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Trumpet (novel)

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Language  English
Pages  278 pp
OCLC  40119161
Author  Jackie Kay
Publisher  Picador (UK)

Publication date  1998
ISBN  0-330-33145-0
Originally published  1998
Genre  Novel
Country  United Kingdom
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Media type  Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Awards  Guardian Fiction Prize, Lambda Literary Award for Transgender
Similar  Jackie Kay books, Guardian Fiction Prize winners, Novels

Trumpet is the debut novel of Scottish writer and poet Jackie Kay. It chronicles the life and death of fictional jazz artist, Joss Moody, through the recollection of his family and friends, and those who came in contact with him at his death. Inspired by the real life of jazz musician, Billy Tipton, a white American transgender male, "Trumpet" challenges diasporic norms by taking Black transgender lives into consideration, while also highlighting Black Scottish subjectivity. In an effort to reclaim the Black queer body from normative representations within the Black diaspora, Kay employs a jazz aesthetic in the construction of the novel, and as a framework for her analysis. Matt Richardson, in his analysis of the transgender subjectivity and the use of a Jazz aesthetic in the novel, notes, "As a form that encourages the transformation of standard melodies into multiple improvised creations, jazz is useful in expanding our conceptualization of the potential for Black people to recreate ourselves and our gender identities in a diasporic practice (Richardson 2013: 108).” By using jazz as an analytic, Kay demonstrates the ways in which jazz serves as both an epistemology and a vehicle for Black queer expression.



Kay has two published collections of poetry: Other Lovers and The Adoption of Papers. Other Lovers won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1994. She currently resides in England. Kay tells this story in vignettes that not only captivate the reader but also instil in them compassion in the presence of unconditional love. Kay's prose often borders on a poetic style. Although the novel begins after the main character's death, Kay's seamless transition in and out of memories draws the reader into a detailed story. Drawn in, the reader is swept along in the flow of the characters' thoughts and emotions.

Plot introduction

Trumpet unfolds a story about an acclaimed jazz trumpeter, Joss Moody, and the revelation of his biological sex as female after his death, which causes a stir in the public and in his family's life. Kay stated in an interview that her novel was inspired by the life of Billy Tipton, an American jazz musician, who lived with the secret of being a woman for fifty years in pursuit of his musical career in the 1950s. The novel addresses themes of identity, grief, love, relationship, and secret. Through the accounts of Moody's family, friends, and others, the novel raises the question not of woman versus man, but of true identity and the significance of one's life in relation to their actions and contributions to the world.

Plot summary

This powerful novel begins just after the main character, Joss Moody, a famous trumpet player, passes away. It is immediately apparent that big news surrounds his death as paparazzi drive his widow, Millie, to steal away to a vacation home. Soon after, the reader learns that the big news is that Joss was actually born female. No one knew this shocking truth except his wife. Not even Colman, the Moodys' adopted son, knew the truth. The Moodys lived their life as a normal married couple with a normal house and a normal family. But when Joss dies they can hide the truth no longer. Colman's shock spills into bitterness and he seeks revenge. He vents his rage of his father's lie by uncovering Joss's life to Sophie, an eager tabloid journalist craving to write the next bestseller. After time, and a visit to Joss's mother Edith Moore, Colman eventually finds love for his father muddled in his rage. With his new-found acceptance of both his father and himself, Colman makes the decision not to follow through with the book deal. All the while, Millie deals with her grief and the scandal in private turmoil at the Moodys' vacation home, and a slew of characters whose paths have crossed with Joss's give accounts of their memories and experiences. Interestingly, all the characters seem either to accept Joss's identity or to perceive it as irrelevant.

Explanation of the novel's title

The title Trumpet refers literally to the main character, Joss Moody's, instrument. Moody was an amazing trumpet player and became famous in the jazz world. Figuratively, it could be argued, the trumpet embodies more than Moody's fame. Moody's trumpet serves as an equalizer of identity. The character Joss Moody is not a man or a woman, or a husband or a father. He is a trumpet player. The title of the novel gives his identity the opportunity to be that simple. Additionally, Joss's trumpet functions as a phallic symbol that allows him to navigate being black and Scottish by inhabiting certain forms of black masculinity.


