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Trumpeting a Lost Art

In an age of mass-produced music, one dogged young hornsmith insists on carefully crafting each of his brass instruments by hand.


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Photos by Eunice Choi.

Most people don’t know who Josh Landress is. Most people will never know who Josh Landress is. If he is lucky, people will eventually know of him, long after he has stopped doing what he is doing. Josh Landress makes trumpets. It takes him approximately seventy hours over the course of two or three months to finish building one, and even then he can’t be sure his clients will be happy—an economic reality that could dissuade even the most committed craftsman.

“You will understand that nobody will ever succeed making an instrument which will meet everyone’s approval, no matter how good it is,” wrote Vincent Bach, founder of Bach trumpets, in a letter dated 1952, “and even those people who make the worst type of instrument will always get a testimonial from someone certifying that it is the finest horn they ever played.”

Popular brands, including Bach, are churned out in factories by the thousands. In his ten years bending, tweaking and molding brass, Landress has made forty-nine. He earns money mainly by repairing factory-made trumpets—Bessons, Bachs, Benges and Schilkes—hammering out dinks, filling up cracks, cleaning gunk that has accumulated inside, replacing mouthpieces, tweaking valves. He also buys, fixes, and then sells vintage horns. He sells new trumpets made by a company named Adams, the only mass-produced horn maker whose craftsmanship he trusts.

Trumpets to be worked on in Landress’ studio.

“On a factory level, a lot of instruments these days often seem like they’re rushed through,” says Landress. “There is not as much time or pride taken as there was fifty years ago, seventy years ago.”

Artisans are typically old-timers. They favor tradition over progress, defining the value of the former through intangibles like love, personal attention, heart, and care. Every trumpet in Landress’s shop bears a story of a trumpet maker who began as an artisan, became a designer and continued on as a name. Besson, Bach, Benge and Schilke are people for whom a design for a trumpet turned into a model and a model turned into a prototype that factories now mass produce, many, many years after the maker’s hands last touched one. Big businesses ask consumers to behave somewhat unreasonably—buy this because you trust our brand even though the technique used to establish the brand no longer exists.

The way Landress works will never again be the norm, not when horns of similar quality, using the same brass, can be produced faster and more efficiently in factories. In 1973, three documentarians made a short film about trumpet craftsman Dominick Calicchio titled “The Last Trumpet Maker.” But Landress is not an old-timer. He is thirty-three, born seven years after that film was released. In order for him to make a trumpet different than any other, the old way is the only way.

A trumpeter from Brazil recently came into J. Landress Brass in Midtown Manhattan and tried out a Schilke and an Adams. He was torn as to which horn to buy so said he might get both.

“If you buy two of them,” Landress said, “I’ll throw in a case.”

“Maybe you’re making too much money on me?” the trumpeter said, half-jokingly.

“I wish I was making too much money,” Landress replied. “If I were, I wouldn’t have to work fifteen hours a day.”

Landress takes enormous pride in his inventory. When he told this customer that he owns any horn the gentleman could want, he wasn’t being showy; he was simply telling the truth.

“I can even sell you a $9,000 Monette, if you want it,” he said.

Aside from Landress, David Monette is one of only six other custom trumpet makers in the country.

Monette started as a repair guy, like Landress, and currently designs and builds trumpets. His trumpets, purchased new, cost around $12,000 (versus approximately $2,600 for a standard professional Bach trumpet) and there is a three-year waiting list to order one.

“Is that the horn Wynton plays?” the customer asked.

“He’s not going to be playing it for long, “Landress replied, “I sold him a Cousenon flugelhorn the other day because he hated the Monette flugelhorn that Monette made him and he’s tired of Monette valves. He was like, ‘I have to come in and buy a real trumpet.’”

Wynton Marsalis tried out a few new trumpets, including one Landress made.

Landress does not make much money building a trumpet. His custom horns cost $4,800 apiece and he often offers musicians a discounted price, which barely recoups the cost of materials. If Bach makes one thousand trumpets to Landress’ one and prices them lower, Landress will have a hard time competing, unless the clients for whom he makes repair after repair retire their Bachs and opt to buy his custom-built trumpets. In that case, his time-consuming process would likely come undone with the uptick in demand.

But Landress doesn’t want to compete with big factories. He simply wants to grow his business mindfully, give musicians what they need, and be a one-stop shop for horns. If he’s going to build a trumpet, he wants it to do it well.

