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Interviews

Sean Jones: Trumpeter with a Purpose

By Published: June 2, 2004

I believe that it's our duty to play for our fellow man, to play their story. I think all of the great musicians who came before me captured that.

Trumpeter Sean Jones, only 25, is making a strong name for himself, and a strong move up the ladder as one of the folks to watch. His tone is bright and his technique can be astonishing, thanks to his classical training.

The youngster hears the sounds around him that are not jazz, and appreciates people like Russell Gunn who plays intriguing modern music merging jazz with hip-hop and R&B under the Ethnomusicology banner. But his heart lies in jazz, the music that called to him in the fifth grade, as a fledgling trumpet student, through the horn of Miles Davis.

"To put it simply, I was captured by the swing. It was swinging so hard. I didn't know what it was, but it was so different and it was so strong that I was drawn into it. I never got into rap. I never got into hip-hop. Because to me, it's music, but it's not really music for art's sake," says the man from Warren, Ohio. "So, I got into the complexity of what jazz was. It was captivating."

Jazz is exactly what you get on his debut album as a leader, Eternal Journey on the Mack Avenue label, a strong statement out of the gate for this soft-spoken, but dedicated musician. The music sparkles, particularly Jones' trumpet, though the whole group—Mulgrew Miller, Charles Fambrough, Tia Fuller, Orrin Evans and Ralph Peterson—provides great support and robust soloing. It's a mainstream album, deliberately done so as not to bowl over the listener with too much complexity. Jones warm tone carries the day and moods swing from fiery to soft and sweet (particularly two duets with just Miller's piano and Jones).

Jones got the date after his strong playing on a Gerald Wilson big band date on Mack Avenue, New York, New Sound . He's already writing for a second album on the label, which he hopes to record in December.

"The first album, I really wanted to kind of keep it simple," Jones says. "Not do anything outrageous. To me, there's a lot of jazz albums that are out right now that are really complex, that a lot of people really can't grasp. So I tried to keep it simple. I want it to be fun and I wanted to really showcase Ralph and Charles and Mulgrew and those guys. Along with myself. Actually, the next album that I'd like to make is going to be a little more complex, musically, as far as the arrangements and whatnot. But with this first album, I really wanted to touch a lot of different bases."

He said it wasn't a matter of just playing simple songs, "but play familiar tunes. Tunes that were inspired by people. Just about everything on that album was inspired either by a person or by some life experience. And I think that's important."

He brought in close friends like Peterson and Fambrough, in part, at least, to have some experienced folks on hand to help get him through the date. He learned a lot, and can't wait to apply it to the next record, another step along the eternal journey.

"There are definitely some things that I learned that I would like to work on. It was a great learning experience for me. I had never been in the studio as a leader. Mack Avenue gave me a lot of control, surprisingly. I thought I was going to pretty much do what they wanted me to do. That wasn't the case. They really wanted me to develop. I was surrounded by great people. I was very fortunate that they let me do what I wanted to."

Songs like Fuller's "Gullyism" smoke with straight-ahead fire. Jones "Serpent" moves and slides and moves in interesting patterns. On "God Bless the Child," Jones shows a melodic, singer's-style phrasing and his tone comes more to the foreground. It's a different arrangement. The same can be said for "Over the Rainbow," which is in stark contrast to most renditions, haunting and ethereal.

"That was actually inspired by a guy at a place I was playing at years ago in New Jersey. This guy would come out every week and request 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow.' His name was Bruce," says Jones. He didn't really want to play it, but one night he acquiesced. "Afterwards I said, "˜Why did you want to hear that tune so much?' And he told me that his brother passed away. And when he got the news that his brother passed away, he was actually watching the movie [ The Wizard of Oz ] and Dorothy was singing 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow.' I said, 'How did that song make you feel when you got the news?' He said, 'I was kind of upset, and at the same time I was at ease.' I said, 'Can you describe the place where you were?' And he described this very surreal kind of place. He was imagining his brother kind of floating away, going to heaven I guess. I immediately went home and tried to relate the song to depict what he described to me. I went back the next week and I played it for him. And I subtitled it 'Bruce's Rainbow.' "

Jones is pleased with the CD and has his eyes on the next record. "I'm excited about that, with the amount I learned from the first album. I want to go into the second album really giving it my all. Not that I didn't give my all the first time around, but now I know a lot more."

Jones first appearance on Mack Avenue, with the Gerald Wilson unit, also opened his eyes. "I'll never forget waking into that studio. The producer, Stix Hooper, he didn't tell me who was going to be there. He just gave me some information. So I walked into the room and there was all these jazz legends [among them, trumpeters Clark Terry, Jon Faddis, Jimmy Owens and Eddie Henderson, and saxophonists Jimmy Heath, Frank Wess and Jerry Dodgion]. I asked myself, "˜Man, should I be here?'" he says with a laugh. "I was embarrassed to be in the room. But I just sat down and did the best that I could. It was a great experience."

Jones is aware of the tradition, as exemplified by the other trumpeters in the room that day. He plans on carrying on in the same fashion.

"When I was growing up, I was pretty much in a gospel church all day. Every day. So I'm very much influenced by gospel music. In fifth grade, that's when I began listening to Miles Davis and other jazz artists. I was very much in awe of the tradition of the music. Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro. Freddie Hubbard. All those guys. I began to collect as many records as possible and just learn all of their solos.