Trumpet is mostly set in London in 1997. Memories of Joss's lifetime give the book's setting a seventy-year time-span beginning in 1927. A majority of these memories are set around the 1960s in Glasgow, specifically indicated by geographical locations within the city, such as The Barrowlands music venue, during the beginning of Joss and Millie's relationship and their early marriage. This was the period in which the Swinging London subculture took hold. This was an energetic, primarily youth-driven movement in society. The music world that the fictional character of Joss Moody would have belonged to, played a major role in this time-period. Although much of the story takes place in London where the Moodys lived, it jumps back and forth between the city and the Scottish seaside home to which Millie goes to escape the scandal and grieve in peace. The end of the novel is entirely set in Scotland, where Colman and Sophie go to investigate the place of Joss's birth. The characters of Colman and Sophie, those who are searching for something, are rarely in any one setting for long, reinforcing their unanchored state of mind.


The central character is Joss Moody, a famous black jazz musician. The novel begins in the wake of his death. Born a female by the name of Josephine Moore, Joss discovers he is transgender, and lives his life as a man. He becomes a famous trumpet player and devotes his life to his passion of music. Joss is portrayed as a passionate lover, strict father, energetic friend, and dedicated artist.

Joss is married to Millie Moody, a white woman. As a young adult, Millie is captivated by the idea of finding true love. She finds this with Joss and her passion is strong enough to overcome the truth about his original sex. After his death, Millie is devastated. Although she outwardly handles herself with grace and composure, Millie's heart is broken. Millie is a loving, sympathetic character living out the cycles of grief under an unwanted spotlight. The reader feels sympathy and compassion for her.

Colman Moody is the adopted son of Millie and Joss. He is of mixed race. As a child, Colman was often difficult and misbehaved. Upon his father's death, Colman uncovers the secret that his father was born biologically female. At the time of this discovery, Colman is already a grown man of thirty. He is sent into a tumult of emotions including confusion, anger, embarrassment, and grief. However, as Colman comes to terms with the realities of his life, readers might grow to harbor some level of sympathy for a character who has come on such a long journey to self-acceptance.

Colman's bitterness drives him to cooperate with a journalist, Sophie Stones, in her attempt to write Joss Moody's story. Sophie is convinced that this book will finally bring her great success. Although at face value she seems sleazy and self-serving, Sophie's inner insecurities and perceived competition with her sister often surface in her train of thought, giving her more depth as a character.

Edith Moore is Joss Moody's mother. She enters the novel only at the end. We see her as she is growing old in a retirement home. Edith Moore is lonely but dealing well with her old age, continually doing things for herself and maintaining her propriety and poise.

Minor characters, including the registrar, the doctor, the funeral director, Moody's drummer Big Red McCall, and the Moodys' maid Maggie, also make appearances in the unfolding events after Joss's death. Their character development is brief, confined to the chapter dedicated to them, and serves only to accentuate the theme of acceptance as they reflect on Moody's life.

Major themes


The novel explores the theme of identity in its entirety. The central element of the story is that Joss was biologically a woman but lived his life as a man. This brings questions of sex, gender, and identity to the immediate attention of the reader.

The novel explores the contrast between public and private. Through the narratives of Sophie, Big Red, and the various individuals involved in Joss's after-death experiences (doctor, registrar, and undertaker), we interpret Joss's life and sexuality in a public lens. While Sophie's narratives are obviously the most harsh, each of these 'public' perceptions offer different perspectives for how being transgender (and how sexuality overall) is viewed. The linkage between these narratives is representation: what did Joss represent when he was alive and what does his sexuality represent after his death. Through the narratives of Millie, Colman, and Edith we interpret Joss's life and sexuality in a private lens. Each of these individuals knew Joss in their own unique and personal way, so it is powerful and necessary to have these narratives. Kay provided these narratives in a very purposeful way: to demonstrate how much Joss was a human, how much he meant to those who loved him, and how great his purpose was that he served for Millie, Colman, and Edith outside of his physical body.

