Meet John McNeil

Craig Jolley BY

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One-of-a-kind trumpeter John McNeil is not as well-known as he might be, but things are looking up for him lately after putting out a couple of varied, personal, and idea-filled CD's. The concept for the second of these, Sleep Won't Come, came out of his long-time battle with insomnia and the sense of frustration that hits him when he sees the sun come up. Of course I interviewed him at 3 A.M. after he'd played a gig at Cornelia Street Cafe with his quintet, Insomnia.

Cornelia Street Café performance

It was great, a full house for both sets. There were some sound problems at first. I have a clip-on mike, and I just go through the house system. The regular sound guy wasn't there, and he sent a sub who had zero experience. For the first set he turned on a subwoofer on my channel. It would pick up the sound of the valves and amplify it and generally distort me. Bill McHenry figured it out at intermission, and it was OK after that.

Sleep Won't Come and the Insomnia Quintet

The album Sleep Won't Come uses piano, trumpet, and bass. We were going to do the record release at the Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT) here in New York last August. Dave Douglas and a couple of guys put FONT together. It's at Tonic and various places around the city for a whole month. Jeff Jenkins and Kent McLagan [piano and bass on the CD] had other commitments, so rather than scout around for a different pianist and go through trying to get the right vibe I decided to arrange the music for something with no piano at all so there couldn't be any comparison. I took some of the music from Sleep Won't Come and adapted it for trumpet, tenor, trombone, bass and drums. Some tunes wouldn't translate, and some like "Polka Party" turned out quite different. We got a good response, and I said, "Why don't I write some more music for this group." It's turned into a band with its own identity. Curtis Hasselbring, the trombone player, is out of his mind. My pal Bill McHenry has been leading bands around town, at the Vanguard and elsewhere. Mike McGuirk, a virtuoso bassist, has been playing every gig of mine. I don't know how long that will last because he's been discovered by John Abercrombie and others.

This Way Out (OmniTone CD)

Joe Smith, the famous Spanish drummer, lives in New York half the time. He hooked me up with a little tour in Spain, three weeks. I wrote a bunch of music for the tour, with no idea of recording. Joe hired Gorka Benitez, a Spanish tenor player (who I'd never heard of). He's actually very famous there. Gorka played great, and the music started coming together after a few gigs. I said, "I'm not going to let this go," and I booked a studio at the end of the tour for two days. I did the editing in New York and took it over to Frank [Tafuri] at OmniTone, a guy who I've known for years. He called an hour later and said, "I want it." Some of the music on This Way Out is very Spanish-influenced. "Mi Tio" is like a 3/4 Flamenco thing with groups of 5 against the 3. They do stuff like that all the time. "A la Orilla," is a tango that has a real Iberian vibe. "Flor de Viento," one of Gorka's tunes, is named for a horse which belonged to some old Spanish hero. Being in that culture, you can't help having the music reflect it, although most things on the CD are pure New York.

Current bands

I'm psyched about my three bands. Urban Legend uses guitar and is oriented around [chord] changes and harmony. Steve Cardenas [the guitarist] and I have written some music for it. The last gig we played, the crowd really loved the music—it's listenable and accessible but not dumb. I'd like to get it recorded this year. Insomnia is pretty free, with very little actual harmonic structure. I just started another band with Bill McHenry [tenor player] using the same instrumentation as This Way Out: trumpet, tenor, bass, and drums. We played One Station Plaza in Peekskill, north of the city. We had a hip crowd, and it's a great place to play, great sound system. I don't know where it will lead, but I hope it's somewhere

Orchestral project with Pulse

I've got another project that's going to take the most time right now. Pulse is a group of seven composers here in New York. They're writing an orchestral suite for John Abercrombie and me to improvise over. The music uses a lot of 21st century harmony. The improvising won't be jazz as such—it will be jazz informed. We want to try to integrate the improvising and the written music. We don't want a hokey thing like a jazz rhythm section with strings added to it. John and I have been talking about it for maybe four years. We thought about doing it with Jeff Beal who writes for the movies in LA, but he's been too busy to do it. When I talked with Pulse they were on it from the beginning. With seven people contributing, one guy doesn't have to carry the whole ball, but a problem may be getting coherence. Everybody is working together, and I think we can solve that. I'm pretty excited about it. We want to perform it at IAJE in New York next year. I think we're going to do our first performance in June when some of it will be done, maybe at a gallery. We don't have a label on board right now, but it seems like an ECM thing with a crossover audience.

