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Frank Trumbauer, saxophonist and test pilot

John Robert Brown

Frank Trumbauer

Vintage jazz performances of Ostrich Walk and There'll Come a Time were featured on the soundtrack of the 2008 Brad Pitt movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Recorded during the late 1920s, originally the tracks had been released by a band led by Bix Beiderbecke. One of the musicians was saxophonist Orie Frank Trumbauer (1901-1956), also known as 'Frankie', or 'Tram', Trumbauer.  Tram played the C-Melody saxophone, which is a tenor saxophone pitched a tone higher than the Bb tenor that is ubiquitous today.  The C-Melody is now rarely seen, but historically Trumbauer's playing of the C-Melody (and sometimes the alto) had a great influence on Lester Young.  In turn, Lester's influence on later saxophonists has been immense, inspiring not only the Four Brothers stylists (Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, etc.) but many others.

In his book The Swing Era the great jazz historian Gunther Schuller observes: "Trumbauer's influence on Lester Young is both pervasive and precise, no anecdotal remembrance on Lester's part."  He adds: "Slow down Trumbauer's Singin' the Blues solo to 35 rpm from 78. The proximity of style of the two men comes even more sharply into focus."

Born of part Cherokee ancestry in Carbondale, Illinois, Frank Trumbauer grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, the son of a musical mother who directed saxophone and theatre orchestras. Tram's first important professional engagements were with the Edgar Benson and Ray Miller bands, shortly followed by the Mound City Blue Blowers, a local group that became nationally famous through their recordings on Brunswick.

Trumbauer married at age twenty. He spent all his life with his wife Mitzi, who survived him. He was a responsible family man, sober and sensible.  In 1927, Trumbauer signed a contract with OKeh, releasing a 78 recording of Singin' the Blues, featuring Beiderbecke on cornet and Eddie Lang on guitar. The tune Singin' the Blues was already a jazz classic, having been recorded and released by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1920. The 1927 OKeh recording by Bix and Tram was a smash hit, becoming one of the most influential jazz recordings of the decade.

In common with several of the Whiteman musicians, Trumbauer was a flying enthusiast. The pursuit of this expensive activity was aided by the musician's high earnings as members of the successful Paul Whiteman Orchestra. In 1929, for the making of the movie The King of Jazz, the orchestra numbered thirty-three musicians. George Gershwin was reputedly paid $10,000 for use of Rhapsody in Blue. The band received free instruments in exchange for endorsements. As a result, usually every musician possessed two of each instrument. Whiteman ordered thirty-five new Ford roadsters for the band. Each man could select his own model, cost not to exceed $900 dollars, which would be taken out of his pay cheque.

In February 1929 Trumbauer applied to the Department of Commerce for a pilot's license. His biography Tram; The Frank Trumbauer Story (Evans and Kiner) carries several references to Trumbauer's flying. Indeed, on occasions he even flew between Whiteman concerts:
"In February 1935 Paul Whiteman embarked on a short tour through the Southeast. Frank Trumbauer recalled shadowing the band on this tour by plane. I asked if I might not accompany the band on the bus, but fly my own airplane to each engagement. Paul was hesitant but ended up giving permission with the understanding that I not miss a single date or else it would cost me $100. I turned that around to a bet of $100 that I could make every engagement.  A handshake, and the bet was on! I almost killed myself doing it - but I won the $100. I slipped into cow pastures that I couldn't fly out of; landed on beaches and tied the plane to rocks; and flew in all kinds of weather. I think Paul purposely picked towns without airports. Sometimes I would have to hire for the plane to be hauled to a bigger field, so I could fly on to the next job."

Eventually, in 1940, Trumbauer left music to join the Civil Aeronautics Authority. During World War II he was a test pilot with North American Aviation, and trained military crews to operate the B-25 Mitchell bomber. He continued to work for the CAA after the war. As a test pilot for North American Aviation in the early 1940s, he suggested many of the improvements that made the B-25 an effective aircraft.  Trumbauer would lecture to pilots on Things Aren't What They Seem. He would wear a smart blue jacket with brass buttons, white shirt, collar, and tie. At the end of his talk, he'd remove the blazer to show that his shirt was cut to ribbons, to demonstrate the message behind his lecture - that things aren't always what they seem.

Trumbauer continued to work for the CAA after the war. He also played in the NBC Orchestra. Although he continued to play and record after 1947, henceforward he earned most of his income in aviation.

Frank Trumbauer died of a sudden heart attack in the lobby of St. Mary's hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, the city where he had made his home for some years. He was 55 years old.

John Robert Brown

Published in Jazz Journal, June 2014. Used by kind permission, reproduction forbidden.

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