Dennis Monce

Dennis Monce

Prepare Yourself

Denny and I grew up together on the same street as kids, went to the same schools, and played together in the same bands. He was also one of my biggest musical influences early on, so I asked him to share his thoughts as one of the premier trumpeters in Phoenix. Over lunch, he talked about being fearless, woodshedding, and preparing for different opportunities.


Becoming a Kamikaze Trumpet Player
(mp3, 1.2 MB)


JK: What are some of the things you learned when you first started playing professionally?

DM: One of the advantages that I had was getting called to play some gigs at a pretty young age, so I learned some of the most important things from the older guys on the job just by listening to the way they play, and probably more importantly, observing the way they carry themselves and conduct themselves in professional situations. It's something that's very difficult to teach in school—on-the-job-training—it's something you have to do. When I was coming up there were more opportunities for young players to jump in and get some experience, especially for horn players.

I was a shy kid for the most part, so when I started coming into my own as a player and getting some confidence, the pendulum kind of swung the other direction to an extent and I got a little cocky, more opinionated and talkative. I had to learn how to keep my mouth shut and pay a little bit of respect to the guys around me, particular to the older guys who really knew what was going on, and really try to tune into that and show some respect to them, not just outwardly, but inwardly; you know, really try to learn from those guys.

You play with some guys and say, "Well, they play old style" or "they do this or they do that" and you start bordering on being disrespectful toward those guys, and yet there's really a lot you can learn from them. I guess I really didn't have an appreciation for that until I was a little older, looking back on it, but I really value and cherish those times and to have had those opportunities. It seems to be that one of the real big things—and I've heard other guys say this, too—is learning how to kick back and close your mouth for a minute and check out what's going on. The word listen is probably a key word on a lot of levels in the music business, both musically and in terms of just figuring out what's going on in a professional scene.

JK: In terms of listening on just an artistic level, you were probably the main influence on me in that aspect, always dropping new stuff on me that I'd never heard before, so I know that was a big part in your development: listening to other people, hearing a lot of different styles of jazz, and music that wasn't necessarily jazz but featured good musicianship.

DM: Thinking back to when I was a little kid, there has always some kind of music in my house. My dad used to joke around and say his instrument was the radio. He was one of the biggest influences on me musically at an early age, because he would play to what we used to call the "elevator music" stations. But in spite of the style of that music, I learned a lot of tunes and a lot of music from that. And as the years went on, I was encouraged and enabled to listen.

When I was in school and started buying albums, you and I used to sit around and listen to Chigago albums and Lord knows what else. I encourage young players to broaden their horizons by listening to a lot of different styles of music, and particularly music that's not of the current time. I think if you go back in time, there's a lot more choices of things to listen to than there are today. A lot of what's on the radio today is not really music; it's, at best, bad poetry.

JK: Do you have any advice for aspiring lead players or jazz players?

DM: My first of advice is don't view yourself in that way, especially at a young age. Don't be a specialist, be a generalist, and develop into a specialty area if you're so inclined. You need to investigate being a jazz player, being a lead player, being a classical player, being all of those things and give yourself the opportunity to have sampled all of that, and then decide what you're good at later on, even post-college. I'm talking about people who want to be players, now, versus someone who wants to do this as a hobby. If you want to be a player in the business, you need to be prepared for many different opportunities and discover which things you really like. Some people live with themselves and haven't really sampled different playing opportunities. I have several friends who have always said, "I'm basically a show player" or "I'm basically a classical player" and they really never learned to play jazz. Well, now they're going back and getting the Jamey Aebersold albums and starting to learn how to play changes.

Years ago, I was studying with Mario Guinari in L.A. when he was playing trumpet with the symphony. I mentioned I was taking some jazz lessons from Charlie Shoemake, and he was real interested because he had just started playing with the Aebersold albums. Well, if you do a Google search on Mario Guinari you'll see he now has a jazz quartet up in San Francisco. He's still teaching at the conservatory but has broadened his horizons. You don't have to stop growing as you get older; you can always start getting into other things.

