Trumpeter John Swana

Victor L. Schermer By

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A turning point was in 1990 when I got the record deal with Gerry Teekens of Criss-Cross.
In addition to being one of the finest contemporary jazz trumpet players, John Swana is a human being who is spontaneously authentic and refuses to play a false role. Having reached the ripe old age of 38, John has performed side by side with many fabulous musicians, from Benny Golson to Tom Harrell, to Chris Potter, and a myriad of others whose names connote excellence in jazz. A consummate musician whose playing always attracts your attention for its straightforward solidity, virtuosity, and originality, John is furthermore a "big" person in the sense of both generosity of spirit and physical height! He stands 6 foot 3 inches tall and can't be missed in a room! So I approached this interview with awe and respect. Then, after I had trouble reaching him because, so he told me later, his cat sometimes jumps on his tape machine and erases the messages, I knew something was up. At the interview, which was conducted in person at my office on Rittenhouse Square, I found out what was up: John is just so very human, does not place himself above anyone (man nor beast!), and, like the proverbial Zen master, likes to run with where he is at any particular point in time (and isn't that what jazz is all about?) So we jumped from subject to subject, wherever the impulse took us, and the end result was a very enjoyable and interesting conversation about jazz, John, his very interesting family background, and the musical life. I hope you enjoy reading what John has to say as much as I enjoyed interviewing him.

AAJ: To get us going, what CDs would you take to the proverbial desert island?

JS: I always get that question, and I hate it, because I can never make up my mind! For me, well, Joe Henderson, Our Thing. I've always loved that record.

AAJ: What about trumpet players?

JS: Our Thing has Kenny Dorham on it... I would take a Miles record. Can I take a double CD?

AAJ: Yes.

JS: Miles' recordings Live at Carnegie Hall/My Funny Valentine. And then maybe I'd take Aaron Copland, Rodeo and Billy the Kid. I grew up with those. I like Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and Firebird. Debussy. Ravel, different piano styles. There's a couple of Schoenberg things that I heard recently that I like too. I studied Pierot Lunaire in school.

AAJ: Believe it or not, there's a 33 rpm vinyl recording of that with Cleo Laine singing the soprano part! Actually, she does quite a good job!

JS: I grew up with the Aaron Copland compositions. My mother had the recording of the New York Philharmonic with Bernstein conducting Billy the Kid on one side, and Rodeo on the other. She would always put it on when I would go to bed. She also had recordings by a Russian trumpet player named Timofei Docshizer, in which he played the Haydn and the Hummel, so I grew up listening to those classic trumpet concertos.

Also, I've got to throw Bartok in here- I like Bartok. Especially that string quartet with the celestra, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celestra. I have the box set with the Emerson quartet playing the Bartok string quartets.

AAJ: You're setting the stage for a number of questions that I want to ask you a bit later on. But for now, just to get an idea of your performance preferences, what are some of your favorite standard tunes?

JS: Often, the way I like to do gigs, which I don't think is necessarily good, is that I kind of go with the flow. I'm talking about the gigs around Philly, so the other guys are comfortable, and then if I'm not that familiar with the tune, I kind of get to learn it. The tunes I really love to play I don't call a lot, because I want to play tunes that I don't know as well.

AAJ: OK, but do you have a couple of tunes that are your favorites?

JS: Yeah, "Stella" [by Starlight], "If I Should Lose You."

AAJ: Any Miles tunes?

JS: I've been doing the old Milestones lately, and Kind of Blue. I always like playing his ballads. Also, I've been playing [Coltrane's] Giant Steps lately. And I've worked on "Countdown," but I don't play them on a lot of gigs. "Alone Together" [Dietz-Schwartz, composers] too. That's a nice tune for me to start a gig, because its right in the middle register.

AAJ: I like Chet Baker's version of "Alone Together" on the album, Chet. To change the subject, as a time frame for discussing your musical development, what's your date of birth?

JS: 4/26/62.

AAJ: So you would have been an adolescent in the seventies. By the way, do you know your astrological sign?

JS: Taurus.

AAJ: Does you personality fit with that sign?

JS: I don't know enough about it- don't you have to know the planets? Like Taurus, I've always wanted to get a lot of things done, but no, I must have had another planet come up behind it.

AAJ: For the record, I'm Aquarius.

JS: Joe Magnarelli is Aquarius, you know, he's on the Joe Magnarelli/John Swana two trumpet recording.

AAJ: Returning to the subject of your early musical development, I understand that your mother has been around the choral scene in the Philadelphia area. Tell us a little about your mom, and about your early exposure to music- you mentioned Copland's Billy the Kid as a classical piece to which she exposed you.

