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Alex Norris: King Band Geek

George Colligan By

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[ Editor's Note: The following interview is reprinted from George Colligan's blog, Jazztruth]

When I was a young middle school trumpet player in Columbia, MD, Alex Norris was kind of a musical legend around Howard County. Not only was he arguably the best trumpeter in the state, but he could play funk electric bass, and he could also play guitar like Jimi Hendrix! We both attended Peabody Conservatory together, and Norris was highly responsible for much of my musical development. Norris has gone on to become one of the great jazz trumpet players as well as a highly respected educator; after a stint at the University of Miami, Norris will begin this fall as an instructor at our alma mater, Peabody Conservatory. I sat down with him in New York to talk to him about his beginnings and musical philosophies.

George Colligan: We are sitting here with Alex Norris, one of the greatest jazz trumpet players that you have probably never heard of. Part of the goal of these interviews is to make people aware of musicians like yourself, who are out here on the scene, plugging away, regardless of the level of hype. Why don't you start from the very beginning: How did you get into music?

Alex Norris: My father was an amateur classical pianist, and he and my mother sang in the church choir, and they played classical music in the house all the time. They played WGMS, the classical station in the Washington, D.C. area, all the time. Later on, through some other family members and friends, I was exposed to rock and roll: The Beatles, The Moody Blues, some of the hard rock bands of the '70s. I was a big KISS fan back then. I took piano lessons when I was very young, but I got fired by two piano teachers because I didn't show any interest.

Then in third grade, I would notice that there would be kids with instrument cases always getting out of class. "Where are you going?" I would ask. " Oh, we have to go to band practice." So I thought that was kind of cool, to be able to get out of class like that. So the next year, I decided I was going to join the school band. I wasn't sure what instrument I was going to play, but I knew that it would be trumpet, saxophone, or drums; only because I thought those were the cool boy type instruments. It's happenstance that the first instrument that the band director called out was the trumpet. So I just shouted, "I'll play trumpet!"

So it went from there, and unfortunately for about two years I kind of stunk! But my parents would force me to practice, only because they figured if they had paid for the trumpet, then I should be practicing. Also, my father had a lot of sheet music lying around, and he happened to have the music for "Trumpet Voluntary." My father made me practice it. I didn't sound very good playing it, but I would play it while my father accompanied me, you know, for friends who would come over.

And then one day, during a lull in band practice at school, I started playing "Trumpet Voluntary," and the band director was surprised. " I didn't know you could play that!" he said. "Let's make you First Trumpet!" So from then on, my identity was as the guy who could play the trumpet well. And then I took private lessons from the band director, who was named Bob Barrett. I got much better throughout middle school, and I started playing out of the Arban's book, and a lot of classical stuff. I was doing All State Band and Solo Festivals, and so forth.

But I was still listening to a lot of funk and rock and roll, which I think is what ended up leading me to jazz.

The technical proficiency required to play classical and the groove aspect of funk and rock and roll made me interested in jazz.

GC: How did you get into guitar?

AN: I saw how popular other kids were who played guitar. I bugged my father to get me one, so I was playing guitar at the same time. I just played it incessantly. I took private lessons in high school. I guess you can see that music became an all-consuming thing for me. I think high school is where you real can establish an identity. Music was my identity. [laughs] I became "King Band Geek!"

And I was in the jazz ensemble. I didn't really know how to solo, but I would read the written solo in these big band charts, and then I would start to embellish them. I also figured out that the letter of the chord was the root of the chord, and then I would figure out the third. And also, my older brother, who was a classical violinist, had taken music theory; he would pass along knowledge to me. That's how I learned how the numbers of the notes corresponded with the chord.

GC: So how did you make the transition from merely embellishing to really being comfortable with the jazz language?

AN: I guess at first it was just gaining confidence from changing the written solos. It was like, "It's okay to change the music." So from there I just being more creative, making my own melodies. Still, the only opportunity I had to improvise was in the high school big band. We had an arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie's "Manteca," and unfortunately, no one could solo over the bridge, because the chord changes were too complicated. But I would just solo over the Bb7 chord for the longest time, just trying to come up with ideas. That was fun—to explore the possibilities.

Later on, a friend of mine who was going to Berklee exposed me to Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. And then I got into Maynard Ferguson, which is common for trumpet players. Maynard was so accessible. I could never get those kind of high notes, so I was more into Miles Davis for that reason. Dizzy Gillespie was also a strong high note player in his early career...

GC: Sometimes your playing now reminds me of Dizzy, because it has the fluidity of a saxophonist. Many trumpet players have a very trumpet-like quality, but players like Dizzy, Booker Little, Kenny Wheeler, Randy Brecker, Woody Shaw, and yourself, remind me of saxophones because of the flowing linear virtuosity.