JK: You don't have to have it all figured out when you're young.

DM: I guess that's what I would say to a young person: don't feel like you have to have it all figured out. The one piece of advice I would have for any young person, musician or not, is finish school. Get a bachelor's degree in something useful and don't stop until you do that. That's number one on my list. The other thing is do what makes you happy. We live a short life. There are too many people that do things, not just for a living, that don't make them happy. Life's too short to not be happy. You're the person that needs to determine what that is, and what makes you happy tends to change over time. When you're a kid, you really don't have a clear view of what that's going to be, and that's why I say stay in school. Get your education and make sure you're prepared so that you have a lot of options.

Some people say, "I think I want to be a full-time musician" or "I don't think I'll ever get married and have kids, 'cause I don't know if I could do that." Being a guy who has a family, works a day job, and makes about 20% of my living playing music, I gotta tell you, it's just not that simple. Thirty years ago as kids, you and I wouldn't have had a clue as to where we'd end up today, and what I'd say to kids is this: not knowing is not a bad thing, it's a good thing, an adventure to look forward to. Just prepare yourself the best you can so you can succeed in life and then figure it out as you go.

JK: Another thing I picked up from you growing up was that when I'd come over and you put some music on, you'd say "Check this out" and then you'd pick up your horn and start playing along with it. I never played along with records until I saw you do that. Where did you get that from?

DM: I just kind of fell into it. I was the typical kid from our generation that had the Herb Alpert records. It always makes me feel good when I read other interviews and guys say that Herb was one of their first influences, because first of all, I got to meet him one time and he was a really nice guy. I thought it was kind of cool to meet one of my early heroes; the music is what it is, but the guy is a very innovative person, a phenomenal success, and instrumental in helping a lot of musicians. I think people should take a deeper look at Herb Alpert.

Dennis Monce

All that aside, I used to play along with those albums. I used to play along with Chicago albums, I'd play along with Maynard Ferguson, and I'd try to play the high notes along with him. What I didn't realize, and discovered later when I really started getting into jazz, is that first of all, that's an opportunity to really learn by ear how to play those solos along with those guys. The other thing is—not putting down the Aebersold albums at all, I think those are wonderful tools—but if you listen to those and you play along with those versus playing along with real albums with rhythm sections that are actually reacting and responding to a player playing a solo, there's something that's on those albums that's missing on the play-along albums. I think people should do both. You should do the play-alongs to get the rudiments down, but there's an excitement that goes on in real albums, particular live ones. And I have no problem blowing right over the top of Freddie Hubbard. I used to feel funny about that, but then I thought, "Wait a minute, it's just like he and I are playing a duet."

So, yeah, I highly recommend that, and I've read other people saying the same thing, that they really like playing over albums. Look, when I got into college I think one of the advantages I had over a lot of the other kids is that I had developed my ears pretty well. I found out when I started getting into theory classes that I was way ahead. And these were not jazz theory classes—that came later—these were just basic music theory. But I could hear things quickly, and other kids were struggling with that.

I also think it makes you more of a master of your instrument. The bottom line, if you can play intervallic melodies in all twelve keys, that will help any musician. Whether you're sight reading or just trying to navigate an orchestral etude, any of the stuff you do to help prepare for that is going to help you and will be valuable.

JK: You're primarily known as a commercial and jazz player around town, but you used to do a lot of orchestral playing at one time, right?

DM: I did all of that in college, thoroughly enjoyed it and miss it a lot, frankly. There's nothing like sitting in the middle of an orchestra and hearing that sound. Nothing like it. That's why I encourage young people to be well-rounded and sample all of the opportunities there are to play, whether it's a symphony orchestra, brass quintet, big band, small jazz combo, pit orchestra, or whatever.

