If one were attempting to design a prototype for the quintessential contemporary musician in the African-American tradition, trumpeter/fluegelhornist/composer Russell Gunn would be an ideal model. A certified member of the hip-hop generation by age (born in 1971) and geography (the hardcore ghetto of East St. Louis), Russell's early aspirations in the world of rap music took precedence over the trumpet that he began playing in fourth grade. When he reached sixteen, the deadline he set for his hip-hop career to take off, his dedication to the art of jazz took shape.
Rather than abandoning the music he loved, he simply applied its energy, spirit and fiercely proud intellectual rage to the jazz idiom, creating a synthesis that is truly contemporary and singular, exemplified by his groundbreaking group, Ethnomusicology.
As the name clearly indicates, Gunn, like most of the finest young musicians to emerge in the past decade, has developed his music from a wide variety of musical influences. In his case, Gunn weaves together elements of Cuban, Brazilian, African, D.C.'s "Go Go" music, and Hip-Hop into an adventurously progressive jazz style that pays tribute to its tradition while also extending the form.
Born in Chicago, Russell was nine years old when his family moved to East St. Louis, Illinois. Always interested in music, at the age of 10, he selected the trumpet as his instrument and began a nearly decade-long membership in his school band where his cousin Anthony Wiggins, the band's featured trumpeter, and the band director Ron Carter (not the legendary bassist) fueled his musical interest.
But it was really the popular rapper LL Cool J who was his primary inspiration and first musical idol. While performing at school talent shows, making demos and constructing adventurous rhymes, Russell began to develop a deeper understanding of the jazz language which had always been so daunting, but fascinating to him.
After spending two years at Mississippi's Jackson State University on a full music scholarship, Gunn moved to St. Louis, freelancing and periodically performing on cruise ships.
It was while working at a club called Cicero's in 1993 that the great saxophonist/composer and co-founder of the World Saxophone Quartet, Oliver Lake happened to hear the young trumpeter, and immediately invited him to come to New York for a performance at the Brooklyn Museum.
Suffering undue criticism from the neo-conservative jazz mainstream for his dreadlocks and hip-hop culture style of dress, Russell's virtuoso abilities and command of all musical styles from funk to the avant-garde evidenced a serious new talent on the scene.