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Take Five With Thomas Heflin

AAJ Staff By

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Meet Thomas Heflin: Website bio:

Jazz trumpeter Thomas Heflin is the newest rising star in the jazz world. In 2005, he made waves on the international jazz scene when he placed second in the Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition in Seattle, WA. One of the most esteemed jazz trumpet competitions in the world, the event was judged by jazz trumpet greats Ingrid Jensen, Terell Stafford and Scott Wendholt.

One reviewer from the International Trumpet Guild described his playing there as "a very fluid approach generating lines in a seamless highly polished manner that is really a joy to experience. As a former member of the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, Heflin has recorded with the likes of Stefon Harris, Donald Brown, Gregory Tardy and John Clayton, as well as toured Europe playing festivals such as the Montreux Jazz Festival, the Ezcaray Jazz Festival, and Jazz at Vienne. Outside of the KJO, Heflin has performed in a professional capacity with the likes of James Williams, Vincent Herring, Donald Brown, James Spaulding and Lou Rawls.

Heflin moved to Austin in the fall of 2006 to teach at the University of Texas where he is pursuing his doctorate in music.

Instrument(s): Trumpet.

Teachers and/or influences? Main Influences: Woody Shaw, Nicholas Payton, Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown, Louis Armstrong, Fats Navarro.

Trumpet Teachers: Cathy Leach, Dave Rogers, Dennis Dotson Composition/Arranging Teachers: Rich DeRosa, John Mills.

I knew I wanted to be a musician when... I guess it would be when I played in the Carmine Caruso Competition. When I entered the competition, I had been working in the television industry for three years and my chops weren't in very good shape, but I entered anyway and tied for second place. It was kind of a turning point for me because it put me back into a musical environment and helped me to realize that I belonged in music. I ended up hanging out with the judges after the competition (Scott Wendholt, Terell Stafford and Ingrid Jensen) and they were really encouraging and inspiring. That was when I made the conscious decision to pursue music full time.

Your sound and approach to music: My style is a mix of both modern and traditional elements. I think it's important to know the history of the music and to incorporate it into your playing because it gives you more depth as a musician. At the same time, it's important to forge your own path. As a jazz musician, I really want to try and come up with something that's my own. I'm constantly searching for something I can incorporate into my playing that will make me sound more unique. The ultimate goal is, of course, is for listeners to be able to tell it's me after playing only a couple of notes.

Your teaching approach: Teaching jazz is difficult for a total beginner because it's such a long process. Beginners need to understand that it takes time. By this, I mean years. Some people think they can lock themselves in a room for a month and learn to play jazz. But, it doesn't work that way. The human mind takes time to process all the information you need to learn to improvise. You'll find you get better in small increments. Learning jazz is no different than learning a language. In fact, jazz literally is a language. So think about how long it takes to master a language, that is, to speak it fluently. Instead of getting obsessed about the goal, learn to enjoy the process.

Your dream band: I don't have a dream band, but I'd love to get a road gig with a jazz legend like Horace Silver, McCoy Tyner or Roy Haynes.

Anecdote from the road: When I was younger, I was in a band that was opening for Bela Fleck and the Flecktones in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Before the gig, we were supposed to do a live performance on a local television show at 6:00 AM. Inevitably, we ended up staying up the entire night before and came into the studio slaphappy and jacked up on coffee. So, when it was time to perform, the anchorman suddenly decided to interview one of the horn players. As he's answering questions, another one of the horn players looks over at the monitor and realizes that if he steps a couple of feet back, he'll be out of frame. So he steps just out of the camera's view and begins to make some pretty foul gestures at the horn player being interviewed in an attempt to throw him off. Of course, we all had a hell of a time trying to keep our composure while this was going on.

Favorite venue: One of my favorite clubs in the South, where I've been living for the past four years, is Churchill Grounds in Atlanta. It's run by a real jazz fan who makes an effort to bring in big jazz names. I was fortunate enough to one weekend with a group featuring Donald Brown, and another with a group featuring Vincent Herring. The bands there play in a space called the "Whisper Room, which has a no talking rule like the clubs in New York. The audience is really responsive and attentive. It's a great place to play jazz.