To give you an example, I'm doing Beauty and the Beast at a dinner theatre. I've done a lot of shows there over the past 2½ years, but that is the first show that's come through there where I felt I really had to take the book home and practice, and I mean practice. It's hard! The interesting balance of doing a lot of the Broadway shows, and this one in particular, is that there's a lot of legit playing in this, and yet you have to have commercial chops to play it. High notes, show-biz sounding stuff, and some of it flat-out sounds like you're playing a circus, which is kind of where some of the legit stuff comes in, double-tonging and so on. I had to go home and practice that stuff. It's very humbling, and yet I'm really enjoying it because it's giving me a challenge. That's an example of why I think it's important to be a really well-rounded trumpet player. The average person whom you might call a specialist is not going to fare well in a situation like that. They don't have the background in one area or another to be able to make that happen. You become more in demand when you're a more well-rounded musician. And it comes in handy whether it's from an artistic standpoint or from a money standpoint, and at some point in your life you're going to need both those things.

JK: What technical advice can you give to a kid playing lead trumpet in his school band?

DM: One of the things I heard a lot from a lot of the legit, or classical, guys growing up was that they were afraid that if they played too loud or too high that they would "hurt their lip." I just could never understand that whole thing. Yes, I do understand doing physical damage to muscles and things like that, but I also think that if you're in that situation and it happens it's because you're playing wrong. If you're playing wrong, then you need someone to help you play correctly, and if you're playing correctly, you can't really hurt yourself. One of the things that helped me develop chops was playing along with records.

The things I attribute most to helping me come along the quickest in my whole life were two periods of time when I made the most progress. The first was the summer between 7th and 8th grade, I spent a lot of time playing along with Doc Severinsen and Maynard Ferguson. I started with Doc Severinsen albums and I would literally just play along with Doc, play along with Doc, play along with Doc, and try to play everything he played, including the high notes. I would play loud and I blew a lot of air and I became what I jokingly today call Kamikaze Trumpet Player. I learned a very physical approach to playing it by just doing it and not being afraid. The thing you have to understand as a trumpet player, speaking to you kids now, is you have to be fearless to play this instrument and there is no place to hide. There is a very famous and respected trumpet teacher named Claude Gordon who said "Hit it hard and wish it well," and that's exactly what I was doing. I was probably driving my parents completely crazy.

JK: That's probably why they stuck your bedroom in the basement!

DM: (laughs) That's probably how I ended up down there. I specifically remember one summer, almost every day I'd have those records out and be playing along with them, and playing loud and playing high, and by the time I was in 8th grade, my chops were getting pretty strong, and I was starting to hit Ds and Es above the staff—for an 8th-grader that pretty good. By the time I was in high school, I was playing Fs and Gs, and had control over most of that range. So I guess what I would say is don't be afraid to blow some air and to play. As time goes on, you learn how to play more efficiently. There's things that can help you with that, the Carmine Caruso stuff and other things that can come later. But initially, it's learning to blow some air and not being afraid to play.

The other thing, and I'd say this comes later on-high school or college age-is find some time to woodshed, where you can just practice a bunch of hours a day and really work on your technique and your chops. I did that, I remember, for about a month and a half in college. I had some down time, in between when I did my dumb thing of dropping out of school and getting a day job, I had some time and some money in the bank, and I spent about a month and a half, literally, of practicing at least eight hours a day, every day. That didn't include playing in performance groups. Needless to say, by the time I got done with that, I was both burned out (laughs) and had chops as strong as a rock. That was good for me; it's not something I'd recommend you do for years on end, but for little short spurts like a month to three months—say, over a summer—I think it's good for a college student to literally just tear it up like that and see if you can make some progress.

For a young player, get a teacher. Get a good teacher, somebody you respect as a player—you might even ignore what some other people might say about whether or not they'd be a good teacher—and go pick their brains. If you know a good lead player in town, call him up and ask him if he'll give you lessons or if you can just hang with him and pick his brains about what he does. There's a lot I could say here in an interview, but it would be almost meaningless unless we were sitting here with our horns and I was showing you what to do.

