Trumpet (novel)

Infobox Book |
name = Trumpet

image_caption = Hardback edition
author = Jackie Kay
country = United Kingdom
language = English
genre = Novel
publisher = Picador (UK)
pub_date = 1998
media_type = Print (Hardback & Paperback)
pages = 278 pp
isbn = ISBN 0330331450

"Trumpet" is a fictional novel by Jackie Kay who is a poet and author born in Scotland. She 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 instill in them compassion in the presence of unconditional love. Kay's pros often border 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 in swept along in the flow of the characters' thoughts and emotions.

Plot introduction

"Trumpet", the debut novel of Scottish writer Jackie Kay, unfolds a story about an acclaimed jazz trumpeter, Joss Moody, and the revelation of his true sex as a woman 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 1930s. The novel addresses themes of identity, grief, love, relationship, and secret. Through the accounts of his 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.

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. Joss 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.

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 really a woman. No one knew this shocking truth except his wife. Not even Colman, the Moody's 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 next best seller. After time, and a visit to Joss' 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 Moody's vacation home, and a slew of characters whose paths have crossed with Joss' give accounts of their memories and experiences. Interestingly, all the characters’ seem to either accept Joss's identity, or perceive it as irrelevant.


The majority of "Trumpet" is set is London in 1997. Memories of Joss’ life time bring the book's setting to span a seventy year time-period beginning in 1927. A majority of these memories are set around the 1960s during the beginning of Joss and Millie's relationship and their early marriage. This was the time-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' birth.


The novel centers around 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 decides to live his life as a man. He becomes a famous trumpet player. Joss devotes his life to his passion of music. He 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. He was unaware of his father's hidden sexuality. When his father's death uncovers the secret, Colman is already a grown man of thirty. He is sent into a tumult of emotions including confusion, anger, embarrassment, and grief. Although the Colman's confusion and hurt is understandable, it is hard for the reader to like the unmotivated and often abrasive character of Colman Moody, especially because his good qualities before the scandal, at earlier stages of his life, are hard to come by. However, as Colman comes to terms with the realities of his life, readers might grow to harbor some level of sympathy for a character that 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 such as the registrar, the doctor, the funeral director, Moody's drummer Big Red McCall, and the Moody's maid Maggie, also make appearances in the unfolding events after Joss’ 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 throughout its entirety. The central plot element of the story is that Joss was biologically a woman, but lived his life as a man. This brings the question of sex, gender, and identity to the immediate attention of the reader.

Although to others Joss' 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.

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 in a letter Joss left Colman that does not answer these questions, but rather talks about Joss' 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' 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 media scandal that follows Joss' 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 focussed 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' 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' life cannot be changed by his bizarre secret. The story demonstrates unconditional love as Millie, the minor characters, and, eventually, Colman, embrace there 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. In addition, Kay attempted to write the novel to be reminiscent of a musical composition.

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’ 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’ drummer (see Characters).

Literary significance and reception

In an interview, Kay spoke about her desire to make her story read like music. (Interview can be found at: Critics have acclaimed her for accomplishing this goal in a powerful and intricate narrative without melodrama. In 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." (Article can be found at: "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 and references

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”


Pearl Bailey (p.36)

Pink Floyd


"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)

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, 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.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.

Published by Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, Inc. (New York), in 2000.

Originally published by Picador (Great Britain) in 1998, and Pantheon Books (New York).

ources, References, and External Links

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Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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