“I went to one of those schools where taking music up as a profession was frowned upon by some of the staff and regarded as a bit ‘sissy’ by some boys,” says Armstrong. “Don’t misunderstand me though, there was a great music department with an inspirational head and I had a wonderful time singing in the choir, playing in the orchestra, fiddling with very early MIDI [musical instrument digital interface] sequencers and even forming a blues band. I knew I wanted to do music and thought they can’t moan if I do it at ‘Oxbridge’. It turned out to be the best decision I ever made, as I don’t think I would have got in to music college on the trumpet at 18 anyway.”
In musical terms Armstrong was quite a late starter. “I think I must have been around 10 years old when I began having lessons on the piano. I remember picking out tunes in C and then trying them on different white notes and being amazed at just how different they sounded. Then about a year later, I took up the tenor horn at school.” Private piano lessons and peripatetic horn lessons only lasted a short while, however. and Armstrong ended up going to Amersham Music Centre in Buckinghamshire and then the Royal College of Music junior department, and having lessons on Saturday mornings.
So what was the horn that Armstrong started out on? “My dad hired me a trumpet about six months after I took up the tenor horn. It was one of those eastern European ones with a fake-leather box with piping on the edge and came with the smelliest valve oil I’ve ever come across.” As Armstrong progressed though his grades, he clearly needed a better instrument.
“My first serious trumpet was a Bach Stradivarius 43G ML, which was the sort of standard professional instrument that I needed when I was working towards my Grade Eight. I’ve still got it, though it needs some replating and patches to be playable. It’s got a brass-gold bell that gives it a lovely full tone. Having said that, it can be hard work in a big band section.”
Five years on, Armstrong was looking for an instrument that would be ideal for the kind of music that he was beginning to have a passion for. “I bought a Schilke S22, because it felt light and flexible and was great for small group jazz,” he says. “The valve action was really quick – the best I’ve ever had. Unfortunately it got damaged and could not be repaired, which was a great shame.”
Like most musicians, Armstrong is always on the look out for that unique instrument with its own very personal sound. “I found a 1920s H. N. White trumpet in an antique shop in Greenwich,” he remembers. “Alex Garnett refurbished it for me and it plays really well with a very characteristic tone. I love trying unusual instruments and finding their sound, and this is great for
1930s gigs and Gillespiana. Only problem is though, it has dicky valves which on occasions have been known not to work – not good on [Dizzy’s] ‘Things to Come’!”
Armstrong currently plays a Yamaha Bobby Shew 8310z. “As I do a mixture of small group, big band and commercial music, this is a great all-round instrument for these tasks, as it responds well playing lead but also has a focussed warm core to the sound. The first one got stolen from a train and I was fortunate that I managed to get a replacement that had been opened out a little by Bobby himself. Flugelwise, I’ve only ever had one, a Couesnon, which could be the Star model. Couesnon seems to be a rather mysterious French company and this appears to be a ‘pre-fire Couesnon’, according to flugelspotters. Whether that’s good or not, I’m not sure. But in any case it plays great even if the intonation is wobbly.”
Armstrong uses Warburton trumpet mouthpieces because he can use different cup sizes to suit different gigs, “and I have a Parker flugel mouthpiece for the Couesnon because it seems to work fine,” he says. “I used to have a custom flugel mouthpiece but it was in the bag with the stolen trumpet – arrrghhh!”
Who were Armstrong’s early influences? “I guess it has to be what, as well as who. When I was younger the thing that really turned me on to jazz was Kind of Blue which has stuck with me, and I branched out from there via Gil Evans and Bill Evans.
“Now I suppose the main influences on my improvising language are hard bop players and Dizzy, but I want to get a bit more Woody Shaw and Freddie Hubbard in there as well. As a writer and player Kenny Wheeler remains a powerful influence on my approach to music, and I think it’s really important to have a European perspective on the music as well as knowledge and respect for the great American tradition.”
Does Armstrong feel that he’s currently playing his ‘perfect’ horn? “Every player is always on the search for the ideal instrument, but playing conditions and personal technical considerations make much more of a difference than we often acknowledge. I’m happy to stick with something that works and improve my facility, stamina, range, tone and so on rather than wish for something that will make life suddenly easier, particularly when it may not be out there. I think it’s possible to find a voice and sound on most quality instruments – none will ever be perfect though.”