Keyon Harrold: Capturing the Vibe

Aaron Paschal By

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When I play I go 'wherever' the vibe takes me. Sometimes I might write something and I’m thinking about the technical chords and the inner workings of a song.
—Keyon Harrold
Keyon Harrold performed at The Blue Llama in Ann Arbor, MI this March and we had an opportunity to chat about his musical background, Miles Davis, music activism, and future projects.


All About Jazz: To say that you come from a musical family would be a bit of an understatement. Can you tell us about your grandfather and how you got into music?

Keyon Harrold: My grandfather was a musician. He played the guitar and he was also a singer. My grandfather and his three brothers used to go on the road and play gigs, they wanted to be like the Temptations. Once they got back home from being on the road my grandfather knew that he had to do something so he became a police officer. He really wanted to do something to help kids so he decided to start a drum and bugle corps and through that he was able to impact thousands and thousands of kids. The drum and bugle corps helped the kids that were growing up in East St. Louis and Ferguson see life in a whole new perspective. They were able to learn discipline, learn how to work and get along with large groups of people and of course learn how to play music. That's pretty much how I got my start. All of my grandfather's grandkids HAD to learn how to play music so we are a very musical family. We all had to start out playing on the horn but my brother, Emanuel Harold actually plays the drums for Gregory Porter. My grandfather was like "look, we have enough drummers but we don't have enough horn players—so until that changes y'all have to stay on horns and then you'll get the opportunity to switch over to drums." I kept getting better and better on the horn but my brother didn't so he switched over to drums. My mother and father were both ministers and had a total of 17 kids and we are all musically inclined along with our parents so yeah, I come from a musical family.

AAJ: Do you all ever get together and play?

KH: We play together at our family reunions, different birthdays and really anytime we can get together we do. We play together, record together the whole nine. All of my sisters sing and all of my brothers play and produce so we get it in!

AAJ: What about your son; does he play any instruments or is he even into music?

KH: Yes, my son Keyon Jr. "we call him Bubba" plays the drums, he plays the bass and he also produces, (all this at 14). He's a little cool-vibey dude! (laughs). We record together. He makes music for me, with me and he does stuff with his mom. He naturally gravitated towards music. If I could have him be a doctor or something like that. But music is a part of him, it's in his blood, it's in his DNA.

Sudden Inspiration

AAJ: Who are some of your musical inspirations or artists that have made a profound impact on you as an artist?

KH: Man ultimately the great Miles Davis. His horn (the Moon and Stars trumpet) is right here, I'm excited to play it tonight! Then there's Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway. Transition to today's artists and I'm inspired by D'Angelo, the late great Roy Hargrove, Common and Mos Def and even though I've had the opportunity to work with these people they are still my musical heroes.

AAJ: Let's talk about the Miles Ahead movie that you worked on. In that movie Don Cheadle played Miles Davis on screen but you played all the music as Miles; what was that experience like?

KH: It was a beautiful thing! My brother Robert Glasper got called to do the film score "me and him go way back to when we were 15/16 years old" so when he was asked who would be the perfect person to come in and fill the shoes of Miles Davis he was like; "my bro Keyon Harrold. The whole East St. Louis connection, Mississippi River trumpet playing runs deep!"

So it was an amazing experience. I got to play with and learn from the legendary Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. I also met my man Gary Clark Jr. "who later worked with me on album" during that time. It was just a big connection of great people. I'm happy that the Miles Ahead project won a Grammy Award and I can't really think of the right group of words to express the honor that I felt in paying homage to the great Miles Davis. I was pretty much his stunt double in that project.

AAJ: Did you feel a lot of pressure playing that role?

KH: You know what, I didn't. To me it was kind of like when you speak to the people that raised you, your mentors and your parents; you take in so much of what they say and how they say it that after awhile you start talking like them and REALLY understanding where they're coming from. So it was the same when the Miles Davis opportunity came around. It wasn't like I had to go home and practice or anything. I was like I know Miles' music, I've been soaking it in forever.

Circus Show

AAJ: Earlier you mentioned Gary Clark Jr., you and him have a song together on your The Mugician album called "Circus Show," how did you guys come up with the concept for that song?

KH: I was working with this amazing lady, Andrea Pizziconi, we were working on cause-related music for our company, (Compositions for a Cause) where we do a lot of different stuff for refugees and different causes for everything that's going on in the world. We were watching the news and it was right around Trump's election and we were like "Can you believe what's going on? And what the hell is going on?" It was like a circus show. What was happening just seemed unbelievable.