The novel also questions the notion of identity and gender as linked entities. Trumpet questions if the gender binary between and man and woman is nothing but a performance of norms determined by society. Joss exhibits a "manhood" that the public interprets and believes that Joss is a man. Joss lived his life as a husband, a father, and a successful male musician. Despite his biological body parts, Joss was a man. His life suggests that femininity and masculinity are not connected to one's biological body parts. The challenges that Joss poses to notions of normative gender performance lead to a crisis of knowledge and a re-ordering of the logics of categorization. The unthinkability of someone like Joss causes intense anxiety and is reacted to by further efforts to contain and categorize him.The registrar, in his inability to conceive of Joss outside of the confines of established gender categories, is one such example of this. Joss exposes and destabilizes the logics of terms such as "man" and "woman," "mother" and "father," revealing their fluid nature.

Although to others Joss's sexual identity and gender may seem complicated, he never struggles with coming to terms with himself. Joss makes the decision to present himself to the world as a man, not for personal gain, or to complicate his identity, but because, to him, living the life of a man is his identity. Both he and his wife are comfortable with their life. Joss’ position as a jazz musician grants him access to masculinity, for he joins the lineage of the greats, many of whom defied normative notions of the representation of the jazz man. McCall gestures to this relationship between jazz and the validation of Joss’ masculinity, reflecting, “He accepted Moody had a bit of a squeaky voice…. As for baby face, millions of jazz men have baby faces. Look at Baby Dodds, Baby Mack, Baby Riley… A man with a baby face could send you to town. A man with a baby face could have you away ta ta on a big raft sailing for an island you’ve never heard of (Trumpet: 147).”

On the other hand, Colman, whose sexual orientation is simple, has struggled in search of his identity from a young age. Being an adopted child and having a famous father made Colman yearn for a normal family all his life. Colman feels pressure to live up to his father's standards but unfortunately has no musical skill and no talent in general. As the strings tighten, he rebels and leaves the shelter that his parents have built to find his roots and his place in life. The knowledge that his father was really a woman complicates Colman's identity even further as he gets lost in unanswered questions. The story ends with a letter Joss left Colman that does not answer these questions, but rather talks about Joss's father. In a round-about way it brings Colman to the realization that it is not what you are that is important, but rather who you know yourself to be.

Throughout the story, the characters, baffled by Joss's secret about his body, must come to terms with who he was as a person regardless of his sex or gender. The realities of his life and influence on the world, rather than the realities about his body, are the truth of his identity.

The characters' racial identities are revealed when Millie narrates that before her marriage, her mother disapproved of Joss— a "darky" (Kay 27). Millie also shares that Joss's father was African and she describes Joss's skin as resembling "Highland toffee" (Kay 11). An encounter in the bus in Glasgow as told by Colman unpacks some of the racial tension in Scotland as a man refers to a black man as an "ape" (54 ) and makes a comment about Coleman's race in relation to his mother's. Both Joss and Coleman identify with Africa and they also distance themselves from an African identity. Joss travels the world but he does not go to Africa. He connects with the African continent by writing a song titled "Fantasy Africa". Coleman expresses he is not comfortable with mates who go on and on about Africa. he says "back to Africa is just unreal as far as Colman is concerned" (191).


Joss's sexual identity all but overwhelms his racial identity. In fact, Joss appears to disregard his racial identity as being a part of who he is. When speaking with his adoptive son Colman, he says that they are related in the way it matters. "He felt ... that they were all part of some big family. Some of them were white, some black. He said they didn't belong anywhere but to each other." The novel makes a point to act impartial to race, blood, etc. This selective ignorance plays into the idea we make our own destiny. Joss self-identifies as a man, and so he lived his life as a man. By the same token, he decides that his race doesn't define him or the way he lives his life, and so it doesn't.

However, Joss' ruminations on diaspora have a specific racial component that links into black British identity construction. While Joss appears to decentralize race through his ideas of a big human family, his engagement with African American musical traditions and his musical compositions reflect a black diasporic identity that enables him to navigate his marginalization from the nation state. Jazz then becomes a diasporic resource for Joss to negotiate his identity, as well as an expression of it also.

