While studying trumpet performance at St. Olaf College in Minnesota two decades ago, Jason Harrelson, owner of Harrelson Trumpets, became consumed with learning how the trumpet works and understanding the physics of playing one. In 1993, he began experimenting with trumpet mouthpieces, enlarging throats, backbores and adding mass, and before long, he started doing trumpet modifications on eBay in 2001. Over the last decade, he's been working in Minnesota, and he just opened a shop in Denver. We spoke with Harrelson about why he set up shop here and what makes his horns different from those of other makers.
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Westword: Why did you decide to set up a second shop in Denver?
Jason Harrelson: Well, there are quite a few reasons. Mostly it's because I'm from Montana, and I wanted to come back to the Rockies. I really miss home. It's good to be back in the mountains. Minnesota is cold and flat. Also, because Denver is a lot like Minneapolis. It's a really happening city, and there's a great music scene. I like to be right in the middle of that.
You just opened the Denver shop a few weeks ago, right?
Yeah, I just moved in about a month ago, and I really just opened up last week.
What are your plans for the new space? Is going to be kind of along the same lines as your place in Minnesota?
Well, most of the production is going to happen here. My heavy equipment is here. My machining centers are both here. So I'm just building the trumpets here. My goal is, in a year or two, to either buy or build a building and expand here.
You've done a lot of innovations with your trumpets. What makes them stand out against those of other more independent makers?
My goal has always been to make the trumpet as efficient as possible. The more efficient the horn is, the easier it is to play. But then, really, what makes me different than a lot of the other companies out there is that we build our trumpets exactly to our customer's specifications.
That's really what we've always done. I say "we," but I build everything myself, and I have a team that helps me with the front end -- website and cleanup and things like that. But, yeah, it's always been to build exactly what the customer wants. The new generation of horns I'm building now, you can change components after the horn has been built. So now we can keep customizing the horn after it's finished.
Are you one of the few companies that do customizing?
We off more custom options than all the other companies combined in the whole world. It sounds kind of crazy, but the reason that's true is because other companies don't really want to mess with custom work. Aside from Monette Trumpets, there really aren't any custom trumpet companies in the United States. And Monette only builds custom horns if you have a couple of Grammys. I mean, he doesn't build them for anybody, whereas we build a custom horn for anybody who wants one.
What made you want to start customizing horns?
I was a performance major in college twenty-some years ago, and my trumpet was old and beat up, and it didn't play very well. When I discovered that one of my friend's trumpets played a lot better, I just became really addicted to learning how the trumpet works and understanding the physics. Even though I've been doing it for twenty years, still, to this day, I'm learning how to make the trumpet better. The reason I do it is because I love to play. I'm a performer.
Talking about the physics of it and the acoustics, how much does that come into play when you're talking about overall tone and sound and that kind of thing?
All instruments are pretty much subject to the law of physics. So what really makes the different tones in the trumpet... We offer trumpets that can be extremely bright and shrill, all the way to being so big and dark and velvety, that you think it's a cello. I can build anything between that. Really, what determines that is partially the efficiency, partly the physical design of the way it's braced, and a lot of it has to do with the tapers of the tubing. It's the part you can't see inside the pipe and the bell; those tapers really make a huge difference. Between lead pipes and bell configurations, we offer hundreds of variations to fine-tune what you're looking for.
I heard you've built trumpets for cats like Arturo Sandoval, Kermit Ruffins and Jeremy Pelt, right?
Right. I do custom orders for people you've never heard of all the way to famous people all over the world. We have horns in big orchestras all over Europe and the Metropolitan Opera; we have a couple of horns in that section. But all over the nation, here in the States, most of our players are kind of all around players and jazz players.
Do jazz players favor different things than classical players?
Yeah. They're very different. Jazz players tend to be a lot more open-minded and more willing to explore all the different coppers and types of projection. I play jazz and classical, so I get both sides of it, but I prefer jazz because, in my opinion, there's a lot more expressiveness. But jazz is kind of open-ended term any more; it could almost mean anything.
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