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Meet John McNeil

By Published: May 19, 2005
I wrote Flexus with Laurie Frink, a New York trumpet guru who plays in Maria Schneider's band. We talked about it a long time. Omnitone started a publishing arm, and Flexus was the first book they put out. It's not about jazz as such, it's about how to play the trumpet. A lot of classical players buy it. It's selling really well. Readers have suggested we write a book that expands on this or that, but we haven't gotten any negative feedback at all. It's based on a unified approach to playing the trumpet. Players sometimes develop a different approach to their air stream when they articulate vs. when they slur. We recommend the same approach for both. We address things like how to maintain flexibility (moving quickly from note to another) at high volumes. It can be like trying to drive a truck in the Grand Prix. When you're improvising you're practicing unrehearsed movements. It can leave your body scrambling. We break it down—if you learn to do this it will help you. It's hard to practice playing with an ensemble sitting at home, but there are things you can do to make progress so that when you do play with an ensemble you'll sound better.

The importance of failure

It took me a long time to realize that to fail is not the most important thing. Usually when you're trying something new, failure is almost guaranteed. You don't work towards it, but you expect it. When it happens it doesn't destroy you. I use the example of a child learning to walk. He never succeeds until he finally learns to walk. All he does is fall down. He never experiences any success at all. You have to have an attitude that failure is part of the process. That attitude will allow you to take chances. In music there are very few absolute failures (I've had a few gigs that came close!), very few absolute successes, maybe none.

Trumpet playing

I've never been much interested in playing the trumpet for its own sake—what am I playing this trumpet for? It doesn't matter what horn or mouthpiece I play: after about two weeks I sound just the same. I always wanted to have an individual sound and style, to express myself. I wanted people to hear eight bars and know it was me. I don't know whether I've succeeded, but I try to put all of me on the line all the time. It doesn't always happen. For example, if you don't know the music very well it's hard to relax and get into a creative state. Another ongoing quest has been to sing everything I play, even the atonal things. (I have to slow down some of the fast things.) If I don't do that my playing isn't really coming from me—it's something I don't really hear, stuff that I just know.


This gig tonight I didn't use any mutes at all. I used a lot of them on Sleep Won't Come because of the ambient quality of some of the music. You can't imagine "Each Moment Remains" without the harmon mute. I got all that air in my sound on the tune "Sleep Won't Come"—you couldn't get that melancholy sound with an open horn. On "Escape from Beigeland" I used this "salad bowl" mute. It's like a cup mute only it has this weirder sound.

Inspirational musicians/colleagues

John Abercrombie. I enjoy playing with John a lot. The last time we had a gig together was a year ago May. I had to learn his tunes and it damn-near killed me. They're hard, but he's playing on them like it's nothing. On the other hand he writes some things that are harmonically very easy. His writing is economical, deceptively simple. I like being in a band with him because I'm not the oldest guy in it!

Danny Hayes. He was a trumpet player not known outside of New York. He played with Buddy Rich for a long time. I first met him in Florida when he was subbing in the Tonight Show band [early 70's]. The band had come to Florida to do some hospital benefits and somehow I got added to the band. Doc Severinsen's solos were written (They were always impeccable.). Danny took the rest of the trumpet solos, and he just killed me. A few years ago he developed lung cancer and didn' t tell anybody. He whipped it, but he couldn't play very loud after that. He'd say he had asthma or some nonsense. The cancer spread to his brain last May, and he lived six months. Throughout his career he worked all the time but didn't record much. They had a memorial for him on April 3, and I was tasked with putting together a sampler CD of his solos from commercial recordings and live recordings from clubs. I can't believe he's gone.

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Download jazz mp3 “Brother Frank” by John McNeil