“My most frequently asked question,” says the jazz and classical virtuoso Wynton Marsalis, “is ‘What do you call that? Is that a trumpet you’re playing? That is the most beautiful instrument I’ve ever seen. Who made that—or did you design it?’”
With a mouthpiece permanently attached to its unpolished, handcrafted tubing, custom-built by David Monette, of Portland, Oregon, perhaps the world’s quirkiest and most audacious instrument maker, that is indeed a trumpet. Sometimes when Marsalis is asked to describe it, he says his Monette trumpet is like an airplane. He’s thinking of the trumpet’s finlike braces when he says this, because they look a little like an airplane’s wings. But he may be thinking, too, of how Monette has combined old and new, taking the ancient concept of amplifying sound with a horn and applying modern science to make it work better.
When I met Dave Monette, in 1986, it had never occurred to me that one might re-create an instrument whose design and manufacture had undergone little change since the introduction of the piston valve, more than a century and a half ago. But anyone who has heard a concert performance marred by a trumpet’s missed note—a “train wreck,” players call it—might imagine the reasons for improving on the Wright brothers’ model with a custom-made Gulfstream.
Today, as the price of a top-of-the-line Monette approaches $50,000, some musicians are willing to wait a year for their orders to be filled, while others still scoff at the premise on which Monette has established his reputation. “I don’t think Monette’s horns represent a traditional sound of the trumpet,” proclaims one of the latter group, Phil Smith, the principal trumpet player of the New York Philharmonic. Monette’s fans tend to agree with Marsalis, who says, “Eventually you will get your sound out of whatever horn you play. But it’s easier on a Monette. They’re well balanced and centered. They're harmonized.”
That two great musicians should even be talking about Monette may be the most improbable thing about this forty-three-year-old man’s career. Less than two decades ago Monette was an occasional player with no formal higher education who dared to reinvent one of the most venerable instruments in Western music, an instrument capable of widely expressive gradations of tone and timbre.
One day in the early 1980s Monette made a cold call to Charles Schlueter, now the principal trumpet of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. An orchestral player of uncommon individual character, Schlueter had long been dissatisfied with the limitations of the production-model Bach trumpet, then still the standard for symphonic professionals. Schlueter, who often tinkered with his horns in his workshop, kept an open mind when someone reported an innovation or a breakthrough in the field. Monette called out of the blue, and soon offered Schlueter a new kind of leadpipe for his Bach trumpet (the leadpipe is the tube that connects a trumpet and its mouthpiece).
“He sent me about a half dozen, and I didn’t really care for any of them,” recalls Schlueter, who had never met Monette. “Dave later came to Cincinnati when the BSO played there on tour, and I tried one of his leadpipes on my Bach C trumpet. This time it felt terrific.” (Middle C on a C trumpet—the horn used by most symphonic players—sounds like C on a piano. The more frequently used B-flat trumpet, on the other hand, is pitched a whole note lower than the piano.) “Dave soldered a plug to fit in the receiver on the leadpipe so it would stay put, and I used that combination when the BSO recorded the complete Stravinsky Firebird in April of 1983.” Soon afterward Monette persuaded Schlueter to try a prototype trumpet he had just built, and Schlueter liked it so much that he never played his Bach again.
When I was introduced to Monette, he was tweaking one of Schlueter’s horns just before a BSO performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, a work whose first movement is a virtual concerto for trumpet. Bearded, wearing blue jeans and a white shirt, Monette focused intently on his work while around him orchestral players in the formal trappings of professional classical-music performance—long black dresses for the women, black pants and tails for the men—nervously anticipated the speaker’s calling them to the stage. Monette said nothing as he examined Schlueter’s horn. Then, patiently and purposefully, he scraped the inside of the mouthpiece and the leadpipe with a metal tool. The shavings from this process were too small to see, yet when Schlueter tried the trumpet afterward, he pronounced it a decided improvement. And, indeed, the sound was fuller and more present—live without being edgy. There was no doubt that whatever secret procedure Monette had used to make the trumpet play better had also increased Schlueter’s confidence in it. He performed magnificently that night.
LIKE the great entrepreneur-inventors of an earlier era in American business, David Monette is so closely wedded to what he does that it is impossible to imagine one of his horns without him. Who he is and what he makes are inextricably linked.
