Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 274

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"Trumpet Player" is a poem by Langston Hughes published in 1947. It is an exploration of African American identity through the character of a jazz trumpeter. The first stanza introduces the musician, who is depicted as weary, with the collective weight of his ancestors' history of enslavement ablaze in his eyes.

The second stanza observes his hair, "tamed" and gleaming; the implication is that society has demanded this taming, but, in complying with it, the man has turned his hair into a crown made of jet (a black gemstone). The trumpet player's regal nature cannot be hidden, only enhanced, despite a society that seeks to subjugate him.

The subject of the poem shifts to his music in the third stanza. The sound from his lips is "honey mixed with liquid fire" that is intrinsic to his soul; it is distilled from "old desire," which implies a rich history of music that is the legacy of those who came before him.

The fourth stanza speaks of the man's desire to commune with the moon and sea, vast elements of nature. Instead, the spotlight and the bar of the club where he plays constrain him.

The final two stanzas speak to the escape that playing offers to his soul; he is lost in the music, and "trouble mellows to a golden note." In other words, music transports the musician to a place where pain cannot reach him.

The poem offers a view of how art can provide solace to an artist with a troubled soul and how the legacy of slavery will be a lasting source of pain to African Americans and an undeniable aspect of identity.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 376

Originally published as “Trumpet Player: 52nd Street,” Langston Hughes’s “Trumpet Player” is a literary jazz poem consisting of five eight-line stanzas and a four-line coda. It is one of a body of Hughes’s musically oriented poems and is written in the spirit of his jazz poems, such as “Jazzonia” and “Jazztet Muted.” The setting is a bar where a trumpeter is on stage playing his instrument, telling his story—aspects of the personal and collective African American experience in the United States. The poem describes the musician, his music, and its meaning, developing the theme of the ameliorative effects of music.

Stanza 1 emphasizes the dark rings of weariness under the trumpet player’s eyes. This weariness, deeper than temporary tiredness, is born from the racial memory of the African American slave experience, the slave ships of the Middle Passage, and the whips against thighs on southern plantations to the streets of the urban north. The second stanza describes the musician’s hair, which has been “tamed,” smoothed down until it gleams like patent leather. In other words, his natural hair has been changed to a slick, processed style popular, especially among musicians, in the 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s.

Stanza 3 is devoted to sound and rhythm, which are described using a metaphor of liquor: the sound is like “honey/ Mixed with liquid fire,” a combination of smooth, mellow, bold, and forceful tones; the rhythm is intense “ecstasy/ Distilled from old desire—.” That desire, as identified in stanza 4, is a longing for a serene, distant, somewhat romanticized past of moonlight and sea, free from the pain of slave ships and whips. His reality is different: His moonlight is the stage spotlight and the “moons of weariness/ Beneath his eyes”; his only sea is liquor in a bar glass.

As in stanza 1, stanza 5 again describes the musician and his music. Blowing his horn in a one-button jacket, he seems carried away by his music, unaware of what musical riff begins to touch him in a positive way, but touch him it does. The four-line coda explains that he is touched in such a way that the music assuages his troubles. Thus, the poem is a sympathetic portrayal of a troubled musician who finds solace in his music.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 769

Hughes’s poetry has been influenced by African American rhythms, especially gospel, blues, and jazz; “Trumpet Player” reflects the influence of jazz and blues. The structure, variations in rhyme and rhythm, blues idiom, punctuation, and figurative language identify the poem as a simulation of jazz improvisation, a reflection of the musical motif in the poem. The varied structures of the stanzas are like jazz variations. The structures of stanzas 1, 3, and 5 are similar, each being basically a sentence written in free verse. Stanzas 3 and 4, though separated spatially, are linked structurally. Stanza 3 is comprised of two parallel sentences, each of which describes the sound and feel of the music; stanza 4 is a continuation of the second sentence with additional parallels contrasting the trumpeter’s desired state with his actual state. The fifth stanza mirrors stanzas 1 and 2, except that it continues the thought to the coda, which begins with the word “But,” indicating a reversal from a troubled to a peaceful mood.

