The Reinvention of a Working Horn Player: Trumpet Whiz Walter White

Long before a fictional meth cook became the world’s most famous Walter White, you probably heard a different guy by that name play the trumpet, even if you didn’t know it at the time. If you watched television and movies in the 1980s and ‘90s, you heard him on the themes from such hit sitcoms as “Taxi” and “The Cosby Show,” and on the soundtrack of the quirkily brilliant Martin Scorsese film “The King of Comedy.” And if you watch college football on ESPN/ABC these days, you’ve probably heard him.

Symphony pops concerts, Broadway pit orchestras, international jazz festivals, on tour with pop artists, frankly, it’s hard to think of a type of gig a world-class horn player can do that Walter White hasn’t done. But along the way, he’s found that playing at a high level is no longer enough for most professional musicians to make a decent living. So years ago he added composer, arranger, recording engineer, producer and educator to his job description.

White grew up just outside of Detroit, and honed his chops at Interlochen Arts Academy — from which, strangely enough, he graduated the same year “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan entered as a freshman — Juilliard and the University of Miami. He was still in his teens when he started touring and recording with smooth jazzer Bob James in the early ‘80s. By the end of that decade, White was a featured soloist in Maynard Ferguson’s big band, trading licks with his boyhood idol night after night in front of big crowds. Check out the incendiary Ferguson/White duet on “The Fox Hunt” on Ferguson’s 1993 album Live From London to hear a young White more than hold his own next to the legendary screecher.

The list of bands and bandleaders to which White has lent his talents since then includes Dave Holland, the Woody Herman Orchestra, Harry Connick Jr., the Mingus Big Band, Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, the Manhattan Jazz Orchestra, and Arturo Sandoval. He’s fronted pops concerts by many symphony orchestras, composed and arranged music for tons of other artists, and along the way found time to gig and record with his own big band and jazz quartet.

Diversify for Utility and Longevity

The music industry has changed a lot since the days when White was swapping double high C’s with Maynard, and the arc of his career reflects that transformation.

The whole landscape of how musicians work has changed … you can’t just play one style anymore."

“The whole landscape of how musicians work has changed,” White says. “So when I do master classes, I always try to communicate to my students how important it is to diversify. You can’t just play one style anymore. You have to be able to go into a recording studio and play a piccolo trumpet and sound like Maurice Andre, and then turn around the next day and play a Miles Davis kind of Harmon mute solo.”

Diversification also means looking beyond technical proficiency on your instrument and developing other skills besides playing. White says, “I’m constantly urging students to learn Pro Tools, learn Sibelius notation software, learn how to arrange, learn how to edit yourself, learn miking techniques… learn it all.”

That kind of versatility has kept White busy as he has adapted to the changing landscape. It particularly came in handy when he moved in 2000 from New York City upstate to Ithaca — not exactly a hotbed of decent-paying gigs.

Make Yourself Accessible

“Ithaca is a beautiful place to live, but it’s over four hours from New York City,” White says. “There’s not a lot of opportunities other than Cornell and Ithaca College. So I used to have to commute to New York a lot, and it was okay for a while because I was still hooked up with the Mingus Band and Jazz at Lincoln Center and other people down there. But it got to be challenging.”

White was able to make it work because he was tech savvy enough to record remotely at his own studio and deliver tracks over the internet. About five years ago, he moved back to the Detroit area, where there are a lot more opportunities to perform live. This semester he’s teaching jazz at Michigan State University in East Lansing. While White has been teaching master classes at colleges for decades, his focus on education has expanded in recent years, and he sees that continuing. Fortunately, his teaching gig allows him the flexibility to maintain a reasonably full performing schedule.

“In addition to teaching this semester, I was just down in January playing at the Panama Jazz Festival with the Wayne State University big band,” he says. “Then I did a clinic and concert at Central Michigan University. Then the week after that I had “Chicago the Musical” at the Fisher Theater in Detroit. And then I have another show coming up this month, “Motown,” here at MSU. And last Saturday I played with the Grand Rapids Symphony Pops with Marcus Roberts. And in between all of that I still do occasional corporate parties and weddings maybe once or twice a month.”

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Keep Gigging

Meanwhile, he continues to book gigs for his jazz quartet and he’s preparing to record a new album with his big band. And he composes commissioned pieces. And records TV commercials. And arranges pieces for fellow artists. And if an opportunity to go on tour with a big-name performer arose, he wouldn’t turn it down. Diversification.

While White, now 52, has not become as rich or famous — yet — as he imagined he would be 25 years ago, he’s satisfied with the path his career has taken.

I continue to try and improve and find new ways to express myself musically in different venues."

“I’m happy with the amount of stuff I’ve done,” White says. “I’ve always stayed pretty involved and current with technology, and done a lot of projects and played with a lot of people, and I continue to try and improve and find new ways to express myself musically in different venues.”

The only regret he has is that he didn’t finish his degree at either Juilliard or Miami. “I just didn’t have the patience for it then,” White says. “I wanted to stay home and write jazz tunes for my quartet. And the time went fast.”

But academic credentials or not, White has never stopped learning. That’s what has enabled him to adapt in an ever-morphing business, and that’s what he tries to impress upon his students.

“I would love to be the artist and just concentrate on my playing and my writing and when to have a sandwich, and not have to worry about turning knobs and setting stuff up,” he says. “But that’s not the reality most professional musicians operate in anymore.”

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Lead photo from walterwhite.com

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