JK: So you didn't necessarily figure it all out without any help.

DM: No, and I'm still figuring it out. Jim, I've been on a mouthpiece safari for the last three years and it's a frustrating journey. I finally figured out that my equipment wasn't quite making it for me, and through trying a few things I validated that opinion. It's a situation that through time and experimentation, I've found some things that work better. I don't think that ever ends and I don't think most players ever get to the end of the rainbow on that. If you can stand the concept of being a lifelong learner, that's one of the beautiful things about being a musician. There's no end to what you can learn in this, both from a musical standpoint and from the physical activity of playing an instrument. It's a lifelong, exciting learning adventure to be on.

JK: How do you feel about the importance of putting oneself in a more competitive musical environment, like L.A.?

Dennis Monce

DM: I definitely think that if you're contemplating being a professional musician, you need to get out of Phoenix for a while, whether you stay somewhere or whether you go out and come back. There are opportunities to play in Phoenix (a lot less than there are in some bigger cities), but I think there's a level of intensity in a city like Los Angeles that you can't get very many other places. It was a learning opportunity for me. Oh my gosh, when I went to Cal. State/Northridge, I wasn't just going to college—I was playing in American Youth Symphony as a sub, I was playing in the L.A. Jazz Workshop, I was playing gigs, Top 40 bands, casuals, church brass jobs, musicals, all kinds of different things—none of which paid a great deal of money, but they were all learning experiences playing with musicians, frankly, at a very high level.

One thing I noticed living in Los Angeles is this: here in Phoenix you have a handful of guys who can really play well. They're very musical and they can play their instruments well. And then you have a lot of guys that some people refer to a little disrespectfully as "hobby players." There's not really anything wrong with that, it's just that they don't play at the real intense level that the best players do. The problem in Phoenix is that there is a smaller group of the best guys, and in some situations the bar is not as high as it is in Los Angeles. I noticed over there, almost everybody in Los Angeles who plays can really play their instrument. The hobby players pretty much go by the wayside in that town, because there are so many players that play very well. Those guys just flat-out quit; they just get out of the way. In a way, I feel sorry for those guys, because they should be able to have lifelong fun playing their instrument. But because there are so many players, and relatively few opportunities to play, they just get out of the way because they're intimidated by it. For someone who is really serious about music, you go over there and let that intimidation come into play and decide if you're any good or not. And if you're still standing in about six months, maybe you have a reason to consider being a professional player.

It really does give you a good idea of how you stack up against the best players, 'cause I'll tell you what: I sat next to some of the very best trumpet players in the world when I was in Los Angeles. I got the opportunity, in various situations, to do that, and you can't get that here.

JK: You've talked a lot about listening, but a young player might not have any idea of where to start. Can you recommend one or two guys that you think every trumpet player ought to give a serious listen to?

DM: Yeah, if you're at the beginning stages of learning to play jazz, whether you're a trumpet player or not, listen to early Miles Davis—Kind of Blue is one of the albums I'd recommend. Also, just about anything you could find by Chet Baker. The reason I mention those two guys is because a lot of their solos are melodic enough and at a slow enough tempo that you could listen to the recording and learn to play it by ear before you'd actually sit down and transcribe or write out the solo. By the way, I'm a big advocate of that, learning how to play a solo by ear before you write it down, and I know there are a lot of other guys who are also of that philosophy. I think it's easier to memorize it by listening, and even when I was taking lessons with Charlie Shoemake, he'd always give you a recording of the solo and the transcription. Yeah, I'd read it, but I found I really learned it by playing along with it. The value of writing it down is that you're actually analyzing what they're playing, versus just hearing it from a musical standpoint.

