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Musician Smoke Willoughby reminisces about his old friend, legendary trumpet player Rick Martin: After his mother dies when he is about nine, Rick moves in with his sister in California. One day, when she is out for the evening, Rick wanders into a mission church and is fascinated by the piano there. Having decided to take up some kind of instrument, Rick notices a trumpet in a pawn shop window and gets a job in a bowling alley to pay for it. Next to the bowling alley is an after-hours club, where Rick hears jazz for the first time. He is befriended by black trumpet player Art Hazzard, who gladly teaches his young apprentice what he knows. When Rick is older, he is able to find jobs playing for carnivals and dance marathons, but Art advises against pursuig a career as a musician, warning him that it is a hard life. Ignoring the advice of his friend, Rick follows Art to New York and there he gets a job playing trumpet for big band leader Jack Chandler and makes friends with Smoke and singer Jo Jordan. Chandler insists that Rick play the music exactly as written, but after he is finished for the night, Rick plays the jazz he loves at a small club. One night, Chandler fires Rick after he plays a jazzy number during a break, and despite Jo's efforts on his behalf, Rick refuses to go back when Chandler offers to rehire him. Later, Rick learns from Jo that Art has been sick and returns to New York. Jo gets him a job with another dance orchestra, where he becomes very popular, and after hours, he helps out Art at Louis Galba's nightclub. One night, Jo brings her friend Amy North to hear Rick play. Amy, who is studying to be a psychiatrist, blames her physician father for her mother's death by suicide and, as a result, believes that she is incapable of love. Nonetheless, Rick falls in love with her, and they are married. After their marriage, Rick and Amy are driven apart by his dedication to his music. Rick works at night and Amy goes to school in the daytime, so they seldom see each other. The situation grows steadily worse, and when Art comes looking for Rick because he hasn't been to Galba's in months, Rick lashes out at him. Later, a distraught Art is hit by a car. When he hears about the accident, Rick rushes to the hospital, but Art dies before they can be reconciled. Devastated, Rick returns home to learn that Amy has flunked her finals and wants a divorce. Rick's playing suffers, and he begins to drink heavily and finally collapses. After he recovers, he suggests to Smoke that they make their own records. Although Smoke is convinced that no one will buy them, he agrees to attempt it, but Rick is unable to complete a solo and in frustration, destroys his trumpet. Afterward, he disappears. After suffering an extended breakdown, Rick, who is ill with pneumonia, is taken by a taxi driver to a drunk tank. Smoke discovers his whereabouts and calls Jo and Amy. Amy does not come, but loyal Jo helps Rick recover. Now that he has discovered his heart, Rick is able to become a great musician.