A Brief History of the Martin Committee Trumpet

Legions of jazz trumpeters consider the Martin Committee a vital addition to any serious horn collection. Dizzy Gillespie’s first upward-bent bell was on a Committee. Miles Davis gave birth to The Cool on one. Chris Botti has compared his acquisition of an early one to finding a rare Jaguar or Porsche in a 2010 interview with Smooth Jazz Vibes. Chet Baker, Clifford Brown, Art Farmer, Maynard Ferguson, Al Hirt, Richard Allen "Blue" Mitchell, Robert Roland Chudnick (Red Rodney), Clark Terry … all those cats wielded a Committee for all or part of their career.

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Plenty of trumpets have been designed to replicate the sound of the Martin Committee but can’t quite pull it off. Others can copy the tapered tuning slide; the cone-shaped, cornet-like bell; and even the quirky water keys. But nobody has deciphered the magic formula for that unique tone — so smooth, so dusky, so … jazzy. And it’s not just the tone. Some players love them for what a persnickety symphonic type might consider a flaw: They don’t slot well, so it’s easy to slide into and out of notes à la Miles Davis.

The Martin mystique has continued to intensify over the years. Demand for Committees from the 1940s and ‘50s is insatiable, with horn players across the proficiency spectrum happily shelling out well into four figures in pursuit of the trademark smoky sound that defined their bebop heroes.

The Committee

The Martin Committee was introduced in 1939 and quickly became a favorite among jazzers. John Heinrich Martin, a German immigrant who had learned to make instruments in his native Dresden, immigrated to the United States in 1855 and founded The Martin Co. in Chicago 10 years later, according to Jim Donaldson, who has written a comprehensive history of Martin trumpets on his Trumpet Gearhead website. Martin’s factory was destroyed in 1871 by a fire that may or may not have been the Great Chicago Fire, depending on what source one believes. Either way, Martin decided not to rebuild and instead moved to Elkhart, Indiana, and went to work for the C.G. Conn Co. until his retirement in 1902. A couple of years after that, Martin and his five sons launched a new business, The Martin Band Instrument Co. The Martin family sold controlling interest in the company in 1912, but Martin’s oldest son, Henry Charles Martin, remained president until 1922.

Martin Committee from Elkhart, ND

By the 1930s, Martin already had a reputation for producing first-rate instruments, and its top-of-the-line model, the Martin Handcraft Imperial, had become the choice of many of the best players of the time. In the late 1930s, the company started working on a new trumpet design based on input from a “committee” of leading instrument designers and trumpet players. Exactly who served on that committee remains a matter of some debate. Most sources say the roster included well-known horn makers Renold Schilke, Vincent Bach, Elden Benge and Foster Reynolds, along with an unnamed local musician from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But questions about who served on the committee remain unanswered. Why would Reynolds, founder of the F.A. Reynolds Company, help a competitor design a superior trumpet? And the first advertisement for the Martin Committee, which ran in the Dec. 1, 1940 issue of DownBeat magazine, featured a completely different “committee” that included, among others, top trumpeters Bunny Berigan, Rafael Mendez and Charlie Teagarden, though nowhere in the ad does it say those guys actually designed the horn. The one name that shows up on both lists is Schilke, and he was widely quoted as saying in later years that the Martin Committee was really designed by a committee of one — namely, himself.


Martin Committee T3460 from Kenosha, WI

By about 1956, a lot of players felt that the quality of Martin horns had declined. Chet Baker, for example, famously switched to a Conn Connstellation around that time. Others stuck with the Committee. Miles played them forever, and Dizzy continued to do so for more than a decade before switching to the King Silver Flair, like the Gillespie horn that's in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. In 1961 Martin became part of Roundtable of Musical Craftsmen (RMC), the company formed by Paul Richards that combined Martin with Reynolds and Blessing. When RMC dissolved a couple years later, Wurlitzer picked up the rights to the Martin brand. Leblanc bought the Martin name in 1971, moved the operation to Kenosha, Wis., and stopped producing the Committee model for a while, though it continued to make custom versions for Miles Davis. When they reintroduced the Committee, it was a different design and a decent horn by all accounts. But it wasn’t the Committee that seduced generations of jazz listeners and performers with its creamy, mocha java, almost flugel-like timbre. Conn-Selmer bought Leblanc in 2004 and discontinued the Martin line altogether a few years later.

'57 Martin Committee Deluxe with Serial Number 201212

For trumpeters with a few grand to spend on a vintage trumpet, the Committees to look for are those made between 1939 and about 1955, with serial numbers in the 140,000 to 210,000 range, according to Jim Donaldson, and my years of watching eBay sales. There’s a lot of disagreement about what serial numbers were manufactured in what years, and nobody seems to know for sure. The Committee came in three bore sizes, and the medium (#2) and extra large (#3) bores are most desirable. Anyone who makes the purchase and has second thoughts can just hang onto the instrument until the baby’s in college. By then, the Committee seems likely to accrue enough value to pay for a lot of tuition.

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