By Larry Englund
Larry Englund hosts the weekly radio show "Rhythm and Grooves" for KFAI Radio Without Boundaries. bb
Trumpeter Sean Jones has a muscular, yet often lyrical approach to contemporary jazz. He has been called a Young Lion, a Firebrand, a Rising Star (Downbeat, 2006, 2007), and Best New Artist (Jazz Times Readers Poll, 2007). Barely thirty, he has released five albums on Detroit’s Mack Avenue Records, played on the Grammy Award-winning Turned to Blue by Nancy Wilson, and has served as a session man with Joe Lovano, Jimmy Heath, Frank Foster, and Jon Faddis, as well as for label-mates Tia Fuller and Gerald Wilson.
At his Twin Cities Jazz Festival performance on June 17, Jones and his quartet came out blazing, causing at least one fan to wonder at the band’s incendiary performance, declaring his awe with, “This is the warm-up?” [Ed. note: Jones preceded Joe Lovano on the Mears Park stage.] Jones debuted original music from an upcoming album, sharing it as a gift to the audience. I talked with Jones by phone about a week before his performance, as he took a break from a recording session.
Larry Englund: Good morning, Mr. Jones, how are you today?
Sean Jones: I’m doing well, how are you?
LE: Just fine. You said you are in the studio. Are you doing some new recording?
SJ: I’m actually in the studio with Gerald Wilson. We’re working on his next record. Next week I’m in the studio with my band.
LE: I notice you’ve been on a couple of Wilson’s records on Mack Avenue Records. He’s one of the masters.
SJ: He certainly is. He’s one of the staples of the Big Band rep, and I’m honored to work with him.
LE: What is your first memory of music?
SJ: Wow. (Pauses.) Actually, the first memory of music that I have is being in church, I think I was about five years old and saw the choir director directing the choir and I thought it was pretty cool that when he made a gesture with his hands there was sound. I thought the sound was coming out of his hands. I know that sounds strange, but I actually thought the sound was coming from his hands. So after church, when everyone was finding their way out the door, I went up to the choir stand and put my hands out thinking there was going to be sound, and there was no sound. I went to my momma and asked, “How come there’s no sound when I do it?” She said “Well, you know, that’s the music. They‘re playing the music, they’re playing the instruments.” So I’ve always been intrigued by music, man, since I was five years old.
LE: Was the choir director the first musician you admired?
SJ: I didn’t necessarily admire him, I think it was music as a whole. The first musician I ever really admired was a guy named Eddie Howard, an organist at our church. He would do stuff with his hands and feet that I thought, wow, that’s pretty amazing. I had to be in elementary school then.
LE: What was the impetus for your decision to become a jazz musician?
SJ: I would have to say, sixth grade, where I had a great teacher named Jessica Turner. She brought two Miles Davis records in. She brought Miles Davis’ Amandla, and Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, and I kind of fell in love with jazz. Then I knew that I would at least be listening to that kind of music for the rest of my life. I didn’t know until high school that I would make a career out of it.
LE: When you made that decision, what was behind that, your decision to become a jazz musician?
SJ: Two things. Someone asked me what’s the first thing you want to do when you wake up in the morning. I said, “I want to play my trumpet.” They said, “Well, that should be your career.” Then I wrote a letter to my mother telling her what I would be doing ten years from my sixteenth birthday. Those two things really led me in this direction.
LE: When you made that decision, you went to school and studied classical trumpet.
LE: What made you decide to study classical trumpet, as opposed to going to a jazz school?
SJ: Well, I figured it’s very important to understand the instrument. I wanted to study the pedagogical component of playing music, which is: knowing your instrument inside and out. Studying jazz, or any genre for that matter, is pretty much about learning the musicianship required to play a certain type of music, swing, chords, all of that. That’s musicianship. Pedagogy is how to play the instrument, or the vehicle that you choose to make music. I think a lot of jazz musicians, sort of in hindsight, begin to study the pedagogy of their instrument, because they find out their musicianship far exceeds what they’re able to do with their vehicle of choice, their instrument. For me, I wanted to make sure that both were balanced, all the way through.
LE: Now you teach at Duquesne University.
SJ: That’s correct.
LE: What are the two or three main points that you tell your students when they take one of your classes?
SJ: First and foremost, you have to be able to play your instrument. It’s extremely important to know your instrument in and out. To be able to play anything that you possibly can on your instrument. Know a variety of styles, and also get in touch with your humanity. Those three things, to me, make you a great musician. Know your instrument. Know the music, and know how to be a great human being. It’s extremely important.
LE: That will all come out in your playing.
SJ: That’s right.
LE: For the last few years you’ve been the lead trumpet for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. You’ve also put out five albums. You’re obviously doing sideman work with Gerald Wilson, Tia Fuller, and others. What have you learned from working with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra?
SJ: Work ethic. Sitting next to Wynton Marsalis, I really learned how to work and what the meaning of work is. I’ve never seen a human being work as hard as him. He really makes you want to do more when you see how much he’s working on music, raising money, going to talk with kids, and all those different things. People can say all they want about Wynton’s musicianship, and his opinions, that’s fine. But you can’t knock his work ethic. That man works extremely hard. I definitely learned that.
LE: Is there anything that you’ve learned on your own that has been important to you and your development as a musician?
SJ: People want to feel you. People want to hear your story. People want humanity when they come to hear you perform. They don’t want to hear a bunch of notes. They don’t want to hear how good you think you are, or how good you are. They want a very human experience and then they’ll go home. Because they’re trying to escape their daily routines, and their daily issues. That’s what I’m trying to do each time I get on stage and each time I put an album out.
LE: Now you’re embarking on a tour. You’ll be here in the Twin Cities for the Twin Cities Jazz Festival. You’ve played in the past with your own group. Is this a new aspect to your career?
SJ: I wouldn’t say it’s new. I’m trying to work with this ensemble a lot more. It’s become a priority. It’s always been a priority, but it’s definitely a priority now. I’ve stepped down from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to deal with my own band and my own projects full time. It’s a big step, but I’m ready for it. Also, I’ll be playing with different people. All summer I’ll be on tour with Marcus Miller, so I’m looking forward to steps in new directions.
LE: Who’s going to be with your band when you play here in the Twin Cities?
SJ: It will be Orrin Evans on piano, Luques Curtis on bass, Obed Calvaire on drums, and Brian Hogans on saxophone.
LE: Your most recent album, The Search Within, came out last year on Mack Avenue records. It’s a very personal album.
SJ: It’s definitely very personal, about my journey into my thirties, looking back, and plowing ahead into the future. The next album is pretty personal, too. It’s about love, and exploring the different aspects of love. It’s not all about love with flowers and candy and all of that. It’s the varying aspects of love.
LE: Which brings me to my final question. What’s been the most satisfying aspect of your career so far?
SJ: Just being on stage and seeing people happy about what they heard. Being able to move audiences. I’ve been a lot of places playing with a lot of people. Nothing beats the energy and the synergy of the audience when they’re feeling you, when you’re feeling them. I crave that, and I’m looking to many more years of that.
LE: Thank you so very much for your time. I look forward to seeing and hearing you at the Twin Cities Jazz Festival in Saint Paul next weekend.
SJ: We’re going to have a ball. Thank you.
Photo of Sean Jones at the Twin Cities Jazz Festival by John Whiting.