The Cornet: Secrets of the Little Big Horn

Is the cornet really the trumpet’s warmer, sweeter sister, or is it all in our head?

Photo of cornet

Many jazz trumpeters and cornetists are familiar with Herbert L. Clarke’s 1921 letter to Elden Benge. Clarke was then the most famous cornetist in the world, a star soloist in John Philip Sousa’s band and a writer of method books that are still standards today. Benge, who would go on to become a major soloist in his own right, was then a 16-year-old student in Iowa, weighing whether to switch from cornet to trumpet.

Clarke was strongly against it. “[T]he latter instrument is only a foreign fad for the time present, and is only used properly in large orchestras … for dynamic effects,” he wrote to Benge. “I never heard of a real soloist playing before the public on a Trumpet. One cannot play a decent song even, properly, on it, and it has sprung up in the last few years like ‘jaz’ [sic] music, which is the nearest Hell, or the Devil, in music.”

There is much to learn from this letter, beyond the contempt classically trained musicians directed toward early jazz. To Clarke’s likely dismay, the trumpet’s then-surging popularity never faded, but would soon eclipse the cornet. We also find that musicians considered the instruments to be at cross-purposes: The cornet was for melody and soloing, the trumpet for volume and ensemble passages. And yet, the letter also suggests that the two instruments were more similar than they seemed. Clarke likens the trumpet to jazz, but in 1921, almost every jazz band’s lead horn was a cornet.

All of this has been folded into the mythology of the jazz cornet: its diminishment and neglect in favor of the trumpet, the question of its similarity to and difference from the other brass horn. The former is undisputed and obvious; the latter is a little less clear. “It’s a subtle difference,” says cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, who is often mistakenly billed as a trumpeter. “They’re very close cousins.”

Taylor Ho Bynum (photo by Kelly Jensen)

Musicians have certainly made the distinction. When the trumpet gained cachet after Louis Armstrong made the switch in the 1920s, some nonetheless opted to stay with the cornet, including Bix Beiderbecke and Rex Stewart (who played it in Duke Ellington’s trumpet section, perhaps another example of Ellington’s timbral experimentation). Bebop initially ignored the cornet, but Thad Jones reintroduced it in the ’50s, first in Count Basie’s New Testament band, then in small-band contexts like Thelonious Monk’s classic 1959 recording 5 by Monk by 5. Then, with the advent of hard bop, Nat Adderley emerged as a cornet specialist. In the New Thing era came Bobby Bradford, Olu Dara and Butch Morris. In the ’80s, Ron Miles arrived in jazz’s modern mainstream, and Graham Haynes became known through his work in the M-Base Collective. Over the past two decades a cornet renaissance of sorts has been taking place in the avant-garde jazz arena, with players like Bynum, Rob Mazurek, Kirk Knuffke and Josh Berman having built careers on the instrument.

Yet the two horns are tough to discern for trained ears, let alone untrained ones. “If you blindfolded 90 percent of the public, nobody would be able to tell you the difference,” says Warren Vaché, a traditional-jazz cornetist. “I’m not sure I could, either, really.”

Photo of Warren Vache
Warren Vaché (photo courtesy of the artist)

The Physical Characteristics

Even the physical difference is tricky. Both are brass horns with valves and tubes that wrap around the top and bottom of the valve casings. A side-by-side comparison, however, reveals that the cornet is shorter—roughly 14 inches to the trumpet’s 19—and about an inch and a half deeper from the top of the valves to the bottom tube. (Stretched end to end, the tubing for each instrument is the same length.) Traditionally, the cornet also had a “Shepherd’s Crook”—an additional outward curve at the back of the horn that contemporary models sometimes eliminate.

More important, the cornet is a conical bore to the trumpet’s cylindrical bore—that is, the trumpet’s tubing has the same diameter up to its last third, when it begins to widen into the bell. The cornet gradually widens from the receiver to the bell.