JS: Another really important piece for me that I love, is Menotti's Amal and the Night Visitors. I grew up listening to it. My mom performed in it in one of the churches on Chestnut Street [in Philadelphia] when I was a kid. She was part of the choir, so we would come out and see it live. She was in the Singing City Choir. She'd gone to New York to Julliard to study with Bernard Taylor, and he left Julliard, so she studied with him privately, and was singing in the New York area, and my father was going to Columbia. They married and moved to Ithaca, New York. Then they came down here, and she stopped doing music for a while, then got back in with Singing City, then took her masters degree at Temple University. She became the choir director at a Presbyterian Church when I was growing up, and then she got her choral conducting degree and taught music at Immaculata College.

So I was very influenced by her. And my father listened to Beethoven. But I didn't hear much jazz. They had a George Shearing record and some Al Hirt records from the sixties. But my mother was surrounded by music-she'd be giving lessons, I'd hear people singing, the folks from Singing City, and so I grew up with a lot of different music around, and her playing piano and singing a lot, and in church embarrassing us, because she'd always be the one singing loud, not obnoxiously, but she studied voice, so she stood out, and when everyone else was singing softly, she'd be packing a punch!

AAJ: Did you listen to church music as a child?

JS: There was a lot of music there. I always thought the church services themselves were really boring, but I was a kid.

AAJ: What sort of experiences first whetted your appetite for performing?

JS: We were always singing, my sister, brother, and me. I still have a tape from when I was five— we're all singing on the tape, and my father has me play the theme from the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth. My oldest sister played flute and piano. But for some reason I always wanted to play trumpet.

AAJ: I think it is interesting how musicians choose their instrument or have it chosen for them. I was surprised to learn, for example, from the recent book, The Musical World of J.J. Johnson , that J.J., the later-to-become legendary trombonist who seemed made for that instrument, was initially going to take up baritone sax in high school. As fate would have it, he attended a black school in a poor neighborhood, with a paucity of equipment, and the only useable instrument available for him was a trombone! We're all grateful for that happenstance! But in your case, your first choice was the trumpet?

JS: Oh yeah, the beautiful stuff by this Docshizer guy, and of course the Al Hirt records. He'd play certain things with the plunger mute, and made it sound like the human voice. It's funny, I don't even use the plunger, but I always thought it was really some great stuff. And in Copland's Rodeo and Billy the Kid, there are beautiful solo trumpet parts, and I chose trumpet without a second thought. And once, I went to a Mummers Day parade, but you know, those horns they give you, they're long and plastic and you just blow? I got one of those, and was blasting it around the house thinking it was the greatest thing.

AAJ: Your public relations bio states that you were born in Norristown, PA, took up the trumpet at the age of 11, and that you were drawn to jazz at the age of 17 after hearing Dizzy Gillespie. Then, the interest in jazz developed into a passion while you were in college. However, it's my impression that your style of playing is virtually the opposite of Dizzy's. His sound is frenetic and strained, deliberately so, as if to convey a tension, an electricity. Your playing on the other hand is very clear, natural, well-considered, even reserved. You seem always to be "on top of" the music, not straining, knowing just where you are at every moment. Of course, so many musicians feel tremendously indebted to Dizzy. What did you derive from Diz?

JS: Well, I got the whole bebop concept from him, his whole bebop feel. And the reason I didn't play like Dizzy was because I couldn't play like Dizzy: when he was at his top form, his trumpet playing was amazing. I love the album, Diz and Roy. I had the original vinyl, with Diz, Roy Eldridge, and Harry "Sweets" Edison. Diz just destroyed everyone-unbelievable! Like after playing screamingly high, he'd come down and play some really humorous stuff. I loved hearing him. I saw him live at Ambler when I was a teenager.

AAJ: I understand that Diz came to the Philadelphia area often. We know, for example, that in June, 1945, he and Charlie Parker played at the Academy of Music. Benny Golson and John Coltrane (and coincidentally Jimmy Heath) went to hear them and were, of course, floored. [Lewis Porter provides this information in John Coltrane: His Life and Music.] Later, of course, they were very moved to be able to perform with Diz.

Your bio says that you started to transcribe the solos of Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Tom Harrell. A propos of Miles, again you seem to have evolved your own style, very different from Miles. So what do you find valuable in his work?

JS: Well, it depends on the context. Actually, if I hear that kind of style with a group, I tend to move towards Davis' kind of texture. In my early twenties, Miles left Columbia Records, and they sold all his recordings at an incredibly low price! I just went nuts and bought all the sixties Miles. Every night, I'd go off by myself and put on a Miles record. I love Miles. If I'm in a certain texture, especially with the mute, I start to hear more of the Miles thing. I really come out of Freddie Hubbard more, and the stronger I'm playing, I sound more like Freddie.


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