“Did Schilke make many trumpets?” Landress’s customer asked, still undecided. “Schilke started making horns in late ‘50s and then this horn is 1969 to ’70 and this is serial number 4,005, so no, not in his life,” Landress said. “When Schilke became a big factory, like it is now—they are still made very high quality, very close to Schilke’s standards—but they make way more now than they ever did when Schilke was running the show.”

The oldest variant of a trumpet, dating to about 1500 B.C., was a megaphone. Since then, the tubing has been lengthened, shortened and coiled, and valves have been added, turning something used to amplify sound, into an instrument with many sounds.


Landress buffs a trumpet piece.

“Besson is kind of considered the inventor of the modern trumpet, and companies for the past one hundred years, eighty years, have been copying Besson designs. So I’ve gone back to tradition by copying,” Landress says and then pauses. “Not copying, but being inspired by those original designed trumpets from the teens and ’20s that made the trumpet what it is today.”

Bach, in the early ’20s, and Elden Benge in the late ’30s, both played Bessons until they started making their own trumpets.

“When you are talking trumpets, Bach is probably one of the most standard professional brands out there these days,” Landress says.

Landress pulled out a Bach trumpet from the 1920s and one from the 1990s and noted the mostly decorative differences between the two. The ’20s horn had multiple engraved serial numbers and the ’90s horn had only one. The ’20s horn had a glamorous logo made from a steel-plated stamp while the ’90s one had an unhandsome machine-stamp.

As far as playability, serial numbers and stamps don’t really matter. Engravings are mere embellishments. “It’s not a good or bad thing per se, but there was more time put into this,” Landress says, pointing to the earlier Bach. “With all the handcrafted instruments, there is more time put in them than what newer instruments are doing now because there is more demand. It’s a global market now.”

Landress’s shop is on the 5th floor of a building with a recessed façade. The front entrance is one of those nondescript city doors that you could pass every day without notice, including the awning over it advertising a nail salon. Shiny trumpets hang in a glass case by the door of his shop. Behind the front desk, his workstation is strewn with tools and parts, only partially organized. If he’s making a brace, the talon-like piece of metal that supports the instrument’s two horizontal pipes, he starts by looking in a drawer labeled “molds.” Only sometimes will the part actually be there. Landress has begun labeling cabinets to stave off the frustration that often comes with looking for a tool or part mid-job. He’s fastidious, but only to a point. When I suggested he alphabetize his drawers, he scoffed and said, “Oh no, that would be too organized.”


A few of the many pieces and tools used to maintain trumpets.

Landress is a hefty guy, which is an asset considering he contorts metal for a living. He often uses his weight to muscle a piece into shape. When clients walk in, he never seems miffed about putting work on hold. A gentleman brought in a trumpet he’d purchased on EBay that needed some valve adjustments. Landress replaced some materials, reassured the man that he had scored a good deal on a used horn, and outright refused payment. “No, no man, I won’t take it,” he said. “This took five minutes and I barely spent a dollar or two on parts.” The guy insisted on giving him $20. Landress sheepishly slipped the money into his pocket. It almost doesn’t matter if Landress is so endearing because he knows that word of mouth can make or break his business. Let’s suppose it is all an act, he plays it very well.

“If somebody is coming in here, even if they’re a crackhead, a student, a living legend, they deserve my time and my respect,” he says. Given the demands of his job, Landress is usually in his shop around eighty to ninety hours each week. One day, a trumpeter dropped by to chat and spent close to an hour boasting about his long career as a musician, his other career in the FBI and his kickboxing prowess. Before leaving, he announced that he’d be back every day that week. To this, Landress just smiled.

When a trumpeter blows into the mouthpiece of a horn, the air goes in, travels across the lead pipe, through a tuning slide, passing the valve section, then up and out of the bell, where music comes out.

The steps for making a horn aren’t necessarily complicated, but they are painstakingly tedious. Landress is a stickler for construction. He does all of his work in his cramped studio, a job which in the wrong hands could be considered a bit thankless. To make the lead pipe, Landress begins with a sheet of brass. He cuts it to size using a template. He files the edge, eliminating any burrs, then folds and hammers it over a mandrel, a steel form in the shape of a tube.

“As you can see, this is not quite the fun part. So you can imagine if I’m making the pieces like this how time-consuming it is,” he says. “At a factory level, in the time it would take for me to hammer this out, they can make ten tubes.”

