Trumpet by Jackie Kay

Book cover for Trumpet

Trumpet by Jackie Kay

How much of our gender shows in the way we act, dress, move, speak? How much comes from others’ perceptions? How many of our life choices are constrained by sexism and racism? As I read Jackie Kay’s novel Trumpet, these questions swirled in my head.

Joss Moody is born female in a small town in Scotland in the 1950’s. Moving to Glasgow and then London to live as a man, Joss, who is black, plays jazz trumpet in night clubs, falls in love with and marries a white woman, and adopts a black son. Becoming more well-known, traveling the world and releasing hit albums, Joss keeps the secret and so does his wife Millie. Like the real-life Billy Tipton, the jazz pianist who lived as a man, Joss’ gender wasn’t discovered until she died.

Jackie Kay tells Joss’ story from many points of view. His wife Millie is hounded by paparazzi after her husband’s death; she longs to be considered “an ordinary widow,” to get “respect, not prurience.” The doctor who examines Joss’ body unwraps the chest bandages, feeling all the while “as if she was removing skin.” The undertaker who undresses the body “saw a man turn into a woman before his very eyes.”

Joss’ son Colman, who struggled with his father’s legacy as an ordinary teen, finds his grief turning to shock and rage. He joins forces with an opportunistic tabloid reporter, recalling moments with his father in a new light. We hear from Joss’ band mates, who never suspected. We also hear from Joss’ mother, who lives in a community for the elderly and received monthly checks from her daughter. (Of special interest to Pittsburgh natives, she says, “It might be a sheltered house, but sometimes that can attract bad yins that know there are only elderly folks and a lazy warden.”)  Like a jazz composition, each voice adds a distinctive tone to the narrative and adds to our understanding of a complicated character.

Throughout the story, Kay touches on many issues: the racism that Joss and Colman face; the transcendence and energy that Joss finds in his music; the costumes we wear to embody different personalities; and the many roles we play in the course of our lifetimes. Over all these, we hear the quiet voice of Millie, who rejects the sensationalism others see in her married life. “It was real. We just got on and lived it.” Asked how she “’managed” it, she responds, “I managed to love my husband from the moment I clapped eyes on him till the moment he died. I managed to desire him all of our married life. I managed to respect and love his music … I managed to be loyal, to keep our private life private where it belonged. … I know I am capable of loving to the full capacity, of not being frightened of loving too much, of giving myself up and over. I know that I loved being the wife of Joss Moody.”

The story of Joss begins in the 1950’s; Trumpet was published in 1998. In 2018, the initials “LGBTQIA+” are better known, and ideas about gender fluidity are, hopefully, better understood. Even so, opportunities for women are still unequal, and sexual stereotyping and abuse still persist. Stories like this are probably more common than we know. Transsexual, transvestite, or passing - reducing Joss to one label or another doesn’t adequately describe the love story we hear in Trumpet. Finally, it becomes as futile as understanding jazz without hearing it performed live.


by Jan Hardy, Cataloging Specialist

Tags: Fiction, See all tags

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