Black Britain

The novel's setting in London, Glasgow, and other parts of Scotland facilitates a discussion about national and racial identities as well as black British multiplicity. While Joss considers himself to be very Scottish, Colman rejects that identity and instead feels connected to nowhere in particular. The novel in itself then challenges ideas about a monolithic black Britain and the erasure of black Scotland in these mainstream narratives. Joss's claiming of a black Scottish identity is then a political move on Kay's part to highlight Scotland's black community while acknowledging its silencing in both the black British and Scottish communities.


The media scandal that follows Joss's death seems to push grief to the side. Everyone is preoccupied with the secret life of Joss Moody. However, the reader can see the natural and varied stages of grief take their course throughout the book. Although Colman is focused on spilling his rage into an account of his father's life to be written by journalist Sophie Stones, he cannot escape dealing with the grief of his father's death. His anger is a different form of grief than that of his mother. Millie, already at peace with who Joss was, is free to internally work through her sorrow and come to terms with Joss's absence.


The entire book revolves around Joss's relationships throughout his life. The relationship between father and son, husband and wife, and music and artist. Love perseveres in the end. After the grieving period, Colman realizes his love for his father and understands that nothing can alter his special tie with Joss. Millie never once questions her love for Joss, nor his love for her. Their strong affection is demonstrated through Millie's embracment of Joss and his decisions from the time they met and fell in love. Even the love and admiration of the minor characters who were involved in Joss's life cannot be changed by his bizarre secret. The story demonstrates unconditional love as Millie, the minor characters, and, eventually, Colman, embrace their love for Joss Moody regardless of his sex or gender.


The revelation of Joss's true sex is the secret that sparks all the events and emotions of the novel. Millie and Joss's strong bond is based on the concealment of the secret. As Millie puts it: "It was our secret. That's all it was. Lots of people have secrets, don't they? The world runs on secrets. What kind of place would the world be without them? Our secret was harmless. It did not hurt anybody." (p. 10) The novel brings up the question of how much people should know about one's private life.


Music is the ultimate passion of Joss Moody. Music has the special power of making Joss "lose his sex, his race, his memory" (p. 131). "He unwraps himself with his trumpet" (p. 135). It is to the world of music that Joss contributes and those contributions cannot be denied, no matter what sex he was. Joss is one with the Jazz music he plays, intertwined; he is his music and his music serves as a validation of his identity and his position in the spotlight. In one of his posthumous reflections, he says, “It doesn’t matter a damn he is somebody he is not. None of it matters. The suit is just the suit the body holds. The body needs the suit to wear the horn. Only the music knows everything (Trumpet: 135).”In addition, Kay attempted to write the novel to be reminiscent of a musical composition.


The entire novel is experienced in hindsight with other characters recounting their experiences with Joss before his death. There are a few recounts that explain "in hindsight" it is easy to understand that Joss was born a woman. Some characters claim that they can see his feminine features more clearly, or that there was always something different about him they couldn't quite pinpoint. However, Millie Moody declares very strongly that "hindsight is a lie." She believes that her life with Joss was exactly how it was supposed to be through and through. This declaration, however, raises the question of validity of the characters recollections as the entire story is in fact told in hindsight. Joss is not able to narrate his story, and so every other character has to rely on their memory or speculation of him to do so.


Much of the novel centers on performance in both the literal and metaphorical sense. The ways in which individuals struggle to define and perform their identities within the strictures of more oppressive social roles drive much of the plot. The novel questions challenges heteronormative gender norms and the gender binary in its assertions regarding gender identities' abilities to transcend the presence or absence of the biological genitalia.