These aren’t just cosmetic differences. They define the subtle difference between the sounds of the instruments—subtle enough that they can only be defined in relation to each other. “What [the conical bore] actually means for the cornet is that when the sound leaves the bell, it spreads,” Knuffke says. “The cornet is like light in a fog, and the trumpet is more like a laser beam.”

The cylindrical bore creates that tightly focused and intense sound thanks to a tube that doesn’t allow the vibrations to widen. The conical bore, by contrast, allows vibrations to begin widening as soon as they leave the shank of the mouthpiece, and to diffuse at the bell. The result is a similar but slightly darker and mellower tone. “The sound is a bit rounder, has a bit of what I like to call a wider center,” Vaché says. “It tends to be, to me, a little breezier.”

Because of this, says Bynum, “it blends. The trumpet tends to be more on top of the ensemble—that brilliance and forward kind of thing. The cornet tends to blend deeper into it, so it sits inside the ensemble.”

Even more pertinent, the mouthpieces differ. The trumpet’s typical mouthpiece has a shallow, round interior cup; the cornet’s is deeper, almost v-shaped. This is yet another example of constrained versus liberated vibrations. But in the case of the trumpet, the mouthpiece also tightens the player’s embouchure, forcing the lips to buzz faster and thus enacting a higher register. “The cornet has a deeper, lower register,” says Graham Haynes, who started on trumpet but switched as a teenager to cornet. “It’s a warmer sound.”

Photo of Graham Haynes
Graham Haynes (photo by Alan Nahigian)

Of course, it’s the combination of the high register and the concentrated punch that gives the trumpet the feel we call “brassy.” (Think of Dizzy Gillespie, Lee Morgan or even onetime cornetist Armstrong.) The cornet is no less a brass instrument, but, says Haynes, “a brassy sound is not a cornet sound.”

“You’ll never have the Arturo Sandoval of the cornet,” Knuffke says. “You’ll never have a screeching cornet player, which is one of the reasons why I love the cornet.”

The History of the Cornet

That dichotomy between the trumpet’s sounds and those of the cornet is built into their respective histories. The trumpet is one of the world’s most enduring instruments at around 3,500 years old, and for almost all of that time it had no valves, thus cultivating a long tradition of power and high-register playing but limited pitch range. It was associated with things like fanfares and military calls (such as reveille).

The cornet, on the other hand, was created in 1814 by fitting valves onto an older instrument known as a post horn—which until then was similarly limited in range, but already employed for its stronger middle register and mellower tone than the trumpet. Although valve trumpets were invented shortly after the cornet, they didn’t fully catch on for decades (millennia of tradition don’t shake easily). Besides, the classical repertoire had been written for “natural” trumpet.

For the remainder of the 19th century, then, new music—from the classical work of Berlioz to the popular marches of Sousa—scored the instruments in two different sections, with ensemble blasts for trumpet and solos and melodies reserved for cornet.

Which is why Sousa veteran Clarke would perceive them that way in 1921, when trumpets were just becoming solo instruments. It’s also why New Orleans jazz musicians, with their close relation to marching bands, would choose the cornet to shape their melodies. Of course, proto-jazzman Buddy Bolden was renowned for his extraordinarily loud cornet playing, as was Armstrong 20 years later. But these were the exceptions. Others, like Freddie Keppard and King Oliver, were celebrated more for their technique. (Indeed, Oliver’s innovations involved softening the cornet’s sound with mutes.) “We all played cornets. Only the big orchestras in the theaters had trumpet players in their brass sections,” Armstrong recalls in his 1954 memoir, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans. “We all thought you had to be a music conservatory man or some kind of a big muckity-muck to play the trumpet. For years I would not even try to play the instrument.”

Nevertheless, it was apparently Armstrong’s switch to the trumpet in 1926 that caused the mass migration to the horn. According to historian Chris Albertson, when Armstrong was working in Erskine Tate’s Vendome Orchestra—true to his perception, it was a Chicago theater orchestra—the bandleader asked him to switch simply because the cornet was “too short.” But to his legions of trumpet-playing admirers, the reason was irrelevant. “He was the king,” Haynes notes. “He had all these hit records, so a lot of the guys wanted to copy him.”

