BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- It's 11 p.m. and the night is young. The squares have gone home. The sign above the stage says "History in the making." It's jazz jam night at the Valhal Jazz Pub in Fort Greene, and the heavies have arrived.

There are about 20 of them here tonight, some of the finest young jazz musicians in New York. Trumpet players and saxmen, drummers and bassists, they come from everywhere: Kansas City, Toledo, Memphis, Philadelphia. Young men and women who were the best in their neighborhoods, the best in their schools, on their blocks, in their cities, who came to New York bearing their instruments like six-shooters in hopes of landing the dream gig. They gather at the Valhal, far from trendy downtown Manhattan, to cut their teeth, strut their stuff, see old friends, meet new ones, trade laughs and licks, and claw it out with superior players. It's an underground musical wonderland here, quite removed from the star-maker machinery of the record industry -- and in this world, the young man sitting in the darkened rear of the club, holding his gleaming trumpet in his lap, is a king.

He sits alone, silent and slim in a dark gray jacket, his right hand on his horn. His head is bowed slightly, giving him an edgy, pensive, shy look. Yet as he rises to walk toward the stage, moving like a shadow, the other horn players -- trumpeters and saxmen lined against the wall waiting to blow -- part respectfully to let him pass. They know who he is. They know what he can do. His name is Wallace Roney III. He is 27 years old. He is from Washington, and he is one of the best jazz trumpet players in the world.

In the world.

It was something Roney always wanted to be growing up -- the best in the world. The first time he put his lips to the trumpet at age 5, it seemed like something inside him caught fire. He was born with perfect pitch, the ability to distinguish any note instantly -- ping a wine glass with a quarter and he can tell you what the note is -- but the trumpet meant more to him than that. With the horn, he found secrets and jewels of truth within himself that he never knew existed. When he blew the trumpet, he felt as if he were instant history.

He was the pride and joy of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts when he left the District for New York City and the Big Time. (He is in Washington tonight with the Jae Sinnet Quintet at One Step Down on Pennsylvania Avenue.) At age 18 he was accepted into the Juilliard School, though he chose not to attend. At 19 he was the Down Beat magazine "Best College Jazz Instrumentalist Soloist" and won a berth in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers -- the most prestigious job for any young jazzman. By 23 he had been cheered by thousands in Holland and Switzerland, besieged for autographs in India and Pakistan -- and played and recorded with some of the finest names in jazz, including Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Kenny Barron, Horace Silver and Chico Freeman. His first album, "Verses" (Muse Records), was released in October, and he is currently a member of the Tony Williams Quintet.

"He certainly rates as one of the brightest young players on the scene," says Barron, a professor of music at Rutgers University and a veteran jazz pianist. Adds saxophonist Donald Harrison, one of the today's young jazz lions: "Wallace is one of the top trumpet players around."

But there is another top trumpet player around these days. His name is Wynton Marsalis, and he needs no further introduction. Roney has lived his entire professional life in Marsalis' shadow.

There's no ill feeling between these two young talents, who first met as teen-agers while touring with the Blakey band in 1980, but they are a study in contrasts. Roney is quiet and reflective; Marsalis is outspoken, an eloquent spokesman for jazz. Roney lives in a walk-up flat in Harlem, Marsalis in downtown Manhattan. As a player, Roney is emotional and lucid, fresh and hot. Marsalis is polished and technically smooth, with astounding brilliance and boldness. Roney says the most he's earned professionally is $15,000 a year. Marsalis, a seven-time Grammy winner (he was the first instrumentalist to win in both classical and jazz), earns more.

"From a jazz publication standpoint, he might live in {my} shadow, but the musicians have a lot of respect for him," Marsalis says of Roney. "He's got a tremendous ear and he knows a lot of music. He's continued to develop. I dug his album too. He's trying to deal with some very difficult music ... People like him should be supported with everything society has to offer."

But societal offerings have been slim for Roney, who spent his first years in New York playing with borrowed trumpets and sleeping on the floor of friends' apartments, determined to play jazz for a living. For the gifted trumpetman from D.C., whom local jazz sage Bill Harris once compared to the great Lee Morgan, it's been a long climb.

"I don't think a young musician should come to New York and expect things to happen to him like they happened for Wynton," Roney says. "To believe you'll get what Wynton did -- almost immediate stardom -- is impossible. Talent is only half the battle in New York. The other half is survival."

