Trumpet Study Guide

Trumpet is a novel written by Jackie Kay in 1998. It was the first novel she wrote, and it won the 1998 Guardian Fiction Prize.

Trumpet begins with the death of Joss Moody, a highly successful jazz musician, and documents the different reactions that society has to the revelation that Joss was transgender and transsexual. Kay separates different people’s perspectives into what are at times very small chapters, ranging from those who knew Joss intimately—his wife, Millie—and those who only met him after death, such as the funeral director. As well as these chapters dedicated to social reaction, the main plot line returns constantly to two characters, Millie and her son Colman. Colman wrestles with his anger and feelings of betrayal, and initially plans to cooperate with a rapacious journalist hoping to write a lurid tell-all of Joss’s life.

Kay stated that she was inspired to write Trumpet by the life of Billy Tipton, an American jazz musician. Billy was born Dorothy Lucille Tipton, but assumed male dress when performing on stage. Soon, he was living as a man in his private life as well. As with Joss, it was discovered post-mortem that Billy was biologically female. His previous partner, Kitty Tipton, wanted Billy cremated to keep it a secret, but was persuaded by the media to go public. Many newspapers published Billy’s story, and his family made television appearances. Additionally, like her character Colman Moody, Kay was born to a white mother and black father and was adopted by a Glasgow family as a child.

Critics largely lauded Kay’s work, praising its lucid, spare, melodic prose; its sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of a trans person and the deleterious effects that the prejudice of cis persons can have on both trans persons and themselves; and its moving love story. The Independent on Sunday noted, “The book's style works like a jazz riff, a literary improvisation of the central melody of Joss's death”; The New York Times Book Review extolled, “Supremely humane . . . Kay leaves us with a broad landscape of sweet tolerance and familial love”; and the critic for Time Out wrote, “Jackie Kay makes the unbelievable gloriously real. For a first novel this is remarkably assured, full of melody and tension. Each character is given a singing part, bouncing notes and harmonies off each other as Joss's story is teasingly, movingly revealed . . . Trumpet is a love story and a lament, beautifully told."

Trumpet was adapted for the stage in 2005. Along with the Guardian Fiction Prize, it also garnered a LAMBDA Literary Award in the Transgender category in 2000.