After the sheet is shaped, Landress seals the seam by heating the tube with a miniature blowtorch while adding silver, a bonding agent. When that’s done, he lets the brass cool in order to manipulate it. Heating and cooling change the molecular structure of the metal so it’s more malleable, and Landress can bully it into shape. He cleans the tube, puts it back on the mandrel, hammers again to flatten the inside, then wedges it between two metal rollers to smooth out the shape and round off any rough edges, particularly around the seam. Then he goes back three steps and starts again; heats, cools, shapes; then again, heats, cools, shapes, until he considers it perfect. To show me what perfect doesn’t look like, Landress lifted a lead pipe up against the light, pointed out a faint line running along the interior, a seam that he hadn’t successfully burnished out, and threw the pipe into the recycling bin.

Landress checks the curve of a French Horn.

“That’s the disadvantage of doing it by hand. I messed up, it didn’t come out exactly how I like it, and what do I do? Nothing. I start over and remake it,” Landress says, “I want it to be flawless and that’s one reason why it takes me so long to make something. If it’s not perfect, I don’t use it.”

With the exception of the valve section, which Landress purchases from a vendor, he repeats this process for every piece of the trumpet, using different molds or templates and bending brass over different shapes. Landress has shown the finished product to trumpet engineers and designers and after detailing his process, they have all responded in kind—“Why would you ever do that?” they’ll say.

“And I say, well, if I’m going to make something,” Landress says, “I’m going to make something well because for me part of the enjoyment is to make it from a sheet of metal into an instrument.”

“I was fighting with my Monette,” modern jazz trumpeter Mark Rapp says about why he wasn’t happy with his old horn. Landress is making him a new one.

“Landress’ [horn] kicks Monette’s ass!” Rapp says. “Josh’s horn allows you to have your own voice on a trumpet. Whatever emotion you have, you can play on that horn.”

While inadequacies in the sound and feel of an instrument are rationalized as flaws in its construction, hitting a note in an upper register, like a high C, is as much a mental problem as a physical one. If you are confident that an instrument feels right, you’ll be less constrained by it and better able to speak through it.

“We are all looking for freedom of expression within limited means, that is to say within the confines of the instrument,” says Jordan McClean, lead trumpeter for the afrobeat group Antibalas, who plays a Landress trumpet. “All of the qualities [of a good musician] are found in the player, with the trumpet as an extension of the musician.”

Trumpeters often want a lot of things in their horns—range, ease of play; a clean, deep, versatile sound. They want to have a trumpet that can support all sorts of styles, from jazz to classical.

“I needed an instrument that would fit in a number of different settings. I was going into playing eight shows a week in a ten-piece band on Broadway,” McClean continues. “I also wanted the same instrument to speak in chamber and classical music settings, so that is a rare instrument.”

Landress is confident that no two of his trumpets are the same, which makes every trumpet he’s made rare, but not perfect.

“When I’m making an instrument for somebody and somebody is looking for something very particular,” Landress says, “usually, they’ve bought a lot of different horns, tried a lot of different horns, and they’re not happy with anything. So then I try to work with them to make something that fits them perfectly.”

A perfect trumpet is not going to make you a better trumpeter, mostly because there is no such thing as a perfect trumpet. There are high-quality, sturdy trumpets, trumpets which are thoughtfully constructed, with small decorative flourishes and nifty design features, much like Landress’s. All the tubing may be rounded to a perfect diameter, shaped to a perfect dimension, it may have no faint seam inside the lead pipe, and a player still may not like it.

“When you are playing a brass instrument it’s not just the instrument that makes that sound and produces stuff, it’s also your body,” Landress says. “You look at people like Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis, very unique sounds. People can buy the exact same instrument, the exact same mouthpiece as these guys can and they won’t sound anything like that. So the person is part of the instrument too.”

A custom Landress trumpet makes you a better trumpeter because it is for you and no one else.


One of Landress’ assistants taps a French horn back into shape.

Landress’s 49th trumpet was for a student at The New School named Yoshi. Yoshi came to the shop, played a few horns Landress had already made, and zeroed in on what he wanted. Landress then started constructing each piece to best meet those sound specifications. When Yoshi came back to visit, Landress handed him a rough horn—not yet polished, tenuously constructed, only partially soldered. Yoshi went into a side room to play it. He went up and down his playing register, tested the trumpet’s depth. He came back and said, “Well, I like this about it and I don’t like that, and I like this and I don’t like that.” He left and Landress went back to work. Yoshi returned, played the trumpet and said, “Well, this time, I like this but don’t like that,” and Landress made even more adjustments. After he first build, Landress changed the lead pipe, repositioned the braces, and fabricated two tuning slides because Yoshi was initially dissatisfied with the first and asked Landress to make it again. After trying out the second tuning slide, Yoshi couldn’t quite decide which one made the horn sound better, so he took them both.

