Analysis

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

"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.

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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 entire section contains 1581 words.)

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