Ambrose Akinmusire: Emerging Heart
"I'm not going to say I have every record, but it's pretty hard to have a record over me," he says. "I have five or six hard drives full of jazz records. I've checked out a lot of trumpet players, from Louis Armstrong to Henry 'Red' Allen to Bix Beiderbecke. People that I constantly turn back to are people like Fats Navarro, Booker Little, Clifford Brown, Woody Shaw. Living people? Marcus Belgrave. It's kind of endless. Roy Hargrove was a big influence on me. I knew him in high school, and he always helped me out when he came to town. The same thing with Nicholas Payton and Wynton Marsalis. Terence Blanchard. ... I've always tried to go out of my way to check out lesser-known people. That's interesting to me, because they're playing not for fame or money because nobody knows themthey're playing strictly for the art. Someone like Marcus Belgrave or Joe Wilder. These kind of people are really interesting to me. Charles Tolliver, Don Cherry, Charlie Shavers."
Being the explorer that he is, Akinmusire has checked out all kinds of music and takes it all in with open ears. Rock and funk of the day, but also pop and people like Chopin. "I'm the person who's always asking people what they're checking out and writing it down, then going to check it out. Even if I don't like it, trying to figure out why I don't like it. It's never-ending.
"Jazz kind of found me," he says. "I grew up in the black church, a Baptist church. My mom says they used to take me to church when I was two or three, and I would always run up to the piano in the middle of the church service. They put me in piano lessons, and I started playing at church at the age of four or five or something like that. The feeling that you get from gospel music, and the feeling that the old jazz musicians that originated the music got from playing their instruments, is something that I didn't separate. It was always gospel music to mejust them playing it on an instrument."
In sixth grade he started playing trumpet and band music. At a summer jazz camp, he and longtime friend Jonathan Finlayson had a mentor with a big jazz record collection. "He was friends with Miles and Eddie Henderson. Every weekend, we would drive around to the flea market looking for records. He would give us history and stuff. He never really went over trumpet technique; he was just bathing us in the culture of jazz. By the time I got to ninth grade, I was such a jazz musician in the culture of who I was. I never had the chance to think about it being corny or something that my peers didn't like, because I went to a high school (Berkeley High School in Oakland) where being one of the best jazz musicians was like being a star football player. It was always cool.
"Art still flourishes there, and the kids are exposed to a lot of things at a young age," he says of his high school. "All of our jazz concerts would sell out. It was hip being a jazz musician. I never had to question it. I think that's how I learned to love it. I never had a reason not to love it. If people of my generation didn't have a reason not to like it, then they would like it. But a lot of people of my generation associate it with old people: corny, Kenny G or whatever, especially black peoplestuff they can't associate with."
A string of mentors helped him in his teen years, but in a way different from that of many young musicians. "I never had anyone say, 'The is the way you play the trumpet.' When Wynton and these guys would come to town, they would say, 'Get this book.' I would be on my own. I would get those books and play out of the books. That's it. I never had anybody to tell me what was right or wrong. I'm grateful for that. I had to figure out a lot of stuff on my own." Akinmusire would seek out trumpet players like Marsalis, Payton and Hargrove when they came to Oakland to perform.
"I did have a jazz band, and it was great. But it wasn't like an art school. We didn't have theory class. We would just come in there and put the music in front of us and play the music. It's sort of a genius approach. I taught myself how to read music and I taught myself how to play the trumpet and I taught myself harmony. It was great."