“Hello, my name is Josh Landress. I recently got out of the Marine Corps band. While I was in, I served as a French horn player and a brass instrument repair specialist. Do you have any job openings?”

At twenty-one, Landress was released from service in the Marines Corps and went home to live with his parents in Seminole, Florida. To get a job, he called every music repair shop in the phone book and rattled off the same speech, “Hello, my name is Josh Landress, I recently got out of the Marine Corps ….”He was either incredibly focused or utterly naïve because when he was offered his first job, he initially rejected it.

“I eventually called Sam Ash, their store in Clearwater, Florida, and they said, ‘Oh we don’t have anybody here doing repairs, we’ll give you the number for the guy in the corporate office in New York,” Landress says. “So I called this guy up and said the same thing, ‘Hello my name is Josh Landress,’ and he says ‘We don’t have anyone down in the Florida store. What we can do is hire you as a salesman and you can then build a repair shop around that.’”

Landress said no because that wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted to repair.

Landress knew from a young age that he liked to tinker. He evinced an interest in music as a child, investing in it seriously when he was six years old, taking up guitar, then drums a few years later, and finally settling on the French horn by sixth grade. He disassembled then reassembled the instruments. In middle school, his parents were fed up supporting his fickle choices in instruments and asked a local music shop if he could apprentice there.

Landress’s stint in college was short and unsuccessful. Despite his parents’ loud objections, he enlisted in the Marines Corps at eighteen. Three years later, he was in his childhood home thumbing through the Yellow Pages for a job.

Landress rejected Sam Ash’s first offer, said he’d pay for a flight to New York and work in their repair shop for free. They were impressed enough by his work that they hired him. For the next eleven years Landress worked at Sam Ash in Midtown, running their brass repair shop, cultivating his skills, and establishing his clientele, until he realized that he was no longer an apprentice. Last September [2012], he started his own business.

It’s like Hugo Boss,” Landress said. “When you can get a custom Hugo Boss suit, you are going to pick from the Hugo Boss designs.”

Landress has a new business plan. He has noticed similarities in the sound qualities his clients have asked for and believes he knows how to make future clients what they want. He’s branding.

“I’ll still make the parts,” he says, “but instead of one person coming in and saying, ‘Well, I want it to look this way and I want it to sound that way,’ I’m just going to do a standardized. If you are going buy one of my horns, this is the way they are.”

Landress’ assistant attends to a horn.

Rather than building a trumpet from a loosely conceived wish list and some sheets of brass, he’s going to make four or five models for clients to choose from, each complimenting a different sound and feel, including one for playing in a high register with bright, piercing tones and another capable of producing a deeper, subtler sound more suitable for smooth jazz ballads. Musicians will be able to customize a horn based on the size and shape of parts Landress has already made, swapping out one for another, and request some minor adjustments.

So Landress will eventually make those models, bulk up his staff, outsource some labor, and tweak the rest. He’ll do this enough times to enhance his reputation and maybe stop there, continuing to let his repair work and sales compensate for what he’s not earning building trumpets.

Would he ever want to build a high-volume company that competes with Bach and Besson?

“I think it would be really cool but I can’t even fathom that,” he says. “My dream is to have a group of maybe ten guys working for me, doing repairs, sales and manufacturing. I want to have the mecca of trumpet and brass instruments in New York City for musicians around the world—for service, for sales and to get something custom-made.”

If he gets that far, Landress could trademark some models, custom-build those horns, and price them at a premium like Monette does. The business might peter out after he’s no longer managing it, or remain a small production with an apprentice or two, or maybe a group of ten guys in a factory, making trumpets based on his designs. Some people will remember Landress by the quality of his work, eulogizing his contribution to a disappearing craft. It will be similar to what a commenter posted on a popular trumpet forum about Calicchio after the documentary was released: “I have the most respect for craftsmen (and women) who do the work that will never really be rewarded financially in the way that the value of the work they do deserves.”

Or Landress can do what Besson, Bach, and then Schilke did before him: Capitalize on his brand and watch his trumpets move quickly through an assembly line, producing far more than he ever did by hand. Either way, his name will become a noun—I play a Landress.

Melissa Smith is a writer living in Brooklyn. She received her graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University.

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This post originally appeared on Narratively and was published July 10, 2013. This article is republished here with permission.

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