Born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Monette began playing the trumpet in fifth grade, but he never had a trumpet teacher. By the time he graduated from high school he was the single trumpet in an eight-piece band, a job he got, he says, because “I was the only person who tried out who knew how to read the arrangements.” Monette was also practicing a lot, and “conventional equipment wouldn’t let me do what I wanted to” on the horn. Playing pop tunes on tour with the band for a year, Monette strained to make his instrument sound the way he thought it should. The sound that came out was too bright, reminding him of the brass section of a football marching band or the blare at a high school hop. Moreover, the sound was limited in its expression. Nothing Monette played or heard others play matched the sound in his head—a textured, layered sound that could evoke a wide range of human emotions. To describe it in painterly terms, the standard trumpet sound was like the landscapes in an L. L. Bean catalogue—all surface and no depth. Monette was looking for a sound that was exposed and vulnerable. Rembrandt, or Van Gogh. He was certain that something was wrong with the way trumpets played, and he was determined to change it. But how?
While he pondered this question, the band traveled the Midwest, playing clubs in East Lansing and Grand Rapids, Michigan; in Palatine, Illinois; in Madison, Wisconsin. The touring was entertaining but unfulfilling, and when Monette, at the age of nineteen, fell in love, he quit music. For a year and a half he did “nothing musical,” supporting himself by working as a custodian at a JCPenney department store in Milwaukee, where he lived in the same apartment building that had housed Charlie Schlueter more than ten years before, when Schlueter was just beginning his symphonic career, with that city’s orchestra. Then one day Monette was asked to deliver a package for Penney to a local music shop, where he soon found himself in a long conversation with the owner about instruments. That conversation, he says, inspired him to enroll as an apprentice at the Allied Music School, an instrument-repair school in Elkhorn, Wisconsin.
By the time he moved to Elkhorn, Monette was so frustrated by instrumental limitations of tone and timbre that he was nurturing a “crazy dream.” He would learn how to make instruments and then build them himself. Most trumpets on the market were—and still are—mass-produced, but that was a symptom rather than the source of what Monette perceived as the basic problem. He wanted a response from a trumpet, a “completeness of sound,” that he couldn’t find.
Almost a year later John Dulaney, who had a shop in Salem, Oregon, hired Monette to repair instruments. After moving to Salem, Monette started hanging out at the local symphony orchestra. He went to concerts not only to listen to the music but also to learn to hear the difference between, say, a cello in the high register and a viola in the low. His sense of pitch and timbre is extraordinary. When testing finished instruments in his shop, for example, he never resorts to sophisticated electronic equipment or computer analysis. All his judgments about sound are based on his ear.
Monette worked at Dulaney’s Wills Music Store for two years, and during that time he became friends with the Oregon Symphony's principal trumpet player, Fred Sautter, who shared Monette’s fascination with trumpet design. Sautter saw Monette as a “revolutionary,” and began to tell his trumpet-playing friends about him. Soon players from all over the country were sending their instruments to Monette to be repaired. The backlog of work at the Wills shop was many months’ worth.
Monette’s next break came in 1981, when he was invited to visit the Los Angeles home of the Tonight Show bandleader and trumpeter Doc Severinsen. Monette listened to Severinsen play every one of the many instruments he owned, and suggested improvements in them. Severinsen was impressed by Monette's honesty and certainty—some might call it brazenness. He introduced Monette to an executive at the company whose trumpets Severinsen endorsed, C. G. Conn, of Elkhart, Indiana (then the largest manufacturer of brass instruments in the country).
Conn hired Monette as a consultant, but Monette didn’t take to what he regarded as a rigid corporate atmosphere. However, Conn liked his leadpipe design so much that the company bought it for $15,000, a huge sum of money for Monette at that time. By then he had already opened his own custom brass shop, in the basement of a rented house in Bloomington, Indiana. Soon he made a call to another of the country's most famous symphonic players, Adolph Herseth, the principal trumpet of the Chicago Symphony. Herseth and Schlueter each ordered one of his trumpets, and Monette never again worked for someone else.
Above: Marsalis's Presentation
Monette Nirvikalpa Samadhi,
decorated with jewels and
icons symbolizing his career.
