Louis Armstrong’s first cornet was not a cornet

My photograph taken over a decade ago of the instrument on display at the Old U.S. Mint in New Orleans, said to be Louis Armstrong’s first cornet given to him at the age of 12 when he was an inmate of the New Orleans Coloured Waifs Home

My photo of the museum exhibit description

1912:   Peter Davis, Louis Armstrong, The New Orleans Coloured Waifs Home, and Armstrong’s Silver Piston Champion “American model” trumpet

It is fair to say that unless you are a player the difference between a trumpet and a cornet is not necessarily something which particularly matters to you.

It isn’t always easy to work out whether an instrument is a trumpet or a cornet because there are Cornets made in the long shape of a typical trumpet, cornets made in the “long cornet” shape, and the more typical cornet made in a squat snail like shape. And there are varieties of trumpets with the same or very similar tube wrap [shape] as that of a cornet.  Both trumpets and cornets can be made with or without a shepherds crook.

Last week I was reminded of how little – even today – other band members are actually aware of which high brass instrument is making the sound: I was alternating playing between two snail shaped wrap [and therefore obviously not trumpets] vintage Martin cornets, but was receiving  repeated references to them as trumpets.  The basic reality is that for most people – even musicians – it’s the sound that matters, not which instrument you use to produce it.

With the rise of the trumpet as the 20th century moved on,  a tendency emerged of referring to high brass players as trumpet players, even when they were actually cornet players: for example 1955 [the London published version “SATCHMO My Life in New Orleans”,   Armstrong wrote:

With all those glorious trumpets—Joe Oliver, Bunk Johnson—he was in his prime then—Emmanuel Perez, Buddy Petit, Joe Johnson—who was real great, and it’s too bad he didn’t make some records. . . . 

It struck me that Joe Johnson and Buddy Petit had the same identical styles. Which was great! In fact all the trumpet and cornet players who were playing in my young days in New Orleans were hellions—that’s the biggest word I can say for them. They could play those horns for hours on end. 

But Joe Oliver, a fat man, was the strongest and the most creative. And Bunk Johnson was the sweetest. Bunk cut everybody for tone, though they all had good tones. That was the first thing Mr Peter Davis taught me—out in the Coloured Waif’s Home for Boys. “Tone,” he said. “A musician with a tone can play any kind of music, whether it’s classical or ragtime.” 

Despite the way he puts it, these musicians were in point of fact cornet players.  And Louis addressed the dichotomy directly, when he wrote:

Even when I was living with mother I would not go that far away, even though I received quite a few offers to go to different places to play my trumpet. Of course in those early days we did not know very much about trumpets. We all played cornets. Only the big orchestras in the theatres 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.   [My Life In New Orleans, page 190]

Other Features can confuse when it comes to identifying what an instrument is: for example both trumpets and cornets have been made with different length mouthpiece shanks, particularly when instruments were supplied with high and low pitch shanks.  Some Chicago instruments carried the name trumpet cornet : that Harry B. Jay instrument was the one purchased for Louis Armstrong for his use on the Streckfus riverboats which travelled the river from New Orleans. The instrument was supplied both with a trumpet shank to take a conventional trumpet mouthpiece, and a cornet shank to take the conventional smaller diameter cornet mouthpiece.

Trumpet and cornet players know that for a player, there is far more than just the sound: every  instrument generates its own dynamic feel, partly in the finger movements it encourages or allows, partly in the blowing characteristics, and partly in balance, weight and feel in the hands, and partly through the mouthpiece attached to it: you may not feel or be consciously aware of all the characteristics about valves, tuning, and tone which attract you to or repel you away from a cornet or a trumpet, but as you play you come closer to an appreciation.

Through the 1920s there was controversy about whether the trumpet, or the cornet, was preferable.  Brass Virtuosos had differing opinions on the topic, and some expressed them trenchantly. An example was Herbert Clarke whose name endorsed Holton-Clarke model cornets during the 1920s: although his views softened later, Clarke chose extravagant terms to decry not only everything about the trumpet itself as an instrument, but about those players who would choose to play it rather than playing the cornet, which he  lauded.

From around 1910 and continuing across two decades, Harry B. Jay Co. not only produced the trumpet cornet, but also trumpets, and several varieties of cornets.

However what I am dealing with here is not the Harry B Jay Co trumpet cornet, but the instrument exhibited in the Jazz Museum in the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans, where I went, saw, and photographed it just over a decade ago. Louis Armstrong Is said to have learned on this instrument, which has been consistently described by history and commentators as Louis Armstrong’s first Cornet.  And true it is, that in “My life in New Orleans”, Louis refers to the instrument produced by Peter Davis at the Waif’s Home, as a “cornet”.

