Chops: Secrets of the Slide Trumpet

Steven Bernstein explains the ins and outs of an esoteric instrument

Steve Bernstein
Steven Bernstein with his custom Dick Akright slide horn (photo: Alan Nahigian)

In late June, at the club Nublu in Manhattan’s East Village, I sidled up to the musician and bandleader Steven Bernstein at the bar. I said hello and explained that I needed to interview him for an article on the slide trumpet, that obscure brass instrument he’s long been synonymous with. I wasn’t rolling tape, but I’m sure his response went like this: “Oh, man—that is the worst idea for an article I’ve ever heard!” I added that this harebrained concept was among the last story ideas I’d come up with as editor of JazzTimes. Wait for the punch: “No wonder they fired your ass.”

But Bernstein, 56, was smiling and chuckling all the while. (And let the record show that I quit.) You could make a very strong argument that he’s the funniest living person in jazz, and he’s certainly among the music’s few true characters—a torch carrier for Nat Hentoff’s edict that the golden-age jazzmen he knew could have existed in a novel. He’s also a rare musician whose ax channels his personality absolutely, emitting all manner of chortles, wails, and bleeps, not to mention plenty of beautiful melodic playing, touched up with a faintly shimmering vibrato.

In 1977, the teenage Bernstein—already an old hand at the conventional valve trumpet, with a developing interest in outsider jazz—picked up a student-level Getzen slide trumpet at a guitar shop in Woodstock, N.Y. Price tag: $25. He dabbled with it over the next decade, then waded further into its quirks in the late 1980s and early ’90s as a member of John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards and in the trailblazing trio Spanish Fly, where the brass curiosity complemented the microtonal allure of slide-guitar visionary David Tronzo. Quickly he noticed that the instrument was a crowd favorite. “I started playing slide trumpet on a few tunes, and people would always really react,” he says. On the advice of fellow trumpeter Dave Douglas, Bernstein began to practice the instrument with more dedication, and in 1996 he founded Sexmob, the eclectic downtown quartet (still going today) that would allow him to explore it fully. Around that time he had the master brass customizer Dick Akright build him a professional-level slide horn that remains his go-to today. (Bernstein says he has around a dozen slide trumpets in his collection.) Still, the learning curve was steep. When Sexmob began, he says, he had a hard time making it through two sets: “By the end of the second set I was spitting air.”

But he soldiered on, emboldened by the horn’s lively sonics, expressive vocal qualities, and endless harmonic opportunities. He cobbled together influences from musicians like trumpeter Lester Bowie; trombonists Roswell Rudd and Gary Valente; and even Jimi Hendrix. (“That’s the difference between slide trumpet and trumpet—on the slide trumpet you can get much closer to Hendrix,” he says.) His education never ends, he explains, and breakthroughs have occurred recently. “In the last two years I figured out some brand-new stuff,” he says. “There’s no one to train you, and there’s no one to tell you what is and is not possible.”

Indeed, a scouring of jazz history uncovers no real slide-trumpet pedagogy and few recordings and practitioners. Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie can be seen in a 1959 advertisement for that cheap Getzen model, and Satchmo posed with his slide cornet for a classic jazz-age image of King Oliver and His Creole Jazz Band. Bernstein eagerly points out that session ace Chuck Findley plays a bit of slide trumpet in Bernard Herrmann’s final film score, for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver; notes that Garth Hudson used it for section work in the Band; and recommends checking out the Italian jazz and new-music master Luca Bonvini. He also uses some logic: “Why are there Conn slide trumpets and Martin slide trumpets?” he asks. “If they made them, then someone had to be playing them, right?” His sleuthing points to America’s rich vaudeville tradition. Maynard Ferguson’s exotic Firebird horn is another part of the slide-trumpet story, though that valve/slide crossbreed occupies a niche that could easily inspire its own article.

Online, some discussions devolve quickly into a battle over semantics—whether the kind of horn Bernstein plays should be termed the slide trumpet or the soprano trombone, which is what a musician performing in, say, a Moravian trombone choir would probably call it. Classical musicians seem to enjoy the argument that slide trumpet technically refers to a Renaissance and Baroque horn that’s a forebear of the sackbut and trombone. Bernstein states his case with common sense: His horn has a trumpet mouthpiece and a trumpet bell. “Dig this: If a trombone player is playing my instrument,” he adds, “he or she will say that it’s a soprano trombone. But I’m a trumpet player!”

One trombonist who’s taken a particular interest in the small horn is the virtuoso Wycliffe Gordon, who absolutely devours it using the same special hybrid mouthpiece he plays when on trumpet. He considers his instrument a soprano trombone. “That is what was designed for me and that is what I call it,” he writes in an email. He can also play the slide trumpet and notes the slight but present disparities between the two. “The pitches are similar but the timbres are slightly different due to the bore size—something very few people can distinguish when it comes to the actual sound.” Gordon plays 23 instruments in total, he writes, but he has given the soprano trombone solid bandstand time. “The soprano trombone is somewhat of a novelty because very few folks play it and it’s rarely ever seen. But I play mine on just about every gig now, and I love the colors I can add to my performance when I play it.”

Whatever you want to call it, it ain’t easy to pick up. “There’s a bunch of reasons why nobody plays it,” says the trumpeter Bobby Spellman, chuckling. He’s been exploring the slide trumpet since his early high school years, after his father found one in Germany and brought it home. A record-shop owner in his native Boston turned him on to Bernstein and Sexmob, which he calls a “breakthrough.” Now, 30 and based in Brooklyn, he’s been able to study with the source. “I showed him way too much shit,” Bernstein laughs. “I just showed him like 30 years’ worth of stuff in one lesson. I should have charged him $1,000!”

“One of the things that’s particularly difficult,” Spellman says, “is that the slide is so short and the slide positions are so close together. It’s a pretty unforgiving instrument in terms of intonation.” Obviously, valve trumpeters with no previous slide experience will have trouble learning the positions on this sensitive scale, but Spellman underscores that tenor trombonists will need to take pains to acclimate too. “A lot of my trombone-player friends will pick up my horn and try to play it,” he says, “and, inevitably, at some point, they’ll just throw the slide off the thing.” Working toward mastery of the slide will yield not only slurry, bluesy wails, he says, but also a precision that mirrors the valve trumpet—though with a twist in tone and character that can be hard to describe. Employing various slide positions and techniques, while also using the slide to manipulate the airstream, allows the player to move around the range of the horn, hopping among the partials. “It’s hard,” Spellman admits. “The reason people play valve trumpet is that it automatically does these things.”

The slide horn is typically played using a trumpet mouthpiece, but even trumpeters will face embouchure-related challenges. Bernstein recommends that trumpet players close their daily shedding on the valve horn rather than the slide. “Slide trumpet really stretches your chops out of shape, because you’re doing all this crazy stuff,” he says.

Pressed to offer something resembling a teaching method, Bernstein starts in on some ideas—for one, remember to keep that slide hand loose—but ends up at a very telling story: “This L.A. trumpet player just asked me, ‘How did you learn to play the slide trumpet like that? That’s the most incredible thing.’ I thought that was a rhetorical question. You know exactly how I learned to play the slide trumpet like that: I practiced, and I played in front of people.” Then a hearty laugh. “How do you learn to do anything?”

Evan Haga

Evan Haga worked as an editor and writer at JazzTimes from 2006 to 2018. He is currently the Jazz Curator at TIDAL, and his writing has appeared at RollingStone.com, NPR MusicBillboard and other outlets.