Your favorite recording in your discography and why? I think I'm most proud of being a part of the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra Album Blues Man From Memphis, which features the beautiful music of my favorite living jazz composer, Donald Brown. The album also features great arrangements by Vance Thompson and Bill Mobley. Bill is a New York trumpeter/arranger who also happens to be my favorite big band arranger right now. It's a shame more people don't know about his amazing music. Also, the album features Stefon Harris, Gregory Tardy and John Clayton, which doesn't hurt.

What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically? Above all, I try to be sincere in my music and my life. I also hope I'm adding something new to the mix with both my playing style and my compositions. For my debut album, I wanted to show that I could play originals as well as make my own stamp on a couple of standards. As I continue to develop as a musician, I want to try and become more unique and adventurous.

Did you know... I'm fascinated with graphic design and I dabble in it, but not on the professional level.

How do you use the internet to help your career? I'm a big fan of Myspace. It's a great way to get your music out there because it's immediate. All people have to do is to click on your picture to listen to your music. I also use the typical internet tools: webpages, mailing lists, etc.

CDs you are listening to now: Wise, Electrology (Naive Records); Woody Shaw, Master of the Art CBS/Columbia).

Desert Island picks: Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, Ella and Louis; Oliver Nelson, Blues and the Abstract Truth (Impulse!); Freddie Hubbard, HubTones (Blue Note); Clifford Brown, Clifford Brown and Max Roach at Basin Street (Emarcy); Sarah Vaughn, Sarah Vaughn with Clifford Brown (Emarcy); Woody Shaw, Woody III (CBS/Columbia).

How would you describe the state of jazz today? In one sense, jazz is in the doldrums. The "young lions period is over and a lot of the great masters of the music have passed away. On the other hand, I have a lot of optimism because the internet is beginning to take control away from the record companies which have dictated what people listen to for so many years. The internet is a great equalizer in that way. I'm hoping that more and more listeners will use the net to seek out their own music instead of relying on propaganda machines to tell them what's good or not.

What are some of the essential requirements to keep jazz alive and growing? In my humble opinion, jazz needs a new great innovator like Louis, Bird or Trane to breathe new life into the music. In a more general sense, we need young musicians with their own voices, not imitators. Part of the problem is the fact that musicians are expected to know too much these days. They are expected to know everything about every previous era of the music in excruciating detail. To me, that mentality fuels stagnation, not innovation.

For example, we think of bebop as the foundation of jazz now, but the initial bebop musicians were free-thinking, headstrong revolutionaries who made a conscious decision to play music that went against so many of the conventions of swing music. (Also, bebop musicians literally had less history to learn because jazz was still relatively new.) Contrast that with today. We have jazz in the universities, which is great, but often students are expected to learn how to play traditional jazz, swing, bebop, hard bop, free jazz and fusion all at the same time.

Believe me, I think knowing the tradition of the music is vital to being a good jazz musician, but at some point you can get bogged down in it. Instead, we need some new revolutionaries who are willing forge their own paths, not continue to imitate other musicians. In order for that to happen, we also need more clubs, more jam sessions, and more real-world playing experiences in general so that musicians can perform on a professional level night after night, intermingle, talk music, and exchange ideas like they did in the old days. I wish I knew how to make that happen.

What is in the near future? For my next album, I'd like to veer into electronic music. I know this has become kind of a cliché thing to do for a lot of young jazz trumpeters these days, but I have a few ideas on how to make it work. I think there are a lot of interesting avenues to be explored with electronic music. A lot of jazz musicians who do electronic albums just do essentially hip hop albums with horns, but I really want to try and fuse jazz with electronic elements, both sampled and synthesized. I think a group that is doing this well today is a group in France called Wise. I'm a big fan of their music.

By Day: Currently, I'm getting my DMA in Jazz Performance from the University of Texas at Austin. I'm also teaching a 120-student Jazz Appreciation course. It's a lot of fun.

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