The brand of Armstrong’s first Cornet has been the subject, somewhat strangely, of several errors in identification. There was a “Marceau” [a trade name used by mail order giant Sears Roebuck] which was purchased by the Smithsonian Institute in 2002 for USD $108,000

An article in the Historic Brass Journal in 2003 at page 355 by Nussbaum, Eldredge and Stewart [a trio of considerable expertise] related –

On 1 April 2002 the National Museum of American History (Smithsonian Institution)
placed on display a cornet said to have been “the instrument on which Louis Armstrong
learned to play when he was just 12 years old.” 1  There is reason to doubt that Louis
Armstrong ever played this particular instrument—let alone it having been his first.
The instrument was auctioned by Sotheby’s in New York in October 2001, on behalf
of its owner, George Finola, curator of the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans, where
it previously had been displayed. Finola is said to have purchased the instrument from the
family of Peter Davis in the 1960s. The Smithsonian Institution paid $108,000 for this

The authors observed that “Given Armstrong’s celebrated status in American music, the enormous price that the instrument fetched is understandable….”  And based on what seems a clear factual analysis they confront the authenticity of the Smithsonian purchase: some things they mention might be neither here nor there, but the clincher was that after their own thorough search of Sears Roebuck catalogs,  the Smithsonian “S” wrap cornet only appeared in 1920, not before.  This was years after the year  that 12 year old Armstrong was learning to play [in the New Orleans Colored Waif’s Home.

They continue [page 356]–

According to biographer Gary Giddins,  Armstrong himself claimed that he bought his
first cornet at age eleven for $5, using money borrowed from his employers, the Karnofsky
family. “People thought that my first cornet was given to me at the Colored Waif’s Home
for Boys (the orphanage). But it wasn’t.” Giddins goes on to say that Armstrong’s story of
his first cornet confirms accounts given by his contemporaries Bunk Johnson and Sidney

On 31 October 1965 Louis Armstrong himself, in an interview marking the 53rd anniversary of  being given – as a Waifs home inmate – the instrument now on show in the  Jazz Museum and described as his first “cornet”, put his own description on what he was given.   This interview can be watched on youtube. [This is the link:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFzI5DusyEU ]

While the editorial build up for the interview describes it as being about Louis Armstrong’s first Cornet, Louis himself does not describe the instrument as a cornet at all: he talks about his first trumpet.  Indeed the Interviewer calls the “horn” a trumpet, the sign shown to the camera calls it a trumpet, and both Louis himself and his tutor Peter Davis who gave him the instrument,  both call the instrument a trumpet. The Museum exhibition placard shown, however,  calls it a cornet.  Despite his iconic place in Jazz history as a result of his recognition and encouragement of the 12 year old Armstrong, Peter Davis – by the time of this interview – was probably disinclined to argue with Louis’s lead, and was happy – by then – to call this trumpet a trumpet.  

In my opinion the fact that Louis – in this interview in 1965 – called the Jazz Museum instrument a trumpet is conclusive: he had been playing trumpets and cornets  for over half a century, and had been exposed to them for longer.  By that time, immersed in instruments, I think his ability to identify whether an instrument was one, or the other, would have evolved to perfection.  He has to be treated as knowing better than any man alive what the instrument was.

When you see a culturally significant item in a museum the tendency is to treat the placard and description as authoritative, and the result of knowledgeable work on the part of the museum collection managers and curators. Most Jazz Museum visitors would do likewise, and I excuse myself for taking what I saw and read on the placard at face value, even though I thought when I saw the instrument that it looked more like a trumpet than a cornet. Since seeing the interview I am left with no doubt that it is, in fact, not a cornet at all: it is a trumpet.

But there is more to it: I have researched, and collected, a number of Silver Piston Champion instruments including several cornets. These cornets have the typical full snail wrap [as distinct from the S-shaped wrap]. The Museum specimen does not look much like a cornet to anyone who has a general familiarity with trumpet and cornet architecture [which I accept has to take into account long cornets generally,  as well as occasional outlier design  shapes [wrap] of instruments such as the Conn  New Wonder cornets, the Conn 80A [Bix Beiderbecke], and the York Airflow and Feathertouch cornets].

In the end the proverbial proof of the “pudding”, comes down to an exercise in shape matching.

When I go through the exercise I have no doubt that the instrument I saw on display at the New Orleans Jazz Museum described as Louis Armstrong’s first cornet, is not that at all. It is a trumpet. And I would not doubt that it was Louis Armstrong’s first trumpet.

The brand and model?  It is a Silver Piston Champion “American model” trumpet. The Lyon & Healy catalogue description  gives details of the “American model”, which clearly was a step up quality wise from the other Silver Piston Champion model.

I have many many questions about the instrument, such as how it was acquired, and what Peter Davis knew or was told about it, as well as what he told 12 year old Louis Armstrong it was when he gave it to him. One might suspect that at the age of 12 Louis might well have preferred to think it was a cornet.