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Interviews

Ambrose Akinmusire: Emerging Heart

By Published: April 4, 2011
A fortuitous event in high school was a workshop visit by the superb saxophonist Steve Coleman
Steve Coleman
Steve Coleman
b.1956
saxophone
. Akinmusire and Finlayson sat in with him at one point during the visit. Akinmusire recounts, speckled with amusement, "After the workshop he said, 'We're going to start a band.' I've always been a big record collector. I had all the M-Base stuff. I had the stuff with him and Dave Holland
Dave Holland
Dave Holland
b.1946
bass
. I was, like, 'You're just bullshitting.' The next summer he called us for a tour. I went on tour with him when I was 19, for six weeks. I didn't know what the hell was going on. It was so embarrassing. If there was any rite of passage to becoming a man, musically, that's what that was for me. After those six weeks I was a whole different musician, definitely. He had planted a seed. I still sounded like shit. I definitely knew what I had to work on. I came back, and that's when I really, really got in the 'shed. I was always a practicer, but after that I really was in the 'shed."

Soon he was off to the Manhattan School of Music, where he had teachers like Cecil Bridgewater
Cecil Bridgewater
Cecil Bridgewater
b.1942
trumpet
, Lew Soloff
Lew Soloff
Lew Soloff
b.1944
trumpet
, Dick Oatts
Dick Oatts
Dick Oatts
b.1953
saxophone
and Laurie Frink. Akinmusire describes Frink as "the lady who kind of changed my life in terms of the trumpet: the trumpet guru." He notes, "I studied with her for three years. She helped my trumpet playing in ways I can't even describe. I wouldn't say I was a horrible trumpet player before, but she definitely made me understand that playing trumpet is a whole different beast."

His classmates included Smith, Aaron Parks
Aaron Parks
Aaron Parks
b.1983
piano
, Miguel Zenon
Miguel Zenon
Miguel Zenon
b.1976
saxophone
, John Benitez and Will Vinson
Will Vinson
Will Vinson
b.1977
sax, alto
. Being around high-caliber musicians "was great—not even thinking about career or money. That was the first time I was around musicians from others places. You get so caught up in your bubble—you say, 'Oh yeah. This is great.' You know how you fit in the world—this world that you're living in. But to go outside the bubble and be in New York and to see other people who are as passionate and serious as you are was a great big inspiring experience for me," he says. He was gigging and did a record with Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer
b.1971
piano
, (In What Language, Pi, 2003) and worked with Lonnie Plaxico
Lonnie Plaxico
Lonnie Plaxico
b.1960
bass
and Stefon Harris
Stefon Harris
Stefon Harris
b.1973
vibraphone
.

With a humble chuckle, he adds, "Man, I sounded horrible. I think all those guys saw potential in me, potential I didn't see during that time. A lot of those guys would pull me aside and have these talks with me, encouraging me—Stefon and Jeremy Pelt
Jeremy Pelt
Jeremy Pelt
b.1976
trumpet
and all these guys that were hiring me. It really helped me along the way."

Akinmusire returned to the West Coast to pursue a master's degree at the University of Southern California, then decided to audition for the renowned Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Los Angeles. "It was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life—to walk into the room and see, within five feet of you, Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
b.1940
piano
, Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter
b.1933
saxophone
and Terence Blanchard sitting in front of you with a clipboard," he says with a combination of awe and glee. "We had to play a Wayne tune for the audition, and he's sitting there in front of us—very nerve-wracking." But he was accepted, and worked simultaneously on his master's degree and in the Monk program, where Blanchard was artistic director. The schedule was brutal, with many of his days from 10 in the morning until 8:30 at night, followed by practicing his horn.

"For those two years, I really worked my ass off. Terence Blanchard really, really helped. He was the next stage in my development. Before I met him, I always had these concepts and had already figured out what I wanted to sound like, which was something that Steve Coleman stressed. But then being in a musical institution, they put so much pressure on you to sound like everybody else that you start questioning yourself. While I was at Manhattan School of Music, I was sort of the dark horse, the black swan. The teachers either loved me or hated me. Most of them hated me. They felt like I was a rebel, always questioning their authority—which I was, in a sense.

"It affected me a lot. Let's say when I was taking a solo, I would play 75 percent of the stuff that I heard in my head and then I would put 25 percent of tradition in there just to prove to people that I could do that. Then when I got to the Monk Institute and met Terence, he was, like, 'Look, man. You have something. Don't be afraid to express it. Fuck everybody else. This is you.' It's about you expressing what you want to express. That's the true meaning of art."


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