Roney is sitting at the banged-up piano in his one-bedroom flat in Harlem. It's 2 p.m., and this interview is eating into his practice time. The working tenants in the building don't appreciate trumpet as much as audiences in, say, Washington's Blues Alley, where Roney has performed with his own group and as a sideman in years past. He had to strike up a deal with the building superintendent that allows him to practice between noon and 6 p.m. "After 6 o'clock, that's it," he says. "They're fairly strict about it."

The furnishings here are spare -- trumpet, piano, a few chairs, a homemade bookcase filled with jazz and history books, a few posters -- but this is far more than Roney had when he arrived in 1981, which was about $100 and an old borrowed horn. "He's paid some heavy dues," says his best friend Eric Allen, a drummer from Southeast Washington who attended Boston's Berklee College of Music with Roney and now lives in New York. "Wallace is a principled guy. He's really struggled, but he doesn't wear it on his chest."

What Roney does wear on his chest this afternoon is a clean white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a pencil in the pocket. Later one of his trumpet students will come by for a lesson.

He lives the jazz life. He spends his afternoons practicing, composing and listening to records to analyze what other great players do, then teaches a lesson or two -- or five. In the evenings he plays gigs around the city, joins jam sessions or heads out to nightclubs to hear others perform.

And like hundreds of New York's free-lance musicians, he waits for the phone to ring. During work-filled months, he spends a good part of the time on the road. He spent all of October and most of November, for example, touring the United States and Europe with the Tony Williams Quintet. "My highest dream was to play with Art Blakey," says the soft-spoken Roney, who only recently left the Blakey band. "But my secret dream was to play with Tony Williams. I think he's taken the music to its highest plateau so far."

When he's not touring, the financial pickings are slim. Gone are the numerous clubs and big bands of the '40s, which provided the economic and musical framework for the growth and exposure of such young artists as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Most of the jazzmen graduating from music colleges in the '80s face a musical world that offers little economic hope.

"The college bands are overflowing with talented youngsters who could have gone on to become heroes in another time," jazz trombonist Bill Watrous said in a recent interview. "In the Tommy Dorsey days, there were vehicles that gave exposure to musicians coming up -- the big bands, which were yesterday's counterpart to the rock acts of the 1980s. Today, when they graduate, no matter how good they are, where are these humongous talents going to get a job?"

Roney says he might work six months one year, and one month the next. And while his album "Verses" has received strong airplay, almost no jazz album can guarantee financial security -- sales of 500,000 are considered outstanding in jazz.

What usually supports the jazz artist are earnings from tours, concerts and festivals. Most tours and venues are controlled by promoters and record executives who create a fickle, selective star system. So even as the indisputably talented Wynton Marsalis is served up as the King of the Hill, one of the latest Jazz Giants, there are other talented young trumpeters -- along with veterans like Woody Shaw, Freddie Hubbard, Art Farmer and Clark Terry -- who are alternately dropped or shuttled from label to label. It's a point that Marsalis has often made himself: that there are other good players out there.

"It doesn't have to do with talent," says Barron. "It's media hype. It's according to how the cards fall. Wynton signed with Columbia Records and the power and push is there. That's not to say Wynton's not talented. He's very talented. But Wallace is also talented, and so is {trumpeter} Terence Blanchard. Fortunately, musicians are not cutthroat kinds of people. They know that part of it has to do with publicity hype."

"If it weren't Wynton, it would've been somebody else," says Roney. "I'm glad for him. I am not slighting Wynton's talent. I have tons of respect for him. But it's like he's a museum piece. He is 'Jazz of Today.' Woody Shaw, Dizzy {Gillespie}, Freddie Hubbard, their place in history won't be denied."

Fingering the valves on his trumpet, the young hornman cites a piece of wisdom that veteran jazz drummer Billy Hart once shared with him. "He told me it's the size of your heart that makes you great. And no matter how great your talent, if you don't have the heart, you won't make it ... It's no fun struggling, but it'll make you a better musician."

Roney was born in Philadelphia, the eldest of three kids. His parents separated when he was 7, leaving Wallace, his brother Antoine (now a tenor saxophonist playing with drummer Elvin Jones) and his sister Crystal under the care of their grandparents.

His father, Wallace Roney Jr., is a former middleweight contender and former detective on the Washington police force whose career kept him from full-time parenting. "My hours were always so bad. I was never home for them," he says. He commuted regularly to Philadelphia to see his children. Today he's a U.S. marshal at the Justice Department.

