'Trumpet kings' were royalty in the early days of New Orleans jazz. They won their crowns in 'battles of the bands.' Lines were drawn at Storyville clubs, at open-air dance halls and playing from the backs of horse-drawn wagons in the streets. Whoever blew the hottest trumpet wore the crown. Friendly and sometimes not-so-friendly competitions, or 'cutting contests' among musicians and bands were a revered tradition in the early days of jazz in New Orleans.
The lineage of New Orleans trumpet kings began with Buddy Bolden, the first hot trumpeter to reach ‘pop star’ status and earn the title, 'King.' Traditional legend has it that Bolden’s horn could be heard a mile or more away from the open-air dance hall at Lincoln Park where he played with his band. No recordings of Bolden have ever surfaced, but those who heard him play paint a picture of him as an outstanding musician, equally capable of playing waltzes and schottisches for polite society dances and driving audiences into a frenzy with his rough blues at the Funky Butt Dance Hall.
After 'King' Bolden passed from the scene, players all over New Orleans vied for the crown. No one held the title for long. Buddie Petit, Manuel Perez and Freddie Keppard each wore the crown until Joe Oliver came along and stole the show.
At the height of his powers in the second decade of the 20th century, Buddie Petit held the title as the top cornet player in New Orleans. He'd taken Freddie Keppard’s place in the Eagle Band, a place previously held by Buddy Bolden. Buddie Petit never made recordings but his reputation is well documented in accounts left by early Crescent City jazzmen. Jelly Roll Morton described Petit’s music as “brilliant; full with inventions.” And Louis Armstrong was one of the pallbearers at Petit’s funeral.
This week on Riverwalk Jazz The Jim Cullum Jazz Band brings this piece of early New Orleans culture to life with special guests Broadway actor and New Orleans native Vernel Bagneris and Duke Heitger, one of the top trumpet players in New Orleans today.
Photo credit for Home Page: Buddy Bolden with his band, ca.1905. From the book Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life by Laurence Bergreen.
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©2007