All Night Jazz Remembers Trumpet Legend Cat Anderson

Trumpeter Cat Anderson. He could play louder, and higher than any one who came before him and very few since. Photo by William Gottlieb.

By Carson Rodriguez Bugarin and Steve Splane/WUSF


This weekend on All Night Jazz, we’ll be featuring music by legendary trumpeter, William Alonzo “Cat” Anderson, who was born on this day in jazz history.

Anderson was born on September 12, 1916 in Greenville, SC. Most know Anderson through his association with Duke Ellington, with whom he performed with on and off for nearly three decades beginning in 1944.

Anderson was first introduced to jazz when he was sent to the Jenkins Orphanage in Charleston following the death of his parents in 1919.

It was then, as a member of the Jenkins Orphanage Band, that Anderson both earned the nickname “Cat” (due to his fighting style) and learned to play brass instruments like the trombone and the baritone horn.

The music directors at the orphanage recognized his immense talent and introduced Anderson to the trumpet.

His musical career began in earnest during his tour with the Carolina Cotton Pickers.

Like many of his Jenkins Orphanage Band alumni, Anderson went on to have an immensely successful career, both as a group musician and a soloist.

After departing from the Carolina Cotton Pickers, Anderson performed with such artists and groups as Hartley Toots, Claude Hopkins’ Big Band, Doc Wheeler’s Sunset Orchestra, and Lionel Hampton before joining Duke Ellington at the Earle Theater in Philadelphia in 1944.

His ability to play without the aid of a microphone ensured that no matter the context or register in which he played, he would be heard.

Boasting a five-octave range, Anderson mastered numerous styles of jazz, but his most popular skill was his ability to play in an extremely high register.

He was able to go so high in part, because of his powerful lungs and because he used a radically narrow and shallow mouthpiece that makes it easier to hit high notes, but is very difficult to play.


A replica of a Cat Anderson trumpet mouthpiece (left) next to a more traditionally sized mouthpiece. Photo courtesy of Rick Rangno.


Canadian trumpeter Rick Rangno obtained a replica of an Anderson mouthpiece. The told WUSF in a telephone interview that he could only get sound out of the mouthpiece for 30 seconds or so before fatigue set in and his lips would stop vibrating.

He said Anderson was able to maintain airflow because “he could finesse the aperture of his lips” to accommodate the tiny opening.

Trumpeter John Harner sat next to Anderson for two weeks in Las Vegas in the 1970’s with the Louis Bellson Band and said the mouthpiece was a revelation, and Anderson’s secret weapon.

“He was very careful not to let too many people see it. Every time he had would have a rest, he would take it off the horn and put it in his coat pocket,” Harner told the website

“ I am sure I could not even get a sound out of it. But it worked for him. Every night he would go out and play a screech solo, playing double c’s and triple g’s. Truly amazing, even after knowing about the mouthpiece.”

Taking advantage of this talent, Ellington would often write pieces that challenged Anderson’s musical capabilities. It was during breaks from performing with Ellington that Anderson lead several groups of his own, though he always returned as an integral member of Ellington’s band.

Following Ellington’s death in 1971, Anderson moved to Los Angeles where he continued to perform as a soloist and with local groups until his passing in 1981.

Cat Anderson continues to inspire musicians with popular tracks such as “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Caravan,” and “Satin Doll.”