When I was a young middle school trumpet player in Columbia, MD, Alex Norris was kind of a musical legend around Howard County. Not only was he arguably the best trumpeter in the state, but he could play funk electric bass, and he could also play guitar like Jimi Hendrix! We both attended Peabody Conservatory together, and Norris was highly responsible for much of my musical development. Norris has gone on to become one of the great jazz trumpet players as well as a highly respected educator; after a stint at the University of Miami, Norris will begin this fall as an instructor at our alma mater, Peabody Conservatory. I sat down with him in New York to talk to him about his beginnings and musical philosophies.
George Colligan: We are sitting here with Alex Norris, one of the greatest jazz trumpet players that you have probably never heard of. Part of the goal of these interviews is to make people aware of musicians like yourself, who are out here on the scene, plugging away, regardless of the level of hype. Why don't you start from the very beginning: How did you get into music?
Alex Norris: My father was an amateur classical pianist, and he and my mother sang in the church choir, and they played classical music in the house all the time. They played WGMS, the classical station in the Washington, D.C. area, all the time. Later on, through some other family members and friends, I was exposed to rock and roll: The Beatles, The Moody Blues, some of the hard rock bands of the '70s. I was a big KISS fan back then. I took piano lessons when I was very young, but I got fired by two piano teachers because I didn't show any interest.
Then in third grade, I would notice that there would be kids with instrument cases always getting out of class. "Where are you going?" I would ask. " Oh, we have to go to band practice." So I thought that was kind of cool, to be able to get out of class like that. So the next year, I decided I was going to join the school band. I wasn't sure what instrument I was going to play, but I knew that it would be trumpet, saxophone, or drums; only because I thought those were the cool boy type instruments. It's happenstance that the first instrument that the band director called out was the trumpet. So I just shouted, "I'll play trumpet!"
So it went from there, and unfortunately for about two years I kind of stunk! But my parents would force me to practice, only because they figured if they had paid for the trumpet, then I should be practicing. Also, my father had a lot of sheet music lying around, and he happened to have the music for "Trumpet Voluntary." My father made me practice it. I didn't sound very good playing it, but I would play it while my father accompanied me, you know, for friends who would come over.
And then one day, during a lull in band practice at school, I started playing "Trumpet Voluntary," and the band director was surprised. " I didn't know you could play that!" he said. "Let's make you First Trumpet!" So from then on, my identity was as the guy who could play the trumpet well. And then I took private lessons from the band director, who was named Bob Barrett. I got much better throughout middle school, and I started playing out of the Arban's book, and a lot of classical stuff. I was doing All State Band and Solo Festivals, and so forth.
But I was still listening to a lot of funk and rock and roll, which I think is what ended up leading me to jazz.
The technical proficiency required to play classical and the groove aspect of funk and rock and roll made me interested in jazz.
GC: How did you get into guitar?
AN: I saw how popular other kids were who played guitar. I bugged my father to get me one, so I was playing guitar at the same time. I just played it incessantly. I took private lessons in high school. I guess you can see that music became an all-consuming thing for me. I think high school is where you real can establish an identity. Music was my identity. [laughs] I became "King Band Geek!"
And I was in the jazz ensemble. I didn't really know how to solo, but I would read the written solo in these big band charts, and then I would start to embellish them. I also figured out that the letter of the chord was the root of the chord, and then I would figure out the third. And also, my older brother, who was a classical violinist, had taken music theory; he would pass along knowledge to me. That's how I learned how the numbers of the notes corresponded with the chord.
GC: So how did you make the transition from merely embellishing to really being comfortable with the jazz language?