Trumpet is the debut (and so far the only) novel of the British poet Jackie Kay. First published in 1998, Trumpet won the Guardian Fiction Prize.
The protagonist of Trumpet is a renowned jazz musician called Joss Moody. Moody is a famous trumpet player. Joss Moody around whom the novel revolves never speaks directly to the reader because he is dead. As the novel starts the reader learns that Moody has died, leaving behind his widow, Millie, and his adopted son, Colman. The world of Jazz music has lost one of its great exponents. However, this is not the only reason why Moody, in his death, is dominating the headlines in the tabloids. In his death Joss Moody can no longer keep the secret he lived with all his life. Moody, who lived life as a man, and was married and adopted a son, was born a woman. Anatomically, he remained a woman all his/her life. The discovery of Moody’s true gender attracts lots of unwarranted media attention, complete with prurient speculations about the sex lives (and sexual orientations) of Moody and 'his widow'.
Trumpet tells Joss Moody's story through different voices: the funeral director (who discovers the true sex of the famous trumpeter); the drummer in Moody's band; an avaricious journalist who is trying to make a name for herself out of the drama of Moody’s life with the sensitivity of an elephant trampling the jungle in Jumanji; Millie, Moody’s 'wife', who knew all along that her 'husband' was a woman; and last, but not the least, his son Coleman, who doesn’t know that the man he thought was his father was in fact a woman.
The premise of Trumpet is not as preposterous as it might seem. The novel is based on the life of a real life American Jazz musician called Billie Tipton. Tipton was born a woman—Dorothy Tipton. A piano player, Tipton started her musical career in the 1930s. She used to appear as a man during public performance, but, by 1940, began living as a man even in private. Tipton went on to have a series of relationships with women, some of which lasted for several years. Tipton adopted three sons in the 1960s when 'he' was in a relationship with a woman, and, upon separating from her, carried on living with his three sons who remained blissfully unaware that their father was in fact a woman even when they reached adolescence. The sons became aware of their father’s anatomy when Tipton, at the age of 74 became ill (he had resisted for months going to the hospital) and paramedics were called. Tipton never explained or left behind any note explaining why he chose to live the way he did. It has been speculated that the scene of Jazz music was dominated by men in the 1930s when Tipton started out, and s/he probably felt it necessary to take on the persona of a man in order to have a career. Some of his professional colleagues felt that Dorothy Tipton was a lesbian because during the years when she was appearing as a man only during public performances, she lived with another woman.
Trumpet makes no attempt to explain the fictional Joss Moody’s sexuality. Was Moody a lesbian? A transvestite? A transsexual? Kay is not interested in spelling this out for the readers. Just as Dorothy Tipton, the real life inspiration of Joss Moody, never explained what motivated her to live the most whole life as a man, Trumpet leaves it for the reader to speculate why Moody lived his life the way he did. What Kay is interested in are identity and love, and she explores these themes with great subtlety. On the one hand we have the dead Joss Moody who, for all outward appearances, had no conflict in his mind about his identity, which, to most, would seem more complicated than Christopher Nolan’s Inception; on the other hand there is Moody’s adopted son, Coleman, whose sexual identity is straightforward enough, but who has struggled all his life to come out of the shadow of his famous father, and, not having any musical (or any other skills) to speak of, is drifting in search of an identity. The revelation of his father’s gender triggers a riot of emotions in Coleman’s mind compared to which the Bolshevik revolution was a tea party, and makes his struggle for identity more convoluted. Coleman’s struggle to accept his father for what he was is a powerful strand of the novel. Millie, Moody’s widow, is also grappling with the issue of identity, though there is no confusion in her mind. Millie, who has always known that Joss was a woman, views herself as straight, and does not accept the media’s depiction of her as a lesbian. To Millie it matters not a jot that Joss Moody was anatomically a woman. She loved Joss for what he was. Although not explicitly stated, it is implied that Joss Moody considered himself a man, and that is good enough for Millie. The sections describing the relationship between Joss and Millie are very moving without ever descending into the maudlin. The ending has a twist but it’s not gimmicky.
Trumpet, at its heart, is a love story; but it is also a psychological thriller and an exposition of identity. Jackie Kay is a renowned poet and has an extraordinary feel for language. She knows how to select, what to focus on, how make her characters sparkle and how to make her scenes vivid. The different voices of the novel are handled with great aplomb and are utterly convincing. All—even the slightly stereotypical, unlikeable journalist—are treated with compassion. Not an easy thing to pull off, one would have thought, but Kay manages it.
Trumpet is a wonderful novel. Humane, poignant, wise and insightful, it’s one of those novels that give you a rich sense of satisfaction when you reach the last page.