The other recommendation, as you're starting to progress along a little further, is a double album by Art Farmer, It's actually a re-release of a couple of his albums, A Work of Art and Warm Valley. I would recommend it for the person who has a grip on improvising, started to do transcriptions, and investigated jazz theory a little bit. And your assignment, should you choose to accept it, would be to sit down and transcribe everything on those albums. You do that over a summer or two as a college student, and your playing will go over the top. There's a piano player on that album, Fred Hersch, his harmonic sense, his voicings—if you're a piano player, you should be listening to that album—his comping is unbelievable. It's Art Farmer at his best; he's playing so artistically, he swings, it's indescribable, you just have to hear it. He's just a great musician and there are some really special moments on those albums, I think.

So those would be three things I'd recommend: any of the early Miles Davis stuff is good, and like I say, anything by Chet Baker, pretty much. If nothing else, it's inspiring!

JK: Closing comments?

DM: Stay in school, do what makes you happy and be flexible, and you will do well. Most certainly as a young person, don't think you have to figure everything out, because you don't. Be a nice person, surround yourself with nice people.

—July 2006

Artist Info





Disclaimer: Equipment is a personal choice based upon the kind of work you do and your physical makeup. If you are a beginner, go with standard issue equipment until you learn to play. Once you are ready to experiment, try a bunch of things until you find some things that work for you.—DM



I am currently playing a Conn Vintage One with a reverse 34 leadpipe.


Lead: Greg Black 5S with his #5 backbore
Jazz, classical, Broadway: still looking for the magic bullet—currently Curry 5*, or Bach 3C
Flugel: Custom Burt Herrick


Yamaha YFH-731. I have been playing this old war horse since high school.

Gig Bag

When I need to carry both my trumpet and flugel, I use an old Wolfpak 2.5 rolling case (to save my bad back). When I just need the trumpet, I use a single Reunion Blues gig bag. Mutes and other stuff go in a backpack.


Spider stands are still one of the most stable and lightweight stand for trumpet and flugel. I have had them on cruise ships going through the tail end of a hurricane and never had a horn hit the deck.
I use a Sennheiser MD421 microphone. They are a little expensive, but I like the sound. I hate clip-ons, but use one when the boss says that I have to. If you are so inclined, the Shure is probably the best of the less expensive ones.


I like to play all different types of music, so this is a hard question to answer. One of my favorite things is playing celebrity shows. You have to really be on top of your game to do this kind of work.


For beginners learning to improvise, and no matter what instrument you play, I recommend listening to early Miles Davis, and just about anything by Chet Baker. The solos are very melodic and the range works for both trumpet and sax and down an octave for trombone.


▸I really like a double CD by Art Farmer called Artistry which is a re-release of two albums, A Work of Art and Warm Valley. This is some of Art's best playing, in my opinion, and Fred Hersh is an amazing piano player. You can tell the group played together a lot before they did the album.
▸One of my all time favorites is Gnu High by Kenny Wheeler. This is definitely a "desert island" album. I have been listening to this since I was in college back in the 70s and am still not tired of it. The interaction of the players on the album is amazing.
▸I am wearing out my copy of Standard of Language by Kenny Garrett. Any of his albums are great. Kenny is a ridiculous alto player and a great musician.
▸Anything I have heard with Ingrid Jensen on it is great. She is one of a very few jazz trumpet players today who is really innovating on the instrument, in my opinion.
▸One of my favorite lead trumpet players of all time is Al Porcino. Get your hands on anything that he is credited on from Captial records and you will not be dissapointed. The "Artist Direct" web site has a listing of over a hundred albums he has played on. One of my favorite is Yesterday's Love Songs/Today's Blues by Nancy Wilson with the Gerald Wilson orchestra. Al had one of the most exciting lead trumpet sounds I have ever heard.
▸Also, anything you can find with Bobby Shew playing lead trumpet or jazz is great stuff. Bobby Shew is a personal hero because he is the perfect example of a trumpet player who is a master of all trades, in my opinion. Great sound and what a swinging trumpet player!

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