I recently posted about the generally abject way in which actors mime playing the trumpet on screen. But separate and apart from that, there are the parts themselves. I sat down with a Physician's Desk Reference and a copy of the The Road to Milltown and, after viewing and or reading the plots of these films, I emerged with a precise formula to describe the subtle psychological subtext of these parts: JAZZ TRUMPET=TROUBLE.
This is not true in the films I cited that use trumpet playing only to add flash or to signal that a character has hidden depths, like Kurt Russell in Swing Shift, or Billy Crystal in Memories of Me.
And, there are other films where the lead character is a jazz trumpet player and is not particularly tortured, but that can be explained. Take, for example, Jack Webb in Pete Kelly's Blues: does Jack Webb ever play anything other than his usual low-affect persona? No. Red Nichols and His Five Pennies with Danny Kaye: Duh, its a Danny Kaye movie. Or, Richard Gere in-Cotton Club: He's sane, but he survives by dropping the horn and becoming an actor.
As for the rest, we are dealing with trumpet players with some serious issues:
Jack Lord in Play It Glissando, Route 66: Sociopathic
Denzel Washington in Mo Better Blues: Flawed; arguably, deeply so.
Jack Klugman in a Twilight Zone episode A Passage for Trumpet: Deeply troubled; artificially redeemed (happens a lot with trumpet players in the movies).
Mickey Rourke in Passion Play: well, type- casting.
Dingo, with Colin Friels: enmeshed in a world of self-deception, abetted by the film.
in The Salton Sea: Messed up, but the film finds a way to make him heroic. More artificial redemption.
Miles Ahead Don Cheadle: Deeply troubled/ drug issues.
In Bird, Michael Zelniker does Red Rodney: Deeply troubled/junkie
Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker in Born to be Blue Deeply troubled/junkie
Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity: tortured in a Monty Clift way
Kirk Douglas in Young Man With a Horn: tortured by the "lost note."
In A Man Called Adam,
Sammy Davis Jr.: Deeply troubled on many fronts.
Burt Young in Uncle Joe Shannon. Deeply troubled; artificially redeemed.
Bryant Weeks in Bix: An Interpretation of a Legend: You got it-deeply troubled.
In Blues in the Night,
Jack Carson: Relatively sane, but haunted by the idea that he's not playing "genuine" jazz.
Robert Wagner in All the Fine Young Cannibals: Troubled preacher's son.
There are bad boys and anti-heroes of all sorts in American film, but is there a group that has served this particular cultural niche so consistently? As a trumpet player myself, I'm not sure I say this with pride or humility: We have a lot to live up to.