More on Johnny Dunn...
Today’s Harlem Renaissance portrait is trumpet player, band leader Johnny Dunn.
Far from a household name in jazz history Dunn was the king of New York trumpet players in
the early 1920s and Harlem’s first jazz star.
Originally from Memphis, he was discovered by W. C. Handy in 1916 and worked in his band
until 1920 when he joined Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds. After leaving Mamie Smith he formed his own “Original Jazz Hounds” and made several records
as a leader. He developed a very specific sound and approach and was a pioneer of the wah-wah effect
created by the use of the plunger mute. As a matter of fact it was Johnny Dunn’s plunger
sound that influenced Tricky Sam Nanton to use it with the trombone. His bright staccato attack and double time breaks were a sensation with New York audiences
bringing him fame and making him widely imitated.
Dunn was a versatile performer involved in several areas of show-business including work in
several musical reviews some of which travelled to Europe. In 1923, the Prince of Wales awarded him a five-foot long English coach horn in recognition of
his show-stopping solos in the Plantation Review in London.
However, his star was short lived.
Once Louis Armstrong appeared on the scene Dunn’s style quickly became passe. There is a famous story told among musicians about a time that Dunn walked into an Armstrong performance with the idea of showing him up. He walked onto the stand and said to Louis, “Boy! Give me that horn. You don’t know how to do
it”. Dunn might have been the king of Harlem trumpeters but young Louis blew him off the stand.
As Armstrong set a new standard for jazz as a solo art, Dunn failed to evolve and began to drift
In 1928 he made his last and best recordings: four songs with Jelly Roll Morton and two with
the twin pianos of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. After that he returned to Europe with Noble Sissle and stayed until his death in 1937.
Although completely forgotten today his impact on the Harlem scene of the early 1920s was