Harry B. Jay Columbia Chicago

Harry B. Jay instruments and the Jazz Age

Harry B. Jay was a cornet player in what was America’s best-known internationally renowned Sousa band, which was based in Illinois not far from Chicago.  In around 1909  he set up Columbia Band Instrument Company.

 His Columbia instruments were renowned and widely used in Chicago, a major jazz center.  You hear the sounds of his instruments on recordings of the 1920s –  the cornet you hear played by George Mitchell in Jelly roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, the trumpet cornets you hear played by King Oliver and Louis Armstrong in King Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators, and the trumpet cornet you hear played by  Jabbo Smith of the Rythm Aces.

George Mitchell played one of the cornets on all the Jelly Roll Morton recordings (and others) as did Tommy Ladnier in those of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. A lot of other traditional jazz band cornet players used H.B. Jay Columbia instruments in the 1910s and 1920s. One anecdote about H.B. Jay instruments coming into 1920s jazz in Chicago is from cornet player George Mitchell –

“When I made the [Red Hot Peppers] records with Jelly Roll, I used a Harry B. Jay cornet, made here in Chicago. The reason I bought that Jay cornet was, I was working with Jimmie Noone at an after-hours club down on 35th Street, and Muggsy Spanier used to come and sit in with us. One night I was telling him that my horn was going bad and that I needed a new one. He mentioned the Jay he had and said, “You can play that tonight.” He left the cornet there, and I liked the tone so much that I went to the factory the next day and bought one, a Jay. That’s what I used on those records. …”

Exactly when Louis Armstrong first played trumpet is a topic of jazz folklore, but what is beyond doubt is that in 1918 he went to Hollis Music where for a price of $68 a Harry B. Jay trumpet/cornet was purchased for him. It came with two alternative detachable mouthpipes, one to take a cornet mouthpiece, and one to take a trumpet mouthpiece.  Whether or not Louis had a preference for one, or for the other,  or for choosing the shank according to the sound he wanted for the next tune, is virtually impossible to tell visually because they look the same.

Harry B. Jay produced just over ten thousand Columbia instruments between about 1910 and the late 1920s after: they included violins, several varieties of  trumpets, cornets and trumpet cornets, euphoniums, trombones, and other instruments. The quality of H.B.Jay instruments is fantastic, in terms of playability, design, construction, and sound. But more than that, they are truly icons of the jazz age.

In Australia, where mostly British instruments – Besson, Higham, Hawkes, Boosey & Hawkes – and some Bohemian instruments held sway in our Musical instrument stores, Harry B. Jay instruments were not marketed at all. Jay instruments are rare anywhere, but outside the US are even more so. One player from the UK [Mike Durham famed for his Newcastle Jazz parties] had a major collection of Jay instruments.

Date of manufacture and serial numbers

This instrument was made by Harry B. Jay of Chicago in approximately 1917. I have sighted a cornet guarantee certificate for serial number 2210 with a verifiable date of 27 August 1915; and I know of a “vocal cornet” serial 3239 verifiably purchased 17 August 1915. I know of another cornet serial number 3827, which was shipped to a man in Indiana in 1916. I have an H.B. Jay valve trombone serial 3578 which was shipped with a guarantee dated 17 April, 1917. I mention these serial numbers and dates because they show that without documentation it’s impossible to be sure of dates.

This trumpet cornet is over a century old


Tuning can be adjusted in three ways: by moving the mouthpipe in or out [and then tightening the screw], by moving the tuning slide in or out [it’s designed to allow a quick key change to A] or by the bell tuning slide located on the bottom left.

Around 1916 The Martin company introduced its “Superlative” removable shank model trumpets possibly looking to replicate the H.B. Jay two shank system.

Reverse leadpipe patent

The tuning mechanism is the subject of a Harry B. Jay patent. Design-wise this telescopic tuning slide is based on a tuning slide patent registered by Harry B. Jay which these days would be described as for a reverse tuning slide or reverse lead pipe: the patent can be found online. It is fair to say that whilst other early 20th century makers, particularly in Chicago, utilised reverse lead pipe tuning, Harry B. JAY used it on all his brass instruments [except for the Arrigoni model trumpet].

Step bore construction

The tuning slide on this instrument comes out of the leadpipe and then expands over its length and leaves the tuning slide at a slightly larger diameter, making this a step bore instrument.  Holton, whose manufacturing would still have been  Chicago based when this instrument was made, also used a reverse lead pipe tuning slide, but his instruments – perhaps because of his relationship with  Herbert Clarke who seems to have been unrepentantly bent on preserving the traditional form of cornet which bears both their names — did not use a step bore.

The jazz age: cornets before trumpets

The Columbia trumpet/cornet invented and manufactured by Harry B. Jay straddles the period of the jazz age in which in which cornets in jazz bands were still mandatory: it was politically incorrect to play trumpet. These attitudes are evidenced by cornet virtuoso Herbert Clark in a letter to a young Elden Benge [later a Trumpet player in the Detroit Symphony and the Chicago Symphony, and an instrument builder] on 13 January 1921. He wrote –

My dear Mr.Benge:-

Replying to yours of the 19th just received, would not advise you to change from Cornet to Trumpet, as the latter instrument is only a foreign fad for the time present, and is only used properly in large orchestras of 60 or more, for dynamic effects, and was never intended as a solo instrument.

‘ I never heard of a real soloist playing before the public on a Trumpet. 0ne cannot play a decent song even,properly,on it,and it has sprung up in the last few years like “jaz” music which is the nearest Hell, or the devil, in music.

 In Louis Armstrong’s later reflections about that era he said, in his own words [“Satchmo” at page 213]-

Of course in those early days we did not know very much about trumpets. We all played cornets. Only the big orchestras in the theaters had trumpet players in their brass sections. It is a funny thing, but at that time 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.

McGill Jazz Professor Kevin Dean, an admirer of Jay instruments, has said that the dual bore H.B. Jay Columbia is regarded as one of the primary influences of the celebrated Martin Committee, which he suggests was conceived about 10 years after [ HBJay trumpet #7401 circa 1928] was made.  Others could say that to refer to the Jays merely as a “primary influence” falls far short of reality, and that the reality is that the step bore reverse leadpipe Jays are the true genesis of the Committees.  

This trumpet/cornet

  • Will accept any modern mouthpiece
  • Has good compression – slides pop when you pull them
  • has very nice typical Chicago engraving
  • union stamp indicates it was hand made by union members
  •  large bore [measures .464”]
  • step bore
  • All slides pull
  •  bell tuning slide [shown]
  • silver is hardly worn and is in excellent condition without the frequently seen areas of worn silver
  • Comes with a cornet shank
  • date of the patent is stamped on the fitting on the lower part of the tuning slide
  • Comes with a Bach 7C cornet mouthpiece
  • is expressive and controllable, and a delight to play
  • some scratches dimples [one on the bell throat which is shown] but overall in excellent vintage condition
  • the last photograph shows a silver patch, and a very slight mark where the bell has been straightened which is located in line with  the end of the main tuning slide 
  • gold wash bell

This trumpet/cornet is completely playable and sounds and feels fantastic. 

A soft case will be supplied.

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