AN: All those people you mentioned have endless musical ideas! Yes, I try to play long phrases. This is jumping ahead to college, but in retrospect, I think it was good that I went to Peabody Conservatory and didn't experience a structured jazz program; I was mostly on my own with jazz. And that was when I decided I wanted to be more influenced by saxophone players than trumpet players [like] Charlie Parker, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, John Coltrane, and Hank Mobley. They were all big influences.

GC: I think one of the cool things about jazz is that we are all playing the same language in a sense; so for that reason, a jazz trumpet player can be influenced by saxophone players, a jazz pianist can be influenced by vocalists, etc.....Do you think the same idea exists in classical music? In classical music programs? My first instinct is to say no.

AN: Classical instrumentalists tend to be boxed into the world of their instrument. Not all of them. But many of them.

GC: Getting back to Miles and Dizzy Gillespie...

AN: Something about Miles that really appealed to me, I hate to use the cliché of cool, but Miles seemed cool, which can be appealing to a high school person. Miles to me was the antithesis of the football jock, although I found his playing to be extroverted.

GC: How did you get into playing electric bass?

AN: I love playing bass. I wanted to play with the rock bands around school, and they needed a bassist. I don't get to play bass much now, but I love being part of the rhythm section.

GC: When did you realize you had perfect pitch?

AN: In middle school, I could pick out melodies easily, and I just always remember that I could call out the notes, like "that's an A, that's a Bb, etc..." I think that was the point when I realized that I had some aptitude for music, and the encouragement of knowing that I had the talent.

GC: Skipping to college, when you went to Peabody, did you feel overwhelmed by the greater number of excellent musicians in Baltimore?

AN: Somewhat... I knew there were a lot of great musicians around in Baltimore. People like Gary Bartz and Gary Thomas, and also pianists Bob Butta and Tim Murphy were really important. I wasn't as aware of other jazz trumpet players in Baltimore, except for Tommy Williams, who was a big influence. Also, some of my teachers at Peabody were big influences. To be clear, classical teachers and musicians have greatly impacted my jazz playing, for sure.

GC: Talk a little bit about the Peabody Underground.

AN: Well, when you and I were students at Peabody, there was no jazz program, so we started something that was off the beaten path. You and I, saxophonist Richard Dorsey, drummer Jeremy Blynn, and Will McDonald, we were doing something that for Peabody might as well have been avant-garde. Looking back, that was a huge experience, because we were playing jazz on a regular basis, and we really cut our teeth. It made me realize that you can practice the syntax of jazz as much as you want at home, but if you don't apply it in a real situation, you aren't going to develop in the same way. Just playing all the time, chorus after chorus, making mistakes, and trying not to repeat yourself. This only comes from having a band and playing a lot of gigs.

GC: Now, twenty years later, as someone who is a serious jazz educator, do you think that today's students are getting the same kinds of experiences?

AN: It seems as though there is a lot of emphasis on classes in jazz programs, but there are not enough experiences where students are playing all the time. That needs to change. But some students take the initiative, and they do flourish because of that.

GC: Talk a little about some of the great sideman experiences you have had in New York.

AN: Well, initially, I toured with some bands like the Glenn Miller Band, which was actually a great experience. And I lived in London for a while because I was working with a band called Incognito. I was part of Betty Carter's Jazz Ahead , and I was a part of that up until she died, and I was music director for that eventually. Being on the scene at the club Augie's, which is now Smoke, I got to play with a bunch of great musicians, like Joel Frahm, Joe Strasser, Sam Yahel. I did a gig with Carl Allen's quintet, I was with Avishai Cohen's International Vamp Band. I played with Greg Tardy's quintet for a while.

I neglected to mention that one great band that I worked with in Baltimore was the Rhumba Club; through working with that band, I met the great bassist Andy Gonzalez, whom Rhumba Club had hired as a producer. So Andy later hired me to play with Manny Oquendo and Libre. And that led to a lot of other Latin Jazz experiences; playing with Marlon Simon's group, and with Ralph Irizarry and Timbalaye, which I played with for a long time.

I replaced trumpeter Jeremy Pelt in bassist {Lonnie Plaxico}}'s band, which was extremely challenging. His compositions were so difficult, but I made playing his music a part of my daily practice routine. Not only is his music physically challenging on the trumpet, but it doesn't really lend itself [harmonically] to traditional types of chord notation. There might be ten chords in one bar, so it's difficult to really make the changes. Lonnie would give me a piano chart, and I would improvise using that as a guide. But also, interestingly enough, it forced me to use some old school techniques: The New Orleans players, didn't just use the chords to improvise; they used the melody and what the rhythm section was playing to improvise. So Lonnie's music forced me to think outside the box of just playing the chord changes.

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