My Band Foot Foot (The Shaggs cover band)

The Shaggs was a rock band with three sisters, teenagers in 1968-69. A bunch of New York musicians are into them. It's the best or the worst thing you've ever heard. They didn't know anything about music. The drummer was inept—sometimes she'd be playing in two different tempos at once; and their melodies were unstructured. There's a cult following—people know the lyrics. We're doing largely instrumental versions. It's trumpet, trombone, squeezebox, violin, guitar, bass and drums, and we all sing a little. We turned one thing into a barbershop quartet. It's so unconventional it's hard to find a treatment that makes sense. I sing on one thing, a blues, and I do a little hollering. We've recorded a couple of tunes to see what they sound like, and we have enough for about one set. It might have to be at one these cabaret places. We'd like to get some of the cult following of the Shaggs to come out.


I tend to write arrangements with improvisation integrated into the composition instead of head-improv-head. There's nothing wrong with that; it's just boring if you do it on every tune. These days, when it's time to write, something clicks, and I can usually just do it. I usually write early in the day for a couple of hours at a time. The thing I'm good at is not writing the same thing over and over. My wife Lolly is a professional trombonist, and I can rely on her opinions of my music. I throw away three times as much stuff as I keep. If I were going to give advice to anyone about how to write I'd say, "Don't fall in love with what you write." I used to have a lot of trouble, but in later years I've worked as a professional writer/arranger. I've gotten commissions to write entire CD's for other people so I've gotten pretty efficient.

New England Conservatory (Boston)

I go up there and teach once a week. Some of the others on the faculty are Bob Brookmeyer, Cecil McBee, Dave Holland, and Fred Hersch every once in a while. Half of the faculty is with the Boston Symphony, so NEC has to be very flexible about touring schedules. The NEC faculty doesn't have to choose between teaching and playing, unlike a lot of colleges. The school is about teaching you to be a player. Students get from me in the classroom what they would get playing in a band. I'm not big on theory for theory's sake. I teach students how to play better, how to put things together. It's a very practical kind of thing. "Over this chord progression you can do this and this." I'm also kind of a brass troubleshooter. I had a lot of trouble learning to play the trumpet, a lot of problem-solving experience, so I became a good brass teacher. There's a whole range of people that call me up for lessons from time to time, which is ironic considering I've been known more as a creative trumpet player than technician.

Flexus (trumpet book)

I wrote Flexus with Laurie Frink, a New York trumpet guru who plays in Maria Schneider's band. We talked about it a long time. Omnitone started a publishing arm, and Flexus was the first book they put out. It's not about jazz as such, it's about how to play the trumpet. A lot of classical players buy it. It's selling really well. Readers have suggested we write a book that expands on this or that, but we haven't gotten any negative feedback at all. It's based on a unified approach to playing the trumpet. Players sometimes develop a different approach to their air stream when they articulate vs. when they slur. We recommend the same approach for both. We address things like how to maintain flexibility (moving quickly from note to another) at high volumes. It can be like trying to drive a truck in the Grand Prix. When you're improvising you're practicing unrehearsed movements. It can leave your body scrambling. We break it down—if you learn to do this it will help you. It's hard to practice playing with an ensemble sitting at home, but there are things you can do to make progress so that when you do play with an ensemble you'll sound better.

The importance of failure

It took me a long time to realize that to fail is not the most important thing. Usually when you're trying something new, failure is almost guaranteed. You don't work towards it, but you expect it. When it happens it doesn't destroy you. I use the example of a child learning to walk. He never succeeds until he finally learns to walk. All he does is fall down. He never experiences any success at all. You have to have an attitude that failure is part of the process. That attitude will allow you to take chances. In music there are very few absolute failures (I've had a few gigs that came close!), very few absolute successes, maybe none.

Trumpet playing

I've never been much interested in playing the trumpet for its own sake—what am I playing this trumpet for? It doesn't matter what horn or mouthpiece I play: after about two weeks I sound just the same. I always wanted to have an individual sound and style, to express myself. I wanted people to hear eight bars and know it was me. I don't know whether I've succeeded, but I try to put all of me on the line all the time. It doesn't always happen. For example, if you don't know the music very well it's hard to relax and get into a creative state. Another ongoing quest has been to sing everything I play, even the atonal things. (I have to slow down some of the fast things.) If I don't do that my playing isn't really coming from me—it's something I don't really hear, stuff that I just know.


This gig tonight I didn't use any mutes at all. I used a lot of them on Sleep Won't Come because of the ambient quality of some of the music. You can't imagine "Each Moment Remains" without the harmon mute. I got all that air in my sound on the tune "Sleep Won't Come"—you couldn't get that melancholy sound with an open horn. On "Escape from Beigeland" I used this "salad bowl" mute. It's like a cup mute only it has this weirder sound.

Inspirational musicians/colleagues

John Abercrombie. I enjoy playing with John a lot. The last time we had a gig together was a year ago May. I had to learn his tunes and it damn-near killed me. They're hard, but he's playing on them like it's nothing. On the other hand he writes some things that are harmonically very easy. His writing is economical, deceptively simple. I like being in a band with him because I'm not the oldest guy in it!