I called up Gary Clark Jr. and we recorded the song and it was a match made in heaven. Now that I think about it with all of the things that have happened since then we should actually do a remix! We didn't go deep enough because all of the craziness that has happened since then makes me realize that we didn't go deep enough.

When Will It Stop?

AAJ: One of the most powerful songs that I have ever heard is John Coltrane's "Alabama." He made that song in response to the infamous bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL that happened in 1963. You have a song—(MB "Mike Brown" Lament) that is just as powerful. It's sombering, impactful and uplifting all at the same time. Do you mind telling us the emotions behind that song and have you had a chance to meet his family?

KH: I have not had the opportunity to meet Mike Brown's family yet, that's something that I would love to do and I'm sure that it will happen one day.

Coming from Ferguson and being from Ferguson and having walked down those same streets that Mike Brown walked when I was growing up made it that much more painful. To see the strip where I used to get my haircut and the McDonald's that I used to walk to and to see my hometown all of a sudden on fire on CNN was just numbing. It pretty much ushered in a new era of racism in the United States. Racism has and will always be here, "it aint going nowhere" but that brought it to the forefront, helped spark the Black Lives Matter movement and forced us to start having real conversations about race.

I'm the type of person that wears my feelings on my sleeves at all times. I can't just get up and play or feel comfortable playing a set without getting up and talking to the people about what's going on with me, what's going on with the people or what's going on in the world.

I feel like it's our job as artists to really, really reflect what's going on and if you can't do that, I don't know maybe you should just listen to music from the past or something. Again, I feel like our jobs as musicians is to be the newscasters of sound so I wrote (MB Lament) as a tribute to Mike Brown because it really affected me.

Having a son I know how I felt when he had to go to the hospital for the first time but I can't even imagine the feeling of him never coming home or laying out in the street like roadkill. That really touched me so I wrote that song in homage to Mike Brown and to his family and in fact to all of the people across the country that have lost their lives for no good reason through police brutality.

Ferguson is home. I was there recently doing an event for a nonprofit organization called Ladies in Hardship. So no matter where I may live Ferguson will always be home.

Vibes & Stuff

AAJ: How important is your "vibe" when you play?

KH: When I play I go "wherever" the vibe takes me. Sometimes I might write something and I'm thinking about the technical chords and the inner workings of a song. After awhile I get to a place where I've either played it enough or the musicians around me will help me go to a place where I'm pretty much in a trance. I don't even think about the chords. I'm making sounds, I'm making statements, I'm communicating. I'm communicating with the band, I'm communicating with the audience and its just like being in a portal where I'm just "there." Like I'm experiencing an out of body experience just hovering over reality.

Sometimes I can get together with some cats that can get me there more often than not and that's what you want. Life is a journey and I've played some of my songs thousands of times but each time I play them it's a new experience. You're going to hear something else, you're going to feel something else. A lot of that depends on what type of energy I have coming into the performance. Maybe I came in happy, maybe I heard some terrible news right before you stepped in the door. Sometimes I play from a happy place and sometimes I play from a place of just utter disgust. You just never really know and that energy is the thing that separates people. Can you plug into that portal that takes you somewhere else? It aint nothing but twelve notes but how you use them and tap into your emotions is where the music is made.


AAJ: You've worked with a ton of different artists throughout the years. Who are some artists that you're looking to collaborate with in the near future?

KH: I've vibed with a lot of different artists on their projects so now I'm looking forward to a lot of those same people working with me on my projects so it's different. Like Nas, I've collaborated with him a bunch of times but now I want him to be on one of my songs. I would love to work with Radiohead, that would be dope. There's a lot of different people I would love to collaborate with on different levels. Beyoncè, Jay-Z, Maxwell—I've done their stuff, wrote music for their projects and played for them so to have them help bring life to one of my songs would be dope and is something that I'm trying to make happen! So the new record is going to have some nice, nice vibes! It's an out of space, kind of odyssey type of thing and I'm definitely excited about it!

AAJ: When can we expect a new Keyon Harrold album to drop?

KH: The new album is coming soon! Hopefully early May and I plan on touring and hitting places across the country that I haven't had the chance to play yet.

AAJ: I know the COVID-19 has caused you to cancel and reschedule a lot of gigs, what are you doing to stay busy and possibly supplement your income?

KH: I'm doing lessons online and going live on instagram so the people out there can definitely vibe with me on instagram @keyonharrold.

Photo credit: Aaron Paschal

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