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The Ten Best Cornet Players of all Time - ref feat005

Every month 4BarsRest will be bringing their “top ten” lists to for you to digest and debate. Be it test pieces, adjudicators and even results, we all have our opinions on who’s the best and who’s the worst of the bunch. So to kick off the series we bring you (in our humble opinion only – our criteria for our choices will be revealed at the end of the article) who we think are the top ten greatest cornet players ever. Should get you arguing over a few pints at the local at least!

1. James Shepherd.
In our humble opinion, the greatest cornet player to put mouthpiece to lip in the history of the world. Shepherd revolutionised the art of cornet playing and was the bridge between the great players of the immediate post war period and those modern superstars of the current era. He came to Black Dyke to replace one of the greatest players in banding history in Maurice Murphy, and left as possibly their greatest ever Principal Cornet. A technique honed to perfection and possessing the classic cornet tone, he recorded both with Black Dyke and later his own Versatile Brass the definitive renditions of the classic cornet solos such as “Cleopatra” and “Pandora”. Just look at his picture on the cover of Black Dyke’s album “High Peak” – awesome! He played it, won it and got the tee shirt and remains one of the nicest men you would ever like to meet – our undoubted number 1.

2. Herbert L Clarke.
The greatest cornet player of the early 20th century and possibly the most famous cornet player in terms of sheer worldwide appeal that ever played. Clarke was born in 1867 in Massachusetts, USA and achieved fame as the cornet soloist of John Philip Sousa’s famous band, but both prior and post Sousa his reputation as the greatest cornet player of his generation was already secure. Recordings exist of Clark playing solos such as his own “Shores of the Mighty Pacific” and “Bride of the Waves” from as early as 1904, and reveal a player of mind boggling virtuosity, technique and artistry - all on a cornet that today’s players would hardly recognise let alone play. If only he played for Black Dyke.

3. Harry Mortimer.
For many it would be sacrilege that we have placed Mortimer behind any other player – but for all his undoubted brilliance as a player, conductor and administrator in the brass banding world, there remains a fountain of myth and legend that has been built up about the man over the decades. Universally recognised as the best player of his generation before the Second World War, he nevertheless was too clever a player ever to put himself on the line to possibly damage his reputation as a soloist. He possessed a beautiful clear tone throughout his playing range, but nearly all his solos were vehicles to show off this strength rather than his formidable technique (recordings had to be undertaken in one take at the time). He played with the best, conducted the best and gained the reputation that made him the Colossus of the banding world – a Master of everything he did, but not quite enough as a player to take the top prize for us.

4. Maurice Murphy
Again, many would think it impossible that there would be any players greater than Mr Murphy in the history of the world, but what we have to remember is that the great man really made his worldwide reputation as a trumpet player rather than a humble cornetist. Never mind though – any man that has played as top trumpet in the London Symphony Orchestra for over 20 years (and has had special dispensation granted by the orchestra and it’s players to carry on past the official retirement age), played the lead in some of the most popular film recordings of all time (Star Wars, Superman etc) and still had time to make and play with bands in concert and on recordings, must be more than a little special. He was on the end at Dyke when they famously won the Nationals in 1959 and was the first Principal Cornet of the National Youth Brass Band, whilst those who played with him can only recall in awe the ease in which he made the whole thing sound – without doubt the greatest export from the banding world to the orchestral world ever.

5. Jean Baptiste Arban.
O.K. nobody alive would have heard him play, but the man who gave us the “Bible” surely deserves a place at the top table. Arban was born in Lyon, France in 1825 and after a well-documented career as a brilliant cornet soloist he was appointed Professor of the Paris Conservatoire in 1857, where within three years he had produced his “Cornet Method”, the standard text for all players, from cornet to tuba for the next 140 years. If he really could play what he wrote then he was one hell of a cornet player that’s for sure, but what is clear is that everyone else who has wanted to become a player of any note, would have had to practice long and hard from his book.

