Interview with jazz/rock trumpeter, Mart Avant

Mart Avant with Vic Carstarphen, keyboardist with the Temptation
Mart Avant with the late Vic Carstarphen, keyboardist with the Temptations

Mart Avant, Founding member of The Tuscaloosa Horns, graduated in 1980 with a B.M. in arranging from the University of Alabama. Named outstanding soloist at the Kentonian Jazz Festival, Mart quickly moved into the studios of Birmingham, Alabama, as an arranger for horns and strings.


Mart Avant with a Slo-Gin 60s band revue
Mart Avant with a Slo-Gin 60s band revue

The Tuscaloosa Horns were merged with the Slo-Gin 60’s band in the fall of 1981. Avant was the staff brass arranger for Southwind Drum & Bugle Corps from 1983-1993, winning the DCI division II championship with “The Little Mermaid” & “Robinhood.” Mart began contracting for the Tuscaloosa Horns with the Temptations, The Four Tops, Frankie Valli, and Martha Reeves in 1984. That list has been continuously expanding and now includes Frankie Avalon, Kenny Rogers, Little Anthony & The Imperials, Fabian, Lou Christie, The Tommy Dorsey Band, Guy Lombardo, Peter Duchin Orchestra, and the Denny LeRoux Orchestra. Locally, Mart directs the Alabama Cavaliers Alumni Big Band as well as the Night Flight Jazz Quintet. He also plays from time to time in both the lead and jazz chairs in several big bands in the Southeast. Under his leadership, The Tuscaloosa Horns have gained a reputation for precision and quality that currently makes them the preferred horns with The Temptations at many of their performances through the country. In January 1999, as a member and co-founder of The Tuscaloosa Horns, he was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame Music Achievers.



B-flat trumpet: Getzen Custom (bore size .462 in.)
Trumpet mouthpieces: Marcinkiewicz modified Bob Findlay model with 3C rim
Warburton, 4.5 rim with ES or S under-part
Flugelhorn: Yamaha Pro Model YFH731 with Giardinelli 6F mouthpiece
(see interview below for the long story of Mart’s equipment)

Interview with jazz/rock trumpeter, Mart Avant

The Interviewer is Stanley Curtis

SC: What are some of the early musical influences in your life?

MA: I began my music career with piano lessons, from the second grade on through my junior year of college. My very first piano teacher was a stern taskmaster but rewarded hard work, and being an only child, I had plenty of time to practice without siblings throwing things at me…HA!

Jerry Bobo with Mart Avant
Jerry Bobo with Mart Avant

One of my two most influential mentors was my band director at Fayette County High School, Jerry Bobo. My time with him from 1967 to 1973 was a time when band and sports were the absolute focal points for our community. Mr. B had an absolutely incredible career as the band director there, amassing superior ratings at state band competition from the late 50’s thru the early 90’s. He instilled a work ethic in us that is with me, and countless others, to this day. You had better come prepared to rehearsal as he would go down the row of chairs seeing who could execute the literature we were working on at that time, and you could find yourself relocating from the first trumpet section to the third in the blink of an eye. Jerry Bobo was a freak clarinet player, but had minored in trumpet while at the University of Alabama. While he and I differed a bit on mouthpiece placement and a few other issues, Mr. B was great at hammering us on the Arban book, the Rubank books, and scales, scales, scales. We learned to articulate accurately, to double- and triple-tongue, and he made sure we had to perform literature that demanded that.

Discipline was never an issue in the Fayette County High School Senior Band. In fact any such problems were handled internally without Mr. Bobo having to get involved. We considered it a huge honor to sit in his band, and those that didn’t were quickly dealt with out behind the gym! Mr. B also allowed me to get my feet wet with arranging, as I co-wrote a massive arrangement of “Lowdown” from Chicago III (the third album by the rock band Chicago) for the band. That pretty much got me going as a writer, along with the three- and four-horn garage bands that I was in from the age of 15. Even in the tiny community of Fayette, there were always three or four working bands during my early- and mid-teens that fueled my desire to be a performer. It didn’t hurt that within a year or two of my beginnings on the trumpet (the year 1967), Tower of Power, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chicago, Dreams, Ten Wheel Drive, Earth, Wind & Fire, Cold Blood, and many other horn bands sprang into being. It was GOOD to be a pop/rock trumpet player right about then!!