AFTER a trumpeter has learned the requisites of playing (scales, fingering, tonguing, intervals, dynamics), he needs the horn to do what he asks it to. No musician wants to strain—especially in the instrument's high register, where it is easy for a player to go for one note and hit another, because the spacings for the intervals in this range are so close. Just a slight change in the pressure of the air a player is pushing through a trumpet’s tubing will change the pitch by as much as a whole step, causing a “train wreck.” On a stringed instrument, such as the violin, a mistake in fingering would result in a considerably smaller change in pitch—it might be so little that no one else would even hear it. Like all musical instruments, the trumpet is a form. Monette worked to master the form, which is a long piece of tubing, with valves that can alter the length of the tubing through which air passes on its way from a mouthpiece to a bell. The standard orchestral trumpet pitched to C uses nearly four feet of tubing, and the mouthpiece both adds length and acts as a kind of microphone, capturing the vibrations of a player’s lips. The vibrations set up a sequence of frequencies within the instrument, and it is those frequencies that make the trumpet sound like a trumpet instead of a trombone or a tuba.
For more than a century most companies mass-producing brass instruments had made only superficial changes in their mouthpieces, even though the musical pitch for the standard trumpet had evolved from A to B-flat. So players were essentially using mouthpieces for A trumpets on B-flat instruments, which added to the difficulty of playing them properly. Basing his work in part on the acoustical studies of the late Arthur Benade, Dave Monette through years of trial and error made several discoveries that helped to solve an old problem in trumpet playing: how to keep the pitch of the instrument steady over the full harmonic and dynamic range. Historically, players have always accomplished this through difficult physical adjustments of lip angle and pressure. Instead of focusing on the connection between the mouthpiece rim and a player's lips, Monette manipulated combinations of design elements -- cup shape and size, backbore (the opening at the end of a mouthpiece that connects to a trumpet’s leadpipe) shape and size, weight, thickness, length, and ratio of cup volume to backbore volume. Incorporating his refinements on these elements into his increasingly sophisticated trumpets, which eventually had such features as recessed valves, O-rings, and oversized bells, Monette began making instruments on which a player could, without the usual exertion, produce a sound both dark and brilliant that remained centered on the pitch of every note. At last no one else in the orchestra could complain that the trumpets were out of tune.
Despite a popular misconception, the hardest notes to play musically on the trumpet aren't the high, loud ones. Low—down around middle C and lower—is the most difficult part of the register. It's not easy to get a tone down there that someone will want to listen to, especially playing soft. As you lessen the flow of air through the horn in an effort to play soft, the sound will sometimes just disappear, right in the middle of a note. This may be acceptable in jazz but is definitely not what you want when you're playing, for example, the Hindemith Sonata for Trumpet, one of the rare solo works for trumpet that is performed with any regularity. On conventional trumpets players may lose intonation when striving to play soft; with a properly fitted Monette horn they can barely breathe into the instrument and still produce a beautiful sound.
It's rare to hear brass players talk about the sound their instruments produce with the same passion that animates such conversations among violinists. “I knew when I met him he'd be making good horns,” says Marsalis, who has been playing a Monette trumpet for more than ten years. Other well-known Monette trumpeters are effusive in their acclaim. The jazz legend Art Farmer, for whom Monette created a cross between a trumpet and a flugelhorn which he calls a “flumpet,” says his new horn was “like a miracle.” Not everyone who plays a Monette horn is a professional musician. Richard Abate, of New Jersey, is a graphic artist. Other Monette converts include doctors, lawyers, and at least one architect. When Abate first tried a Monette horn, he recalls, he found it “strange.” But he soon adapted. “They’re thick, so they don't radiate at you,” he says. “They’re easier to play. The response is great.”
The odd vocabulary that Abate and others use to describe what Monette has done with his instruments is another indication of how unusual they are. When Abate says that Monette’s horns don’t “radiate,” for example, he means the sound projects out to the audience, not to the player. John Raschella, the third trumpet of the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, remembers the first time he picked up a Monette horn: “It had that rub in it,” he says, referring to the way the instrument locked into pitch. “You’re going to get compliments from the string section,” Raschella recalls Monette’s telling him when he first started playing a Monette horn. By that, Raschella explains, Monette meant the strings wouldn’t insist that the trumpets, usually just a few chairs in back of them, sounded too loud or too bright.
EACH of the small group of people who work in Monette’s cavernous concrete shop is loyal not only to Monette himself but to what he is trying to do. “Quality control means a grade of either A or F,” says Dean Comley, who specializes in making mouthpieces. “Gradually the criteria for an A are getting higher and higher.”