Danny Hayes. He was a trumpet player not known outside of New York. He played with Buddy Rich for a long time. I first met him in Florida when he was subbing in the Tonight Show band [early 70's]. The band had come to Florida to do some hospital benefits and somehow I got added to the band. Doc Severinsen's solos were written (They were always impeccable.). Danny took the rest of the trumpet solos, and he just killed me. A few years ago he developed lung cancer and didn' t tell anybody. He whipped it, but he couldn't play very loud after that. He'd say he had asthma or some nonsense. The cancer spread to his brain last May, and he lived six months. Throughout his career he worked all the time but didn't record much. They had a memorial for him on April 3, and I was tasked with putting together a sampler CD of his solos from commercial recordings and live recordings from clubs. I can't believe he's gone.

Clark Terry. Stylistically I don't play anything like him, but he's a huge influence on my life. He heard me play when I was about 20 years old. I had received no encouragement at all about being a professional player. All I ever heard was how hard it was, how much competition there was. I told Clark I wanted to become a professional musician. He said, "Good. You've got some stuff to learn, but you' re already a player. That' s number one. Number two—there's never a shortage of people to tell you what you can't do. Your job is not to listen to them. When you get to New York (I say 'when' because I know you'll get there.) be able to do anything because the economics will kick your ass. Any job that anybody asks you to do say 'yes'. Then you'll be fine." After that I stopped asking people for permission to do what I wanted to do. The same thing happened when I was trying to get my first record as a leader. People would say, "Look at so-and-so—they' re not with any label, and look how great they play. What makes you think you can do it?" I remembered Clark and ended up getting a record deal just because I didn't listen.

Trumpet-wise I think I have your standard influences: Miles, Dizzy, Don Cherry, everybody. Ornette's music in general. As a trumpeter Ornette actually got pretty good later on. When he first started playing it he was just making noise for the sound and the effect. I've been more inspired by saxophone players actually.

Dave Liebman. I've learned a lot from him: how to put tunes together, his intensity, his time feel. I've always tried to get a time feel that would enable my lines to really weigh a lot the way his do when he plays tenor.

Herbie Hancock. I transcribed a lot of his solos and played them on trumpet. Sometimes on piano solos you have to change the register because they go way beyond what a trumpet can do. I took the ones from ESP and other Miles Davis records mostly because they're not very long, but they say a lot.

Bob Brookmeyer. He brings a lot to the table. People who study with him really learn a lot in a short time. For somebody that's got a reputation for being gruff he's very easy actually. He doesn't suffer fools. I used to go hear Bob play every chance I got. He doesn't play in New York much anymore, but he used to have this duo with Jim Hall that I always checked out. He's so crafty with harmony, and he plays a lot of motivic stuff.

Thad Jones. He is actually my biggest influence musically. He was brilliant, could make a sequence out of anything. I met him before I moved to New York at a jam session in Kansas. We played together, traded phrases back and forth. I told him I was going to be moving to New York. He invited me to bring my horn to the Monday night Thad Jones - Mel Lewis Band and play a tune with the band. I did, and I wound up subbing with them. After the first time I played with them Thad called me over. He was half a foot taller than me and looked like an intimidating guy. He said, "You play a lot of ideas, but you just throw them away. You never know how many ideas you' re going to have—one of these days you might run out. When you play an idea you have to work with it—move it around, change keys, change it up rhythmically." From that evening I became a different player.

Frank Rosolino. I knew him pretty well, and I'm still not over it. [Rosolino killed himself in 1978] One night when I was subbing Thad called him up from the audience to play on "Willow Weep for Me." He didn't know the arrangement, he had a borrowed horn and mouthpiece, and he sounded great. When I was playing with Horace Silver we were on the same circuit as Frank the summer before he died. He told me he had done this great TV show with Slide Hampton in Holland. He said he wasn't going to do any more studio stuff—he was just going to play in clubs. I didn't know about it, but he must have been schizophrenic or bi-polar.


As a free-lance player and writer I' ve done Greek weddings, Gypsy funerals, big band arrangements, a brass band at Yankee Stadium playing "Oh Canada," you name it. I' ve even written some smooth jazz things and arranged a cabaret show. I even sang on some Muzak-style easy listening records, but don't tell anyone about that. Just keep it our little secret, okay? When I was first getting started as a professional musician I was starving. Out on the west coast I got a job playing alto saxophone at a dude ranch. I went out and bought an alto, got the fingering chart, and taught myself. I thought maybe I'd get one or two nights' work before they fired me. They actually liked me, didn' t even notice that I was bad. That tells you all you need to know about the level of the musicians involved.

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