Steve Sample
Steve Sample

Upon moving to Tuscaloosa in 1975 (just south of Fayette County), I continued a relationship with my second, and probably most influential, mentor, Steve Sample, Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Alabama. A nationally renowned arranger and teacher, Steve was the driving force behind an astounding number of musicians that are still working worldwide to this day. Under his direction, the ’70s and ’80s produced a huge number of University of Alabama Jazz Ensemble alumni that all owe a great debt to Steve for his guidance, innate musicality. I majored in Arranging, and pretty much left the drums and piano to those way more proficient on those instruments. I did ruffle quite a few feathers as Dr. Jim Ferguson awarded me First Chair Trumpet in the University of Alabama Symphonic Band my last semester, since there were a ton of classically oriented trumpet majors that I beat out for the position. To them I was “That Jazz Hippie” from Fayette.

My trumpet teacher was Michael Johnson, who I met in 1970 when he came to the University from the Midwest. Michael was an eccentric cat to be sure, but was a great motivator and let me choose the path that I wanted, which was pop/jazz rather than strictly orchestral.


SC: Michael Johnson was also one of my trumpet teachers, too. In fact, he was my first teacher and the one I studied with the longest. Tell me more about your experience with him.

Michael Johnson, trumpet teacher at the University of Alabama from 1971 to 2003.
Michael Johnson, trumpet teacher at the University of Alabama from 1971 to 2003.

MA: Mike Johnson and I met when I was a sophomore at Fayette, in the summer of 1970, when he came to U of A from Nebraska. He was a great piccolo trumpet player no doubt and had followed up a very successful touring rock band stint with his turn to full-time teaching. We were the best of friends, and our duets were something that I both dreaded and also looked forward to, as he was really a better player than he was a teacher, and could just toast any of us, laughing all the while. He kind of forced my hand at being an arranging major, as he told me flat out that if I was going to major in trumpet, he would have no part of me being in the jazz ensemble. I would only be able to play in the symphonic band, the orchestra, and brass ensemble. I wasn’t feeling that in the least, but I actually went on to play in each of those ensembles—with my trusty 3C mouthpiece always at the ready.


SC: Tell me about your equipment—the long story!

Mart Avant
Mart Avant

MA: While at Fayette, our band director (Jerry Bobo) had a philosophy regarding trumpet players—that it was best to start out on a cornet. Then as you grew into the instrument, the trumpet would be the next step. I started on a student-line Besson cornet, probably with a Besson mouthpiece. After a couple of years I bought a really neat King Silver Sonic cornet from a graduating senior. It had a sterling silver bell with gold plating inside the bell, and I kept it until my junior year.

Tuscaloosa Music Service was the mecca for all things instrument-related in those days. Having tried out two or three different horns that the store’s rep brought to our school, I decided on a Getzen Severinsen Model. It was a 1972 instrument, and other than retro-fitting a large bore leadpipe four years later, I played that horn until I could see the air in it.

I went to Whipkey’s Music in Atlanta and bought a Getzen Custom trumpet in 1999 with the .462/.464 interchangeable tuning slides. I played the bigger slide until on a Temptations/Four Tops run down in Charenton, Louisiana, when Chip Crotts (he was lead trumpet with Maynard Ferguson’s band in 1998) picked it up, ripped a phrase and then declared that he could NEVER play lead with that larger bore! So, I went to the .462 slide and have it to this day.

My flugel was purchased at Giardinelli’s music shop in New York City in the fall of 1977, and is a Yamaha Pro Model YFH731, and it, with a Giardinelli 6F mouthpiece, has been my sole flugel setup! I have never heard a better sounding flugel or flugel piece, and that horn is my soul without a doubt.

As far as trumpet pieces go, I have run the gamut from Giardinelli and Schilke in the ’70s and ’80s to Warburton and Marcinkiewicz since then. Terry Warburton and I are tweaking a piece that is between his stock 4 and 5 rim size. For lead I stay pretty shallow—“ES,” or “S”—on Warburton mouthpieces. The great New York trumpeter Don Harris (Lead with Tower of Power in ’97) let me copy his Marcinkiewicz that started out as a Bob Findlay model with Joe Marcinkiewicz’s version of a Bach 3C rim on it. With this copy I survived the World’s Greatest Singers Tour with the Temps, Tops, O’Jays, and Whispers in the summer of both ’03 and ’04, hernia surgery notwithstanding! We can find no evidence of a horn section other than the Tuscaloosa Horns ever doing that many shows in a row, back to back to back with Temps, Tops, and Jays. Brutal is not an adequate description!


