Nobody can play higher

Cat Anderson talks about Duke Ellington

This article is a reprint from the Conn Chord magazine, volume 19 no. 1 (1975). With kind permission from the C.G. Conn company.

I joined Ellington's band in 1944. At that time I was playing with the Lionel Hampton band, but I was told Ellington needed a good, strong lead trumpet player. I told my friend I'd think about taking the job. So one day I called Ellington and said, "Well, I'm ready." He answered, "I was lookin' for you all the time!" "Where are you?" he asked. I said I was in Chicago and he told me he would be through in the morning. The next morning we talked - and he gave me a ticket to Philadelphia. That's where he was going to open. And I opened with him. What an experience! Kids can't get that kind of experience today - big bands don't play theaters as they did in those days. We rehearsed the music. Ellington had six trumpet players, but he said, "give the new boy the lead book." Guess I made some enemies in the beginning. We got on stage that night and I noticed that no one had music but me. I didn't know it but they memorized everything. The band started playing. I had my music on the floor trying to read it when the lights went out! At the end of the show everyone left the bandstand. I was still there in shock. Ellington came up to me and told me not to worry, that everything would fall into place. Every day between shows I was upstairs practicing. About the third day I had memorized the whole show, and started to play. Ellington just smiled and smiled. Words can't describe Duke Ellington. He never could find words to be cross. He never would fire anyone, either. Once you were in you were always in - a part of that family. And you were always loyal because that was the way he lived. Ellington left so much with us all - I just can't find the words.

Cat Talks About Music
Music will always be the basis for human understanding. You can't tell kids about that - they must assume this until they get connected with a person like Ellington. No youngster wants to go to school and be told this is right and that is wrong - he hears that at home. At clinics they want to hear about our experiences - how to play - how to go about being a good playing artist. So at clinics we talk and we demonstrate. I've had trumpet players ask if I was breathing through my nose, I show them how I breathe through my nose and keep the mouthpiece in the same position. It takes more time to breathe in, but you get more oxygen. But you're more relaxed and can give out more because you're only using the correct muscles.

How High is High?
That's something I really can't say. Right now it's three C's above the staff. But as time goes on I'm sure the bounds will be broken. During a clinic the other day I made the most beautiful third C above the staff. I stopped in the middle. I couldn't go any further - I was so happy. To play high note trumpet you must have talent - and you must be taught. My teachers could only go so far. But I was always asking questions - over and over. At the time I didn't realize it, but as an orphan I was reaching out for love. I wanted to be understood - heard - have someone love me. It's the same thing for any trumpet player. He wants to better his ways, better his position and better his playing.
Youngsters today must have good teaching. There is so much for them to know today. Anyone can play high notes if he tries and studies. But they must be careful not to hurt themselves. Fighting that horn is a losing battle. One day the lip will be paralyzed - there will be no sound coming from the horn. I can happen. The young trumpet player should ask questions - seek information. Before I play I always do warmups 'til I'm ready. You can't fight the horn and expect to win. Treat it like a baby - take it in your arms and pat it. Say things to it, and it will say things to you. You have to play with a healthy attitude or it doesn't materialize.

Cat Talks About Those Wild, Cheering Ovations
I feel like a giant. It makes me feel bigger than my horn. There are trumpet players who play equally well - some who play better. But I know it's attitude toward people that counts. You have to give it all your soul and body - do it as best you know how. As long as you continue to give, people appreciate it. They see what you are giving, and they're pulling for you. Even the horn players are in your corner. Sincerity must be there. Anything you want to do you can. But you can only learn by giving and asking.