The Poem

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

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...

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