State-sanctioned regulation of the body

Trumpet demonstrates the ways in which the state attempts to regulate (and gender) the body by tracking individuals through the filing of papers and issuing of certificates from birth until death. Over the course of her lifetime Joss is able to subvert state-sanctioned systems of control and regulation by avoiding medical establishments. It is, however, in her death that her body is made visible and vulnerable to the narrowness of medical definitions of gender. In one instance, Albert Holding, the funeral director, discovers Joss’s genitalia and observing that it is different from his gender presentation, acts as an agent of the state to correct Joss’s death certificate. Holding reinforces the rigidity of state-sanctioned identity categories and the belief that biology is what determines sex and gender: “All his working life he has assumed that what made a man a man and a woman a woman was the differing sexual organs” (Trumpet 115). There is a whole cadre of people (medical, journalists, filmmakers) who want to make the transgender body make sense. These bodies resist easy categorization, and something of nuance is lost in trying to narrate complex lives within narrow gender and sex categories.

Point of view/narration

Trumpet is written with an intricate narration, incorporating many characters' point of view. The narration varies by chapter. Most of the story is told from the first-person perspective of Joss's wife Millie, his son Colman, and the journalist Sophie Stones. The narration often takes the form of the inner thoughts of these three characters, including visitations of their memories. Some chapters are Colman responding to Sophie Stones' interview. In addition, chapters told from a third person omniscient narrator contribute to the story, each focusing on a different minor character such as the funeral director or Joss's drummer (see Characters).

Literary significance and reception

In an interview, Kay spoke about her desire to make her story read like music. Critics have acclaimed her for accomplishing this goal in a powerful and intricate narrative without melodrama. In an article for the Boston Phoenix, David Valdes Greenwood describes it as follows: "In the hands of a less graceful writer, Jackie Kay's Trumpet would have been a polemic about gender with a dollop of race thrown in for good measure. But Kay has taken the most tabloid topic possible and produced something at once more surprising and more subtle: a rumination on the nature of love and the endurance of a family." Time magazine calls it a "hypnotic story ... about the walls between what is known and what is secret..Spare, haunting, dreamlike"; and the San Francisco Chronicle hails it "Splendid ... Kay's imaginative leaps in story and language will remind some readers of a masterful jazz solo." Jackie Kay's Trumpet pushes aside the classic battles of race and politics, and opens up the touching exploration of identity on a level much deeper within the heart, in the end revealing "a broad landscape of sweet tolerance and familial love" (The New York Times Book Review).

Allusions to other works


  • "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B", performed by Bill Arter (p. 27)
  • "Ain't Misbehavin'"
  • "Shake, Rattle 'n' Roll"
  • "Dancing in the Dark", performed by Frank Sinatra (p. 14)
  • "Bill Bailey"
  • "Take the 'A' Train"
  • "Why Don't You Do Right?"
  • "Blues in the Night"
  • "In the Mood"
  • "Tutti Frutti"
  • "Rock Around the Clock"
  • "Dancing Time"
  • "La Conga"
  • Artists

  • Pearl Bailey (p. 36)
  • Genesis
  • Pink Floyd
  • Literature

  • The Duchess of Malfi, a tragic play by John Webster (Kay, p. 103)
  • "I'll be his Judas" from Oscar Wilde (p. 62)
  • Film/ TV Shows

  • Double Indemnity (p. 1)
  • The Old Grey Whistle Test (p. 57)
  • Star Trek (p. 167; 139)
  • Allusions to history and geography

    The novel includes allusions to famous jazz musicians. Although Joss Moody is a fictional character, he is inspired by the pianist Billy Tipton, and the novel puts the reader into the context of the real jazz world.

  • Oscar Rabin (p. 14)
  • Harry Parry (p. 15)
  • In addition, the setting uses many references to real places in London, such as Central Station (p. 14).

    Awards and nominations

    Trumpet was awarded the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1998 and the Authors' Club First Novel Award in 2000, and won in the Transgender category at the 2000 Lambda Literary Awards. It was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, also in 2000.

    Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

    Kay served as advisor to Grace Barnes, director of Skeklers Theatre Company, in her stage adaptation of Trumpet. The stage version was performed in the Citizens Theater in Glasgow in 2005.

    Publication history

    Copyright 1998 by Jackie Kay, Trumpet was originally published by Picador (Great Britain) in 1998, and Pantheon Books (New York). It was published by Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, Inc. (New York), in 2000.


    Trumpet (novel) Wikipedia