SC: How did you learn how to arrange?

MA: Being an only child, and with a strong background in piano from such an early age, I would sit for hours listening to pop records (Blood, Sweat, and Tears, Chicago, Tower of Power, Chase, and Cold Blood, mostly) with sketch score books in my face, listening to the horn parts with first one side of the stereo cut off then the other so the parts were easily discernible. I studied those whopper chord symbols, and over time learned what a “C13b9#11” sounded like under my fingers on the piano. Again we had many working bands during my high school years that allowed me to hone my skills as an arranger because there were so many great horn bands that we were like kids in a candy store learning all this stuff.

As my studies progressed, I was introduced to the world of studio arranging/recording in the real world quite by accident– (there is a great account of this on the Tuscaloosa Horns website). In the summer of 1980 we decided to call our original four-piece section the Tuscaloosa Horns, and that was the beginning of something special for all of us that continues to this day.

Once we made that scene in Birmingham, we began to take off musically in every way. These producers basically let us write whatever we heard as being a complimentary horn chart to the rhythm/vocal arrangements on countless commercial projects for a period of seven or eight years starting around 1979. I actually co-wrote the very first 30-second TV opening for HBO. We had the world by the tail and planned to take it over during those days, as we were learning how to write, how to play in the studio setting, and we were making contacts all over the country through Boutwell Studios, The Music Place, Sound of Birmingham, and Shamblin Sound in Tuscaloosa.

Then came the Synclavier and Kurtzweil keyboards that sampled all the sounds of the music world, and our recording dynasty folded. Overnight, nearly. That forced our hand to look to the live stage.


SC: How did you start working with big-name acts, like The Imperials, The Temptations, Kenny Rogers, and others? Are there some favorite group or groups that you like working with?

The Tuscaloosa Horns near Atlanta for a Four Tops concert, July 2015.
The Tuscaloosa Horns near Atlanta for a Four Tops concert, July 2015.

MA: The Tuscaloosa Horns, while still cranking out a few projects in the summer of ’84, got a call from a Birmingham percussionist, Michael Panepento, that was on the Motown Reunion Tour with the Temptations and Four Tops. He knew me from the Boutwell sessions and we had worked together in a band or two as well. He told me simply: “Mart, get your best ten players, as the “TNT” show is coming into Birmingham in a few weeks. If they like you, they will use you when they are in the area in the future.”

Mart Avant with Barney Floyd at a Temptations show.
Mart Avant with Barney Floyd at a Temptations show.

That single conversation launched a life relationship with the Tempts, Tops. Word of mouth got out about us within a few years to include all the other acts that we are family with right now—the O’Jays, Percy Sledge, Martha Reeves, Mary Wilson, Natalie Cole, Frankie Valli, Wayne Newton, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Kenny Rogers, Fabian, Lou Christie, Bobby Vinton, Bobby Rydell, and even a Barry Manilow production for good measure. The Guy Lombardo Orchestra, Glenn Milller Orchestra, Bill Tole’s Dorsey bands, and many other jazz groups look to the “Thorns” when they are in our range. From that first show, we have seen years that afforded us 50-60 shows with just the Temps and Tops, with all the others sprinkled in. According to these groups, we bring a vibe, an exuberance, and an execution of their sometimes brutally unforgiving books that is unmatched in the country. I am exceedingly proud of that designation.


SC: What about the Night Flight Jazz Quintet and the Night Flight Big Band? What are some of the highlights from these groups?

MA: My Night Flight Jazz Quintet groups started in the early ’80s as I was called to do many wedding receptions and other events around Tuscaloosa/Birmingham.

The Night Flight Big Band
The Night Flight Big Band

In 2000 I took over a rehearsal band format at a great jazz club in Birmingham called Ona’s Music Room. We called that group the Night Flight Big Band, and we are together even now. We have a standing first Wednesday night of the month date there to simply pass out charts, read them, and have a blast. We do private parties, receptions, and big events out of that venue, and its nucleus is again the Tuscaloosa Horns. Killer band for sure. 


SC: How does it feel to be inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame? What are your most significant achievements that you are proud of?