6. Willie Lang.
It’s said that the difference between the good and the great, is that the great possess a “hinterland” – that is they have had a life outside their chosen field that has moulded and marked their life and has therefore made them such a better person than those that have tried to succeed at a single goal. Willie Lang is such a person. Born in County Mayo, Ireland in 1919 he learnt to play the cornet at an early age when the family moved to Yorkshire and, as a bit of a child prodigy he became “Bumper Up” at Black Dyke at the age of 16. He also started his life as a stonemason, which coincided with him taking the top mans chair at Dyke at 17 and finally saw him drafted into the Second World War as a tank commander. Any man who survived that became a better man for it, and Willie Lang returned to Dyke for a second successful spell that also saw him become Champion Cornet Player of Great Britain in 1947, win the Nationals three times and finally become Principal Trumpet of the LSO. He also now had a fund of stories that would keep people entertained for decades to come.

7. Ken Smith.
It is sometimes very difficult to describe the effect a person has when they come to a staid, sedate, sober country and hit it like a comet from outer space. The comet in question was a New Zealander by the name Ken Smith and the country (not his own- as many would believe), but post war Britain – a country that was so dour that Smith himself – a serious and very committed man thought needed brightening up. He came from a family with banding in it’s veins and was Principal Cornet of the National Band of New Zealand that not only won but destroyed all opposition in winning the 1953 British Open. His return to Fairey’s Band in 1954 was nothing short of sensational, with his style, tone and amazing technique literally placing him years ahead of any of his contemporaries. His subsequent career as a conductor and administrator back in New Zealand was even more effective with him being honoured by the Queen for his achievements.

8. Phillip McCann.
From the time he left Scotland to go to Fairey’s to the time he left Black Dyke, Phillip McCann has been regarded both in awe and envy in the brass band world. That he possessed one of the most beautiful cornet sounds is without doubt, and that his record of playing and leading one of the most successful bands in contesting history in being Principal Cornet with Black Dyke from 1973 onwards is unquestionable. However, the success of his amazing series of CD’S entitled “The World’s Most Beautiful Melodies” has brought him acclaim and disdain in equal measures. The series was aimed at an audience away from the traditional brass band record buyer and as a result was a phenomenal success that was further enhanced by his series of television recordings for the popular “Hetty Wainthrope Investigates”. As a result his brilliant performances at banding contests has somewhat been forgotten (Contest Music 1982 for instance), but to many he remained the inheritor of a style of performance that was last heard over fifty years before he made his mark, by his hero and mentor, Harry Mortimer. Perhaps that is a more fitting achievement.

9. Bix Beiderbecke.
If you have never heard of the man, then shame on you, because Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke was the greatest jazz cornet player of this or any other age. Born in 1903 he was dead by 1931 through a combination of drink, drugs and a copybook jazz players lifestyle. He couldn’t read music but left home to play for some of the finest traditional jazz ensembles of the 1920’s such as the “Wolverine Orchestra”, “Paul Whiteman Orchestra” and even Hoagy Carmichael. Blessed with an amazing ear and the ability to improvise at will he was a jazz player years ahead of his time and brought a beautiful tone and technical brilliance to everything he turned his hand to. Dead at 28 and still a legend – you can’t ask for more than that.

10. Wynton Marsalis
All right – he’s not universally known as a cornet player, but any one who has actually had the pleasure of hearing him away from the trumpet and playing cornet solos, be they traditional or jazz, can only conclude that he is one of the greatest players of the 20th century. His brilliance as an orchestral trumpet soloist is well recorded, although he seems to do less and less of this nowadays, but there are a number of recordings of him playing cornet that reveal a player of sheer genius. His technical prowess is simply breathtaking, whilst he retains a keen sense of style and artistry for what is a different medium all together on the cornet. His record “Carnival” should be a must for all students and players alike. He gets in the top ten because it would be a crime to have left him out.

The criteria.
Now that we have got you arguing, here’s the rub. Great players are great players because they bring something else to the art of performance that is just too far away from us mere mortals that we can imitate it. That’s why James Shepherd leads the list – totally unique and why we couldn’t find a place for many of today’s great players. The likes of Webster, Daws and Morrison are great players indeed, but in our opinion have yet to ascend to the higher level that our top ten inhabit – maybe in a couple of years though. Arban and Clarke were blessed with a genius that may be difficult to recognize to day, whilst the inclusion Beiderbecke shows that the cornet has been more than just a brass band phenomena. For those of a certain age, Ken Smith was just simply amazing, whilst Mortimer, Murphy and Lang made their mark in the orchestral world as well as the banding one. McCann is the only modern brass band player who is known to the general public at large, whilst Marsalis is simply a world-class performer in what ever he undertakes.

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