In jazz compositions, musicians often play basic chords or regular rhythms; one or more musicians then depart from them with myriad variations, at the end returning to some version of the basic beat. In “Trumpet Player,” the combination of unrhymed and rhymed lines conveys that sense. Written in free verse, the first five lines of the first five, eight-line stanzas give a sense of the free-flowing rhythms, the swing, of jazz. The last three lines of the stanzas pick up a rhyme but, except for rhymed lines 4 and 8, do not follow a set pattern from stanza to stanza. For instance, in stanza 1, lines 4 and 8 and lines 2, 6, and 7 rhyme; in stanza 2, lines 4 and 8 are the only rhymed lines; in stanza 5, lines 4 and 8 as well as lines 2 and 6 rhyme. Although the free-flowing rhythms of jazz continue, the final four-line stanza brings resolution, as a jazz piece might be resolved, through the two rhymed lines.

Other features locate the poem within the jazz tradition in its integration of the blues idiom. The subject matter is similar to that of traditional blues songs, which recount a problem in straightforward, simple language, but end on a positive note. Although the image of success with his “Patent-leathered” hair and “fine one-button” jacket, the musician is weary and troubled, a state reflected in his eyes. Yet, like the piano player in Hughes’s “The Weary Blues,” he finds solace in his music. The process of this transformation is reflected in the short, one-word third line of the coda, “Trouble,” and the elongated, five-word final line, “Mellows to a golden note,” which simulates the easing of the troubled mind. Moreover, the repetition of phrases, such as “The Negro/ With the trumpet at his lips,” evokes feelings of weariness, longing, and unfulfilled desire, and the structure of the final four-line stanza recall Hughes’s blues poems, such as “Miss Blues’es Child” and “Lover’s Return.”

Punctuation complements structure and meaning. Consistent with the jazz structure, the poet varies the use of the poem’s few marks of punctuation. Periods are used to end stanzas, which basically constitute the end of a sentence and a thought. At the end of stanzas 3 and 5, however, a dash signifies continuation of a thought. In stanza 3, the dash emphasizes the word “desire” and links “old desire” with the musician’s current desire to connect with the past. In stanza 5, the dash also indicates a continuation, but links the music to his present well-being. In stanza 2, it is used before the last line to introduce an ironic comment about his “tamed down” hair. He describes it as gleaming like “jet” and wryly comments, “Were jet a crown.” The final period at the end of the last stanza is consistent with his coming to terms with his feelings.

Traditional poetic devices—descriptive words and figurative language, such as metaphor, simile, and personification—are used within the jazz structure and help to elucidate the theme of the ameliorative power of music. The images of cracking whips and moons under his weary eyes are replaced by images of the moon and sea, natural surroundings that portend tranquility, not unnatural surroundings where spotlights replace moonlight. Metaphors identifying music as honey and rhythm as ecstasy evoke both the sound and the feel of jazz music, which expresses struggle, sorrows, joys, and aspirations and, paradoxically, also liberates one from the mundane world of bars and hypodermic needles, feelings of sadness and worry. Personification is evident in the lines, “the music slips/ Its hypodermic needle/ To his soul—,” indicative of an active and meaningful relationship between the artist and his music. This affinity becomes a catalyst for his change of mood.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 162

Berry, Faith. Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem. New York: Wings Books, 1995.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Langston Hughes. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.

Chinitz, David. “Rejuvenation Through Joy: Langston Hughes, Primitivism, and Jazz.” American Literary History 9 (Spring, 1997): 60-78.

Cooper, Floyd. Coming Home: From the Life of Langston Hughes. New York: Philomel Books, 1994.

Harper, Donna Sullivan. Not So Simple: The “Simple” Stories by Langston Hughes. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995.

Haskins, James. Always Movin’ On: The Life of Langston Hughes. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1993.

Hokanson, Robert O’Brien. “Jazzing It Up: The Be-bop Modernism of Langston Hughes.” Mosaic 31 (December, 1998): 61-82.

Leach, Laurie F. Langston Hughes: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Mullen, Edward J., ed. Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986.

Ostrum, Hans A. A Langston Hughes Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Tracy, Steven C., ed. A Historical Guide to Langston Hughes. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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