MA: One of the co-founders of the THorns, the immensely talented author, educator, trumpeter and pianist, Chris Gordon, spearheaded the effort to get us Music Achiever status with the Alabama Music Hall of Fame a few years back. For me to be the main organizer of our group, it gives me a sense of humility in that Alabama has produced some of the most accomplished musicians in the world and we are on a list with them! When we are onstage and Ron Tyson or Otis Williams of the Temptations, or Duke Fakir of the Four Tops, or Eddie Levert of the O’Jays turns to us and tells the audience “Ladies and Gentlemen, the greatest horn section in the country, the Tuscaloosa Horns!!” it makes all the phone calls, e-mails, delicate negotiations, personnel juggling, lodging, and travel preparations all worthwhile. And somehow I have maintained enough trumpet face to stay up there with them.


SC: Who are some of your favorite musicians?

MA: As far as favorite musicians and albums go, you could plant me on an island with the Michel Camilo Big Band CD (Caribe), some Steely Dan (the album Aja, possibly,) and some Natalie Cole tracks from her impossibly hip and classiest-in-history show book, and I would be just fine, thank you.


SC: What is your sound concept?

MA: I found that early on, to be able to get work in the trumpet world, at least with my mostly pop/jazz calendar, I needed to be both a decent lead player and also a jazz player that could grab the solos as well. This probably explains my love for the flugel, as I have always gone for a brilliant, high-end cutting lead sound on the trumpet and let the flugel be my alter ego for the dark, sexy solo color. Many players are content to keep that color on their trumpets by using a really big, deep piece, but that’s not me. Very few of those cats can make that work on a lead book. There certainly are exceptions, but mostly no.

I have always practiced both trumpet and flugel, and I devote at least one third of my allotted time on the flugel to be able to switch back and forth without difficulty. I find that the flugel helps focus me for more lead, as it somewhat refreshes my buzz, often at critical times during a show.

I have always tried to include the basics (to me) in my practice regimen. One simple four-page exerpt has helped me maintain finger speed and dexterity since my early 20s—that is from the John McNeil book “Jazz Trumpet Techniques.” He simply devised a set of low- to mid-range patterns to exercise the fingers, and I can tell in half a set whether I have hit those patterns or not over the previous week’s work. They are absolute finger busters, but when you finish a page, your fingers have the burn, not your corners! Buzzing with the piece only (I use the B.E.R.P. which is a great tool on or off the horn) using the Stamp “Warm-ups” method is a great help to me. It is a great way to power through a reluctant vibrating surface if I’ve had a strenuous last gig or series of shows. I also feel that Clark “Technical Studies” and Charles Colin “Lip Flexibilities” have to be visited on a regular basis if you are going to keep that good foundation going. I am all about the P.E.T.E. from Warburton to work your chops when you can’t get the horn out as well.


SC: How do you keep getting high-quality gigs, year after year?

Mart Avant with Blue Lou Marini after a James Taylor concert
Mart Avant with Blue Lou Marini after a James Taylor concert

MA: A word about maximizing your ability and visibility as a player—I can tell you from decades of experience that I have been hired, retained, and referred to for countless gigs for both me as a solo/section player, and our horn section, the Tuscaloosa Horns, as principal contractor, for one overwhelming reason that actually has very little to do with our abilities as technicians, although it is a given that you have to be an A-lister to get those repeat calls! It is that I have developed the ability over my career to be able to do some seemingly simple things—get along with people, make them comfortable around you, add ENERGY to their stage, and be positive and upbeat. You have no clue how many top-shelf acts have come to me during or after a performance and remarked, “you guys look like you’re having fun, you’re smiling, moving, hitting your steps, and THEN you go about Killing the show!” So many times players that are way better than me get one call and then dumped off that list because they have a dour, ill persona about them, and seem to only want to get the show done, and grab the money. Trust me, the money will come if you practice these traits. It has worked for the section and me for 30-plus years.

The Tuscaloosa Horns with the Temptations on “Standing on the Top” 

SC: What do you hope to do in the next 5 years?

MA: In the next 5 years, I hope to infuse enough new blood into the Tuscaloosa Horns to continue our improbable journey that began with a simple phone call from Panepento back in ’84.


SC: Thanks so much for doing this interview, Mart!

Mart Avant with wife Donna at the restaurant Commander's Palace after a performance with the Mighty O'Jays at Jazz Fest New Orleans 2015
Mart Avant with wife Donna at the restaurant Commander’s Palace after a performance with the Mighty O’Jays at Jazz Fest New Orleans 2015

MA: Thank you, Stan, for allowing me to share my thoughts, my accomplishments, and my philosophies concerning this curious piece of plumbing that we are all so devoted to, and this wonderful world of music that it affords us. All the best to all of you, and I hope that sharing my thoughts will help or inspire even a few of you to keep on keeping on.


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