"I really admire the history of the instrument. I try to always give respect to that whatever I play and whatever I write. I try to incorporate some kind of history. Then there are those people that are more daring. They go into hip-hop aspects and R&B and they draw influences from that. So that's kind of cool too. I like it all, unless it's just out there and it's not really saying anything. But if there's some kind of message in the music, I'm for it," he says.

The main influences on his playing are Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw, he says. And Miles stands in the pantheon "for his adaptivity. He was able to adapt himself to any style in any era. That was amazing. He was very open-minded. He also had that ability as a leader. I hope to one day be able to lead a band that way." But there are classical influences as well.

"When I got to high school there was a trumpet teacher by the name of Esotto Pellegrini, a great classical trumpet player from Ohio. He's originally from Sicily. He taught me a lot of classical music and had me learning all these crazy solos that I never thought would come in handy until now. I really got my technique together. So I actually got my undergrad degree in classical trumpet. I started a doctorate this past year."

After high school, Jones went to Youngstown State University and studied trumpet. "I took jazz upon myself, but I wanted to be able to play the trumpet better. I really worked on playing the trumpet itself. From that point, I graduated there and went on a cruise ship. It's funny. The company went bankrupt while I was out there. I'm out there in the Bahamas on this boat. No air conditioning. I said, "˜What am I doing out here? I don't want to be out here.' I really tried to focus on what I wanted to do."

What he did was return home and start teaching at an elementary school, an experience, he boldly states, "that changed my life."

"I saw little kids, and they didn't really know what a trumpet was or what a tuba was. They asked a lot of questions. Not only that, but they had so many life experiences. It just really touched me. And I decided: OK. I have this gift of music, the universal language. I want to be able to portray what's hurting these kids. Not only these kids, but people in general. So I began to vow that I would dedicate my life to the expression of humanity, through music. Not to sit down and write what I think is a hip song, or something that's complex for the sake of being complex or something like a project. I don't write that way and I don't play for that reason. I believe that it's our duty to play for our fellow man, to play their story. I think all of the great musicians who came before me captured that. John Coltrane. Pops, Louis Armstrong. All of those people. They were able to capture the feelings and expression and emotion of mankind. I believe that's why they were so great. Not only because they could play "" they could definitely play their axes "" and they knew music forward and backward, but they had a reason for playing. That's what I want to do."

Quite a mature statement from a musician in an era when so much of what comes out of studios is motivated by dollar signs.

That's the path Jones put himself on, teaching by day and playing gigs in Cleveland with his own small group and the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra, among other gigs. It was contact from a friend, another trumpeter, that eventually pushed Jones toward the Big Apple.

"Derrick Gardner, a great trumpet player—he was out with Harry Connick Jr., who I also played with a few times—called me up and asked me why I was still in Ohio. I said, "˜I'm teaching in this elementary school' He said, "˜You need to be in New York. Like, today.' I said, "˜Well, how do I get there.' He said, "˜Call this guy up, Bill Fielder.' I really didn't know too much about Bill Fielder, except for the fact that he taught Wynton Marsalis when Wynton was very young. So I called up Professor Fieldler and talked to him a little. He said, "˜We have this thing called a fellowship at Rutgers University.' I sent him all my stuff and to make a long story short, he got me the fellowship. I moved out to New Jersey and I began to study with him, and he changed my life.

"Before him, I kind of thought that the trumpet was a difficulty I had to master. But when I got with him, I realized that the trumpet was piece of metal. It was pretty much a microphone. And if you overcome the metal, you can do anything you want on the trumpet. That changed my life."

In New York, he met Fambrough and performed on his Live at Zanzibar Blue album. Gigs and assignments trickled in, including the Mack Avenue call with Wilson that resulted in his own record contract. Now, he's touring with the Mack Avenue All Stars, doing some work with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, working with trombonist Steve Turre, and will be teaching at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. It's busy and challenging. But the challenge of jazz is something that s attractive to Jones.

"Freedom of expression. I definitely love that," he says. "In jazz, there's no right or wrong. No rules. There's definitely ways to play and different styles. You have as much expression as you want. You can play a flat third on a major chord. You can do all of those things that inhibit you in certain other music. You can bend a note, you can growl. I really appreciate that."

There are problems with the current music scene and the state of the industry, he acknowledges. But it isn't just the fault of record companies, and it is up to artists to work toward making things better. That includes educating people about jazz and its wonderful qualities and possibilities.

"As young artists, it's our responsibility to look to the past and learn from it. Learn from Pops and learn from Charlie Parker and all of those people who are now legends and were able to keep the music at such a high level and still relate to people. If we capture that, then I think that we can get it back to where it once was.

"We need to educate people as well. A lot of times musicians tend to perform... I don't know, there's this trend of people performing and not talking to the audience. Kind of having this elitist thing: 'I'm a jazz musician.' I don't think that's good. Look at Cannonball Adderley. He educated his audience at every performance. He would tell them what the blues was. He would tell them what he was playing. He was such a great performer, as well as instrumentalist and educator. The audience appreciated that he educated them. We need to start doing a little bit of that."

Expect to hear more from young Mr. Jones and expect his stories to be mature and expressive and enlightening as his journey continues.


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