Rolf Smedvig, Co-Founder of Empire Brass Quintet

In my younger days as a hack trombonist, I often felt like a second-class musician. So much attention was heaped on other instruments–guitars, pianos and violins in particular. By the time I was blowing a horn, brass luminaries like Louis Armstrong and Glenn Miller had long left the stage. (OK, Miles Davis was still hittin’ it, but even he had become an opening act for Neil Young and Crazy Horse.) But by the late 1960s, brass began to step into the spotlight again. I was particularly thankful for Blood, Sweat and Tears and, to a lesser extent, Chicago.

And then there were ensembles like the Canadian Brass and Rolf Smedvig’s Empire Brass. They helped bring an enormous amount of respectability to brass players, recording critically-acclaimed albums, many with no reeds, no strings, just brass. The Empire Brass Quintet was the first brass ensemble to win a prestigious Walter W. Naumburg Foundation Prize. In the 51 years leading up to their award in 1976, the winners most often were–you guessed it–violinists, pianists or vocalists.

Smedvig(September 23, 1952-April 27, 2015) was a trumpet prodigy, first appearing with the Seattle Symphony at age 13 (I had barely mastered my spit valve by that age). Before he was 20, Leonard Bernstein had tapped him to be the trumpet soloist for the premiere of his Mass at the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Arts. In the same year, he became the youngest member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Seiji Ozawa.