The cornet’s standing eroded further in the era of electric amplification. “The cornet does not project,” Knuffke says. “You can play as hard as you want on it and the sound will just keep getting bigger and warmer, but it’ll never hurt your ears. And when amplification and microphones and everything came in, the cornet was just too hard to deal with.”

From then on, the instrument’s rarity made any major players loom that much larger. Stewart, Jones and Adderley became cornet canon—though to most of us their sound is no more distinguishable from the trumpet than Armstrong’s.

Photo of Kirk Knuffke
Kirk Knuffke (photo by Madeleine Knuffke)


Locking Horns

A funny thing happens when cornetists discuss how their instrument differs from the trumpet. Everyone agrees that the cornet sounds wider, mellower, less projective. But as for other differences, the answers vary. For Haynes, the cornet’s Shepherd’s Crook necessitates slower playing. “If you try to rip through the cornet and play really fast, like in bebop, the sound will kind of back up on you,” he says. “So the tendency with the cornet is to play slower, not with muscle.”

“Not if you listen to Nat Adderley!” Vaché laughs. “Nat played just as fast as anybody, and it was on a cornet, and it didn’t get in his way.” Vaché, too, burns on the instrument.

Knuffke and Bynum both say that pitch is more flexible on the cornet—less “slotted,” meaning the notes are more able to bend. “I would say the trumpet tends to be a more accurate instrument, but I like the fuzzier sound of the cornet,” Bynum says. “It gives you more space to play in between the notes.”

“A cornet typically has overtones closer together than the trumpet, so that it is more agile,” says Dave Monette, a highly acclaimed instrument-maker who builds trumpets and cornets. “Typically, on a cornet you can bend the notes [more] before you crack to the next higher or lower overtone.”

“I really don’t think that’s true,” Haynes says of those more supple notes.

Vaché concurs: “That has not been my experience.”

According to Monette, the tendency is really one of older cornets, like the 1908 Conn that Bynum plays. “Instruments made now by mass producers are made with trumpet parts, and they sound more like trumpets than cornets,” Monette says. This, he explains, is what his custom-built cornets attempt to ameliorate.

Do these debates suggest that such technical differences are exaggerated? At least one expert thinks they could even be nonexistent. Dr. Niles Eldredge is a biologist and paleontologist best known for coauthoring (with Stephen Jay Gould) the evolutionary theory of Punctuated Equilibrium. But he is also a player and collector of vintage cornets—he has more than 500—and he has published scholarly articles on their history, development and minutiae.

Not only does Eldredge dismiss the differences in pitch bending—unless the valves leak, he says, “a well-made cornet that’s in good condition … slots as well as anything I’ve ever played”—and the effect of the tubing shape, he casts doubt even on the most basic distinction. “Since the 1850s, there’s been no real formal difference in interior design between the cornet and the trumpet,” he says. “It’s a flat-out myth that cornets, from the get-go, were much more conical in interior shape than trumpets. It’s just not true!”

The two horns do have different mouthpieces, which Eldredge says might account for different timbres, the mouthpiece being “the second most important variable” in determining a musician’s sound. The most important? The musician him/herself. And Eldredge suggests that the player’s very recognition of playing a different instrument is what accounts for their making a different sound on it. “It’s psychological suggestion about what the instrument can give you,” he says. “Joe Giorgianni was over here in the ’90s, and he said, ‘Let’s play some duets.’ So he took a cornet off my wall, and his approach to the cornet was very different than his approach to the trumpet. He expected something else, so he sounded sweeter, more mellow than the kind of sound he does for a living—which is basically to play high, loud and fast, and scream.”

If biases could affect the perception of no less an authority than Herbert L. Clarke, why not the cornetists who followed? In jazz, individuality is the top priority. Perhaps that’s nowhere truer than on the cornet.