Jazz or Legit: The (now) Obsolete Music Struggle

September 19, 2015

Faculty Author:

All through high-school, I was constantly presented with two options as a trumpeter.  Option 1, be a legit (ie: classical) trumpet player.  Option 2, be a jazzer.  These options were customarily presented as mutually exclusive, both by the attitudes and by the skills of the students, teachers and conductors.  Even in college, I was encouraged to choose between auditioning for a “classical” program or a “jazz” program.  Each program had a different curriculum, teachers with different skills, and students with different attitudes.  Because of this tradition, the program you were in simultaneously directed what ensembles you were to play in and what kind of a player you were expected to become. 


For anyone who is familiar with my personality, I have always been the square peg in any situation.  As a trumpeter, I really just loved to play the instrument, and wanted to play as many things as possible on it.  In this, I was immediately at a disadvantage among my peers.  While those around me focused on one of the two options, I was trying to deal with both at the same time.  Since I was unable to impress those around me with either skill set, and I was not a member of the elite ensembles on campus, the only option left to me as to play the long game.  The question always in my mind: “What do I need to do, and how do I get it done as efficiently as possible?”


This attitude paid for itself when I arrived in NYU for graduate school and began my studies with Laurie Frink.  Frink was a major turning point in my trumpet career because of her attitudes towards teaching trumpet.  She was in the business of helping to develop trumpet skills, period.  Many of her students were jazz oriented and others were classically oriented.  Your choice made no real difference to her.  In her mind, everyone needed to work on the same things and have the same basic skills in order to succeed.  (This would later become the topic of my doctoral dissertation).


After sorting out the areas of trumpet skill where I was lacking, I started to find myself on an equal, or near equal, playing field with both jazz and classical trumpeters.  Again, constantly butting heads with the established attitudes associated with each camp, but this time, I was a source of confusion rather than sympathy.  I was, and am, that annoying person playing jazz licks in an orchestra, and that idiot quoting Mahler in his jazz solos.  However, these perspectives have been changing because of the growing number of brass players who have true crossover skills.  I still have skills that are not entirely up to snuff, and I dedicate myself to daily practice.  In the words of Sam Pilafian, “Hybrid musical skills are the future”.


 This brings me to the topic of how to straddle the fence of jazz and classical playing as a brass musician; how to be a true crossover player.  This is something I am finally coming to terms with myself, and I have found it to be extremely rewarding to have both sets of skills in my arsenal.  In light of my struggles, I will now attempt to share some of my 20/20 hindsight on the matter.


As a brass player, there are three main topics of study for the crossover player. 

  1. Attitude of Personal Adjustment

  2. Production

  3. Style/Articulation


As a crossover player, we must always be listening to how we fit into an ensemble, and constantly determining how we can be most appropriate to the style.  Having the tonguing and coordination skills necessary to accurately negotiate Stravinsky’s Soldiers tale is just as important as being able to really bark out the high notes in Ellington’s Nutcracker.  This process begins with having an attitude of acceptance and inquiry.  A common problem for brass players is bringing too many of your habits and favored style into every setting.  The orchestral trumpeter MUST adapt when in a big band, and the jazz trumpeter MUST adapt when playing in the opera pit.  Anything less continues to perpetuate the tradition of staying in your musical castle.  Every playing situation is unique, and every playing situation will require different adjustments and compromises from the players.  Being open to these adjustments, and looking for ways to improve are vital skills for the crossover player.  Once this attitude has been achieved, the crossover player must then be no slouch in the skills department either.


Another important crossover topic is one of production.  Both jazz and classical players like to think that they have a dark, rich, and resonant sound.  (They really do!).  So when a teacher tells you (the jazz person) to make a rich and resonant sound, you will only get it by accident.  I challenge the aspiring crossover player to step back from the accepted vocabulary and really assess what is different about your sound versus the “standard”.  For me, I needed to play higher on the center and think of a more head-voice timbre.  Then I had it!  Having achieved a classical sound, I was then horrified when Brian Lynch told me that my sound was suddenly tight and restricted rather than supple and fluid.  Instead of opening up my aperture and blowing more (as would seem appropriate given the feedback) I needed to play lower on the center of the pitch, and think of a more chest-voice quality to my sound.  Then I had it!  Being able to get from one habit of production to the other is a constant battle, and the only real way to master both is to diligently practice both.  And ALWAYS measure your sound against whatever standard you have.




One of the biggest challenges for crossover players is the misappropriation of articulation styles.  Playing too clipped in Bruckner is just as bad as playing too long in Bernstein.  The jazz way is to have more on the front of a note and less in the body so that there can be an effect of release when required. For classical attack, the note should be even throughout, well defined, and evenly supported.  From a jazz perspective, the classical guys seem to tongue too hard and play the notes too long (to the point of hanging over).  From the classical perspective, the jazz guys seem to whack the front, drop support in the middle, and fail to sustain to the end of the note-length.  The challenge here is less of vocabulary and more of stylistic knowledge and practice.  The studious crossover player will need to be very familiar with the traditional articulation methods that classical players use (Arban, Franquin, Goldman) as well as with the jazz styles established by Clifford Brown, Clark Terry, Snooky Young, and Conrad Gozzo.  With the skills mastered, the problem becomes in the identification of when to use which, and whether or not you are actually doing it sufficiently in the given setting.


As freelance musicians, we must to be able to say yes to every gig, and then not disappoint.  In order to do this we must be able to play jazz, improvise, play commercial music, pop music, play in an orchestra, in the pit, at a jam session, on a radio jingle, and in a chamber setting, with or without music, and be able to read non-tonal and contemporary music accurately.  We must be able to make maximum music in any setting, period.  To this end, we must arm ourselves with a broad set of skills, an acute ability to regular articulation and style, and an attitude of constant personal adjustment.  It may be the case that one particular style of genre of music becomes your focus, but a broad training can only help in the long run. 


And as always, be the rebel!


Now, put this all to work.  See you in the practice room!



Are you a rebel? Tell us about your experience performing as a classical and jazz musician by commenting below!





Derek Ganong attended UCLA (BA in Ethnomusicology and Cognitive Science), NYU (MM in Jazz Performance), and recently earned his DMA from the University of Miami (Jazz and Classical performance).  His dissertation “Laurie Frink’s Method of Trumpet Instruction” is a documentation, analysis, and presentation of Laurie Frink’s trumpet method. 

It can be found HERE

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