William Alonzo Anderson (12 September 1916 - 29 April 1981), known as Cat Anderson, was an American jazz trumpeter best-known for his long period playing with Duke Ellington's orchestra, and for his extremely wide range (more than five octaves), especially his playing in the higher registers.

Born in Greenville, South Carolina, Anderson lost both parents when he was four years old, and was sent to live at the Jenkins Orphanage in Charleston, where he learned to play trumpet. Classmates gave him the nickname "Cat" (which he used all his life) based on his fighting style. He toured and made his first recording with the Carolina Cotton Pickers, a small group based at the orphanage. After leaving the Cotton Pickers, Anderson played with guitarist Hartley Toots, Claude Hopkins' big band, Doc Wheeler's Sunset Orchestra (1938-1942), with whom he also recorded, Lucky Millinder, the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra, Sabby Lewis's Orchestra, and Lionel Hampton, with whom he recorded the classic "Flying Home #2".

Anderson's career took off, however, in 1944, when he joined Duke Ellington's orchestra at the Earle Theater in Philadelphia. He quickly became a central part of Ellington's sound. Anderson was capable of playing in a number of jazz styles, but is best remembered as a high-note trumpeter. He had a big sound in all registers, but could play in the extreme high register (up to triple C) with great power (videos exist showing him playing high-note solos without a microphone, clearly audible over an entire big band with all the members individually miked). Wynton Marsalis has called him "one of the best ever" high note trumpeters. More than just a high-note trumpeter, though, Anderson was also a master of half-valve and plunger-mute playing. He played with Ellington's band from 1944 to 1947, from 1950 to 1959, and from 1961 to 1971, with each break corresponding to a failed attempt to lead his own big band.

After 1971, Anderson settled in the Los Angeles area, where he continued to play studio sessions, to gig with local bands (including Louie Bellson's and Bill Berry's big bands), and occasionally to tour Europe. Although his erratic behavior over the last decade (or more) of his life was well documented, it took many by surprise when he died in 1981 of a brain tumor.

"The reason I'd come to play so high was because at school there were guys who could do it much better than I could. They used to take my girls from with their high notes. "This happened every Friday night at dances. Finally, I got angry and started playing everything in the upper register. They didn't play after me this time. 'Hey, you know what you were doing there?' they asked. It turned out that I'd been playing note for note an octave above what they did." Sometimes it takes a woman to bring the best out of a man...

- William Alonzo "Cat" Anderson

Nobody can play higher

Cat Anderson talks about Duke Ellington
This article is a reprint from the Conn Chord magazine, volume 19 no. 1 (1975). With kind permission from the C.G. Conn company.

I joined Ellington's band in 1944. At that time I was playing with the Lionel Hampton band, but I was told Ellington needed a good, strong lead trumpet player. I told my friend I'd think about taking the job. So one day I called Ellington and said, "Well, I'm ready." He answered, "I was lookin' for you all the time!" "Where are you?" he asked. I said I was in Chicago and he told me he would be through in the morning. The next morning we talked - and he gave me a ticket to Philadelphia. That's where he was going to open. And I opened with him. What an experience! Kids can't get that kind of experience today - big bands don't play theaters as they did in those days. We rehearsed the music. Ellington had six trumpet players, but he said, "give the new boy the lead book." Guess I made some enemies in the beginning. We got on stage that night and I noticed that no one had music but me. I didn't know it but they memorized everything. The band started playing. I had my music on the floor trying to read it when the lights went out! At the end of the show everyone left the bandstand. I was still there in shock. Ellington came up to me and told me not to worry, that everything would fall into place. Every day between shows I was upstairs practicing. About the third day I had memorized the whole show, and started to play. Ellington just smiled and smiled. Words can't describe Duke Ellington. He never could find words to be cross. He never would fire anyone, either. Once you were in you were always in - a part of that family. And you were always loyal because that was the way he lived. Ellington left so much with us all - I just can't find the words.

Cat Talks About Music

Music will always be the basis for human understanding. You can't tell kids about that - they must assume this until they get connected with a person like Ellington. No youngster wants to go to school and be told this is right and that is wrong - he hears that at home. At clinics they want to hear about our experiences - how to play - how to go about being a good playing artist. So at clinics we talk and we demonstrate. I've had trumpet players ask if I was breathing through my nose, I show them how I breathe through my nose and keep the mouthpiece in the same position. It takes more time to breathe in, but you get more oxygen. But you're more relaxed and can give out more because you're only using the correct muscles.

How High is High?

That's something I really can't say. Right now it's three C's above the staff. But as time goes on I'm sure the bounds will be broken. During a clinic the other day I made the most beautiful third C above the staff. I stopped in the middle. I couldn't go any further - I was so happy. To play high note trumpet you must have talent - and you must be taught. My teachers could only go so far. But I was always asking questions - over and over. At the time I didn't realize it, but as an orphan I was reaching out for love. I wanted to be understood - heard - have someone love me. It's the same thing for any trumpet player. He wants to better his ways, better his position and better his playing.

Youngsters today must have good teaching. There is so much for them to know today. Anyone can play high notes if he tries and studies. But they must be careful not to hurt themselves. Fighting that horn is a losing battle. One day the lip will be paralyzed - there will be no sound coming from the horn. I can happen. The young trumpet player should ask questions - seek information. Before I play I always do warmups 'til I'm ready. You can't fight the horn and expect to win. Treat it like a baby - take it in your arms and pat it. Say things to it, and it will say things to you. You have to play with a healthy attitude or it doesn't materialize.

Cat Talks About Those Wild, Cheering Ovations

I feel like a giant. It makes me feel bigger than my horn. There are trumpet players who play equally well - some who play better. But I know its attitude toward people that counts. You have to give it all your soul and body - do it as best you know how. As long as you continue to give, people appreciate it. They see what you are giving, and they're pulling for you. Even the horn players are in your corner. Sincerity must be there. Anything you want to do you can. But you can only learn by giving and asking.

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