"One of the first memories I have of music is hearing Miles Davis," Roney says. "My father loved Miles Davis and Lee Morgan. Like a kid today listens to Michael Jackson, I listened to Miles Davis."

At age 5 he first picked up his father's trumpet; at 7 the elder Roney bought him his own and provided the means for the books and lessons. It was a love for the instrument, along with the strict attention of his grandparents, that kept Roney off the mean North Philadelphia streets.

"The closest I came to trouble," he recalls, "was when I was about 11. I was running with a crowd of boys and one of them had busted a window in a car or something like that. I heard somebody yell the cops were coming, and I'm running for dear life. All of a sudden someone grabbed me right by the collar. I said, 'Oh God.' I turned around and it was my grandmother. It was at that point that my running days were over."

Shortly after, he was enrolled at the prestigious Philadelphia Settlement Music School, where at age 12 he performed with the Philadelphia Brass Ensemble, a classical group. Three years later his father moved the three children to the District, enrolling Wallace and Antoine in the Duke Ellington School. "He was always very sincere about his horn," says the father. "All he breathes and dreams and thinks is trumpet."

After graduating from Ellington in 1978, Roney declined Juilliard in favor of Howard University. He attended for a year, and did a 1979 summer European tour with pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and a 1980 European tour with Art Blakey's Big Band Jazz Messengers, playing second trumpet behind Marsalis. After the Big Band was dissolved into a smaller unit, Marsalis stayed on while Roney headed north to Boston.

It was in his second semester at Berklee, in early 1981, that Roney read a piece in The Village Voice announcing that Marsalis -- whose solo career was just beginning to surge -- was leaving the Jazz Messengers to play with Herbie Hancock. The story said that Blakey's band would be performing at New York City's Bottom Line that night.

Knowing that word of Marsalis' departure would spread fast in the tight jazz community and others would be gunning for his job, Roney set about raising the money to get to New York. He sold "everything. My television, my comic books, school books, my trumpet. I had to get to New York that day." He got $150 for the lot, including $75 for his trumpet. He borrowed an old Conn from a friend who was using it as a flowerpot in his window. "I took the horn, took the flowers out the bell and blew it," says Roney. "It was pretty beat up."

He used the old horn to beat out some of the finest jazz trumpet players in New York. "I played borrowed trumpets throughout my entire time with Art," he says. Jeff Lee, then one of the managers at Blues Alley, once loaned him a horn. Only after a six-month tour and recording as a sideman on the Blakey album had he made enough to buy his own.

In 1982 came a year-long stint with Chico Freeman, followed by a dry spell that was the lowest time he had ever seen. " '84 was a bad year. Nothing happened," says Roney. And '85, he says, was even worse. He found himself doing jobs with Latin dance bands and family-run reception band outfits. Many times, he remembers, "I couldn't find a gig at all. I was staying with friends, wearing out my welcome. I stayed with {musicians} Robin and Kevin Ewbanks for a while, and I used to wear a shirt and necktie around in the apartment. They kid me about it now. I wasn't wearing the necktie for show. I wore it to keep warm because it was freezing in their apartment."

"One time," his father recalls, "he was living in a place so bad I had to go up and get him out of there. It was a bad area. In Harlem somewhere. Deep Harlem, and it was tough. He's a clean-cut guy. I felt like those boys on the street were watching him."

That night the father went to a club to see the son perform, and when they returned to the apartment "they had broken in and stolen all his clothes. Everything. He didn't care. He's happy when he blows his trumpet. He says to me, 'Dad, I want to suffer. Dizzy, Miles, Woody, they had to suffer. I'll suffer too.' "

It wasn't until early 1986, when Tony Williams and Art Blakey called upon Roney within a month of one another to join their groups, that the drought ended. His resilience had won him the respect of his peers.

"Wallace is one of the most diligent and well-rounded musicians I've ever met," says trombonist Timothy Williams, another former member of the Jazz Messengers. "He's gone through a lot of times where he hasn't worked, but he's managed to maintain his playing on a very high level."

Adds Marsalis: "Wallace has fortitude. With the lack of jobs, no clubs, it's hard for a player to get himself in a position to develop. Wallace deserves extra credit because he stayed the course ... He deserves more."

"What I'd really like," Wallace Roney says, "is a house of my own, where cats could come by and just play the music all day. All day long.