Herbert L. Clarke On Jazz

In 1921, 16-year-old trumpet student Elden E. Benge of Winterset, Iowa, wrote a letter to Herbert L. Clarke (pictured, right), asking advice. Clarke (1867-1945) was the most celebrated cornet soloist of his day, a veteran of John Phillip Sousa’s band and leader of his own concert bands. His recordings of marches and adaptations of classical pieces rang out in living rooms in the days when Victrolas were the iPods of the early twentieth century. Clarke’s method books of technical and characteristic studies are staples in the libraries of cornetists and trumpeters to this day.

Thanks to classical violinist Brian Lewis for sending a photocopy of Clarke’s reply to young Benge. It was on the letterhead of the Anglo Canadian Leather Co. Band of Huntsville, Ontario, Canada. I retain Clarke’s punctuation and spelling.

Jan. 13th,

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. One cannot play a decent song ever, 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. It pollutes the art of Music.

Am pleased that you are making improvements in your playing. Keep it up, and become a great Cornet Player. You have an equal chance with all the rest, but you must work for it yourself.

Wishing you all the best of success, I remain.

Sincerely yours,

Herbert L. Clarke

I don’t know whether Elden Benge (pictured, left) took to heart Clarke’s warning about jazz, but he ignored the great man’s contempt for the trumpet. From 1928 to 1933, he was principal trumpet of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, then accepted the same position with the Chicago Symphony. In Chicago, he began designing a new trumpet and by the end of 1935 had made one for his own use. By 1937, he was making trumpets at home and selling them. Two years later he formed the Benge company and continued to make and sell trumpets after he moved to California in 1953. He did little advertising; his trumpets sold through word of mouth among professionals about the quality of Benge horns made in Burbank. According to trumpet expert Jim Donaldson, “a new Benge trumpet arrived by REA Railway Express and came in a cardboard box, protected by wadded up newspaper padding. No case and no mouthpiece were included.” After Benge died in 1960, the company changed hands more than once. Benge trumpets were made for a time by the Conn-Selmer company, but production of most models dwindled, then ceased in 2005. Today, most trumpets with Benge characteristics are made by other companies.

Addendum (June 14):

If you have never heard Herbert Clarke or have never heard a Victrola, Rifftides to the rescue. This is Clarke’s 1909 recording of “The Carnival of Venice,” uploaded to YouTube by 1926 Victor Credenza. More than 100 years later, his technique can still make grown trumpeters—er, cornetists—cry.

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  1. mel says

    The fact that Elden Benge was from Iowa reminds me of the funny line in Meredith Willson’s musical “The Music Man”, when con-man Professor Harold Hill, trying to sell a trumpet to an Irish woman for her little boy, reminds her of the famous musicians “O’Clarke, O’Mendez and O’Klein”.

    Needless to say, he makes the sale and she signs the order.

  2. says

    This is very funny since both leading horn men of the era, the 1910’s & early 1920’s, Joe ‘King’ Oliver & Nick LaRocca, played the cornet. — Also Pops, until he actually switched to trumpet in the mid-1920’s.

    I wonder if he ever saw one of the Clarke etudes?

  3. Ted says

    I saw this letter a number of years ago. I asked a brass instrument historian about trumpet vs cornet and he claimed that while cornets and trumpets were very different sounding at the time this letter was written, trumpets were later redesigned to “look” like trumpets but sound like cornets. I’ve never seen this documented in print, however. We know that during Clarke’s heyday, that of the prominence of the Sousa Band, trumpet band parts treated the instrument as if in a rhythm section, given the role of accent notes, and the cornet parts were assigned the melody and related harmony.

  4. says

    …that’s why drummers & trumpeters should get along well, especially in a big band :)

    It won’t work when they would be out of sync (or running out of … drinks).

  5. John says

    While in college, I played in a band where the conductor (Ray Dvorak) was very familiar with John Philip Sousa. When Sousa bequeathed his library to the University of Illinois, Dvorak went to Washington DC to pack it in trunks for shipment to Champaign-Urbana. I believe he knew Clarke in his final years. He would frequently tell the story that someone asked Clarke if it was hard work becoming the best cornetist in the world and he replied that yes, it was, but remaining at the top was infinitely harder.

    While Sousa used cornets almost exclusively, Ray’s bands had separate cornet and trumpet sections, and most pieces that his band played had separate parts for cornet and trumpet, owing to the different timbres of each instrument, the cornet having a more conical bore than the trumpet. I know this, having been Dr. Dvorak’s librarian for four years.