks.