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Meet John McNeil

By Published: May 19, 2005
Clark Terry. Stylistically I don't play anything like him, but he's a huge influence on my life. He heard me play when I was about 20 years old. I had received no encouragement at all about being a professional player. All I ever heard was how hard it was, how much competition there was. I told Clark I wanted to become a professional musician. He said, "Good. You've got some stuff to learn, but you' re already a player. That' s number one. Number two—there's never a shortage of people to tell you what you can't do. Your job is not to listen to them. When you get to New York (I say 'when' because I know you'll get there.) be able to do anything because the economics will kick your ass. Any job that anybody asks you to do say 'yes'. Then you'll be fine." After that I stopped asking people for permission to do what I wanted to do. The same thing happened when I was trying to get my first record as a leader. People would say, "Look at so-and-so—they' re not with any label, and look how great they play. What makes you think you can do it?" I remembered Clark and ended up getting a record deal just because I didn't listen.

Trumpet-wise I think I have your standard influences: Miles, Dizzy, Don Cherry, everybody. Ornette's music in general. As a trumpeter Ornette actually got pretty good later on. When he first started playing it he was just making noise for the sound and the effect. I've been more inspired by saxophone players actually.

Dave Liebman. I've learned a lot from him: how to put tunes together, his intensity, his time feel. I've always tried to get a time feel that would enable my lines to really weigh a lot the way his do when he plays tenor.

Herbie Hancock. I transcribed a lot of his solos and played them on trumpet. Sometimes on piano solos you have to change the register because they go way beyond what a trumpet can do. I took the ones from ESP and other Miles Davis records mostly because they're not very long, but they say a lot.

Bob Brookmeyer. He brings a lot to the table. People who study with him really learn a lot in a short time. For somebody that's got a reputation for being gruff he's very easy actually. He doesn't suffer fools. I used to go hear Bob play every chance I got. He doesn't play in New York much anymore, but he used to have this duo with Jim Hall that I always checked out. He's so crafty with harmony, and he plays a lot of motivic stuff.

Thad Jones. He is actually my biggest influence musically. He was brilliant, could make a sequence out of anything. I met him before I moved to New York at a jam session in Kansas. We played together, traded phrases back and forth. I told him I was going to be moving to New York. He invited me to bring my horn to the Monday night Thad Jones - Mel Lewis Band and play a tune with the band. I did, and I wound up subbing with them. After the first time I played with them Thad called me over. He was half a foot taller than me and looked like an intimidating guy. He said, "You play a lot of ideas, but you just throw them away. You never know how many ideas you' re going to have—one of these days you might run out. When you play an idea you have to work with it—move it around, change keys, change it up rhythmically." From that evening I became a different player.

Frank Rosolino. I knew him pretty well, and I'm still not over it. [Rosolino killed himself in 1978] One night when I was subbing Thad called him up from the audience to play on "Willow Weep for Me." He didn't know the arrangement, he had a borrowed horn and mouthpiece, and he sounded great. When I was playing with Horace Silver we were on the same circuit as Frank the summer before he died. He told me he had done this great TV show with Slide Hampton in Holland. He said he wasn't going to do any more studio stuff—he was just going to play in clubs. I didn't know about it, but he must have been schizophrenic or bi-polar.


As a free-lance player and writer I' ve done Greek weddings, Gypsy funerals, big band arrangements, a brass band at Yankee Stadium playing "Oh Canada," you name it. I' ve even written some smooth jazz things and arranged a cabaret show. I even sang on some Muzak-style easy listening records, but don't tell anyone about that. Just keep it our little secret, okay? When I was first getting started as a professional musician I was starving. Out on the west coast I got a job playing alto saxophone at a dude ranch. I went out and bought an alto, got the fingering chart, and taught myself. I thought maybe I'd get one or two nights' work before they fired me. They actually liked me, didn' t even notice that I was bad. That tells you all you need to know about the level of the musicians involved.

Visit John McNeil on the web.

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Download jazz mp3 “Brother Frank” by John McNeil