To build a trumpet, first you need to assemble the materials, which include valve casings, pistons, and the balusters that fit at the top of the valves. You also need a wide variety of tubes and pieces of sheet brass and mouthpiece blanks. Then you select the tubes to start with, and you cut them on lathes, piece by piece, making the guts of the trumpet. The hardest part to make is the bell, which you shape by “spinning” on a lathe a piece of sheet brass that has been heated and then cooled. Monette used to make all the bells himself, but Dan Haswell, who has been with the shop the longest, has mastered the art after a costly trial-and-error period (a bell with an imperfection must be scrapped).
Every Monette trumpet is custom-made for a particular player. A properly fitted Monette horn will typically be easier to play than a mass-produced instrument, will produce a fuller, more resonant sound, and will retain its pitch center at all levels of the dynamic and harmonic spectra. In the trumpets that Monette’s shop builds for Charlie Schlueter, an intentional inefficiency has been factored into the ratio of bore sizes within the trumpet’s mouthpiece and tubing, because Schlueter’s lung capacity is so large that he might overblow conventional instruments. An amateur player picking up a Schlueter Monette would have difficulty making a note sound good; for him or her Monette would design an instrument that required less strength to play. So distinctive are the variations in design that many of the mouthpieces manufactured in Monette’s shop are labeled simply “Marsalis,” for example, or
”Ferguson” (for Maynard Ferguson, who at the age of seventy still hits notes more than an octave above the staff).
Most Monette horns are heavier than other trumpets, and some feature a double bell. The top-of-the-line Presentation Monette Nirvikalpa Samadhi is decorated by the goldsmith Tami Dean with saw-pierced icon decorations in the bell and body of the instrument and inlaid precious and semiprecious stones on the finger buttons. As few as four or five horns a month may be manufactured. Gross company revenues have been growing as sales of mouthpieces (at $195 each) have grown, but they are still under $1 million a year. Nevertheless, demand is so high that other companies have started copying Monette’s innovations, right down to details of appearance. For several years Monette horns were delivered in raw brass, whereas assembly-line trumpets were highly polished. But now you can go into many instrument shops and find mass-market horns without a finish, whereas some of Monette’s are gold-plated. The second bell and the posts that support it—which characterize Monette’s so-called Raja Samadhi line—have also been duplicated.
Monette stays in touch with the people who play his horns. At the shop they are referred to as clients, not customers; Monette calls most of them friends. He will fly cross-country just to hear one of those friends play. He has been in New York for the premiere of every Marsalis commission, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio Blood on the Fields. One of his many overseas trips took him to Finland, where most of the trumpet section of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra uses Monette equipment. And he goes to Boston or Tanglewood at least once a year when Charlie Schlueter has an important solo.
Modest about the skilled craftsmanship of his work, Monette is inscrutable about the source of his creativity. His work, he says, is ultimately about music, not sound production. His search for a perfect trumpet sound, he insists, is really an effort to make a horn that “gets out of the way” of the mysterious connection that music makes between a player and an audience. One of Monette’s closest friends has defined the source of Monette’s art as a longing for something in his life that is gone and cannot be brought back. Whatever the explanation, Monette responds empathetically when a musician communicates an emotion to him. Monette’s favorite popular tune is Gershwin’s “Embraceable You,” which Marsalis invariably plays when he knows that Monette is in the audience. During a performance by one of his friends Monette listens so carefully that he can seem transported onto the stage. A few seasons ago, at a BSO performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony, during which Schlueter played the famous offstage post-horn solo on a Monette flumpet, Monette sat perfectly still for more than an hour, eyes closed, hands with palms open on his thighs, listening with an intensity that mimed the music’s.
Afterward the Boston audience, which is often staid, paid tribute to the players with vociferous applause. But Monette remained in his seat, in a kind of trance. Finally he opened his eyes and smiled. "Damn," he said quietly, recalling the plaintive trumpet solo that introduces the symphony's last theme. He stood and stared at the chair vacated by Schlueter, who had been able to play that theme pianissimo without seeming to hold anything back. The result was a highly emotive sound that filled the hall without being loud.
“How does he do that?” Monette asked, shaking his head.
Carl Vigeland is the author of several books, including Jazz in the Bittersweet Blues of Life, a forthcoming collaboration with Wynton Marsalis.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1999; A New Horn - 99.11 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 5; page 104-110.