What inspired you to first pick up the trumpet and what were your first attempts at playing it like?
I began playing the trumpet in sixth grade. My band director at the time let all of the students try each instrument and I remember taking to the trumpet immediately. I don’t think I really thought about it any farther than that.
Did you take lessons or are you self-taught?
A little bit of both. When it came to learning the trumpet, I had help from a private teacher. But, like a lot of people, I learned to play jazz from recordings. During high school, I spent untold hours practicing and listening to as much jazz as I could find. I used to fall asleep with my trumpet just to wake up and practice some more.
Who inspired you to learn the trumpet?
No one really inspired me to play the trumpet initially. But, it was players like Maynard Ferguson who inspired me to play jazz. Like a lot of young trumpet players, I was taken with trumpeters who could play high and loud. I idolized Maynard in high school and even went to see him in concert a couple of times. Another person who really inspired me was my best friend Jeremy Shrader. He played trumpet in the high school jazz band with me and we were the only two guys into jazz at the school. While everybody else was listing to whatever was on the radio, we were hunting down old vinyl, swapping recordings and talking jazz. One day, we discovered an Arturo Sandoval tribute album to Clifford Brown. He and I went to Tower Records in Nashville and got “Clifford Brown and Max Roach at Basin Street” After that, it was over. For a couple of years, my world revolved around Clifford Brown. I should also mention my high school band director, Kirk Ponder. He was also a trumpet player, and he put a lot of emphasis on the jazz band. He’s a great guy who really encouraged both of us to pursue jazz.
What is your practice regimen like?
These days, I make sure to warm up and to get my embrocure feeling good before playing. Then I’ll work on a transcription or getting some patterns under my fingers to help with a harmonic concept I might be working on. Practice can be tedious, so I like to take periodic breaks and play piano. Sometimes I’ll just play for fun. Other times, I’ll use it to compose a tune or transcribe someone else’s tune off of a recording.
How would you define your style of playing?
I’d say I’m most heavily influenced by Clifford Brown, Louis Armstrong, Nicholas Payton, Woody Shaw and Freddie Hubbard. My style is a mix of all of those different elements, both modern and traditional. 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. It also gives you a wider appeal, because someone who’s a fan of one of your influences will hear that in your playing and will more easily relate to it. At the same time, it’s important to forge your own path. That’s what I’m working on right now. I’m feeling pretty confident in my grasp of the fundamental language of jazz. Over the next several years, 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.
Tell us about your debut release, "Symmetry"?
The album sort of began in 2001, right after I graduated with my masters degree from William Paterson University in New Jersey. During my time there, I got to know the pianist James Williams, another fellow Tennessean who had performed with Art Blakey among others. James was serving as the head of the jazz department there, and he was the most encouraging musician I have ever met. He sort of took me under his wing during my time there. After graduation, he suggested I make a record and offered to play on it. I recorded it at Systems Two Studios in Brooklyn, NY with three other William Paterson students. After grad school, I returned to Knoxville, TN to regroup and figure out my next move in life. In the meantime I landed a job developing television shows for an independent production company. By 2004, I learned that James was very ill. I remember talking to him a few days before he passed away, and even though he was is severe pain, he told me he wanted me to keep playing and writing music. After he passed away, I thought about his final words of encouragement, and decided to finish the album with some musicians from Atlanta and to dedicate it to his memory. During this time, I also competed in the Caruso Competition. Both of those things inspired me to devote myself fully to music once and for all.
What inspired you to pick those standard tunes and share with us a little about your thought process when arranging the songs?
One of my favorite tunes on the album is “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.” When I was living in New Jersey, Quinn (whose the drummer on the album) and I used to go to a bar in Jersey called the Shepherd and the Knucklehead. They had a great jukebox there and we liked to play Louis Armstrong’s version of Sleepytime with the Claude Jenkins orchestra. Quinn is from Kentucky and the song always used to make us miss home. I decided to do my own version with James since he is a fellow Southerner, but I wanted to add my own stamp to it, so I did a little reharmonization, changed a couple of the melody notes, added a vamp, and gave it a Latin feel.
Lets talk about your creative process. How do you approach writing an original song - do you compose from the trumpet or do you use a piano?
I use the piano. Usually, I sit down and work on the changes while I sing the melody over the top. Very few of my compositions come together in one sitting. I’ll compose part of the tune, get stuck and then put it away. “Eastern Star” was like that. I knew exactly how I wanted the song to begin and end but I had a really hard time getting the middle of the tune. I gave up on it for a while. Then, one day, I went to visit my parents and sat down on their piano and finished the tune in five minutes. It’s weird how that works sometimes.
What other types of music or artists do you derive inspiration from?
I listen to everything from Louis Armstrong to Ravel to Bjork to Johnny Cash. Lately, I’ve been listening to a French group called Wise. To me they are one of the few bands to successfully fuse jazz and electronica. A lot of jazz musicians have tried this, but their stuff usually sounds like a regular hip-hop or electronica group with horns. I think Wise actually fuses the two genres together with the perfect mix of acoustic elements and synth elements. On the opposite end of the spectrum, my brother has gotten me into Ralph Stanley, the bluegrass musician. Obviously, I’m not using anything from that music in my playing, but players like Ralph Stanley and Johnny Cash have taught me the value of musical sincerity. Both of these musicians have an authenticity to their music that a lot of modern musicians lack. When they sing about the hardships of life, you believe them. This may seem like a weird parallel to be making to what I do, but I think all the greatest jazz musicians had that kind of sincerity. People like Miles Davis or Billie Holiday were honest musicians, and I think that’s why their music touched so many people.
What’s the most important bit of advice you were given by another musician?
That’s easy. One of my favorite musicians today is Donald Brown, who currently teaches at the University of Tennessee. He’s former member of Art Blakey’s band and an amazing composer and player. He told me that swinging and playing with a good feel is more important than anything else in jazz. Getting the right notes is just “icing on the cake.” That’s not to say playing great notes isn’t important, but it’s nothing if it doesn’t lock into the pocket.
What equipment do you use live and in the studio and why?
I play a Bach Stradivarius model 37 and a Bach 3C mouthpiece, which is a very basic setup. A lot of players are really into equipment, but I’ve never been one of them. I still play on the same model trumpet I did when I was in 7thgrade. I’ve tried other horns but I keep coming back to what I know. That being said, I’m always open to trying new horns and mouthpieces. It’s just I haven’t found anything I like better yet. The 37 Bach is a good middle ground for me. It can be warm when I want it to be and it can be brash when it want it to. It’s also slotted enough where I can stay in tune but still be able to shape the note and be expressive.
What one piece of equipment would you advise all trumpet/flugelhorn players to own?
I’d never do that. That’s like telling someone the kind of woman they should marry. It’s an individual thing. Some trumpet players play amazingly on really weird equipment. Also – and this is especially true in jazz – each player has his own unique idea of what he should sound like, and one trumpet might help him get that sound more easily while another might hinder him. At the same time, some trumpet players get obsessed with equipment and loose sight of the fact that a few hours of practice will have more benefit than almost any piece of equipment.
What’s been your proudest playing moment?
I guess it would be playing in the Carmine Caruso Competition. When I entered the competition, I had been working in the television industry for three years and hadn’t been playing as much as I wanted to. 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.
What’s the biggest disaster you’ve ever had onstage and how did you cope with it?
I can’t remember any major disasters. I guess I’ve been lucky that way. Like all jazz musicians, there are nights when I don’t play as well as I want to. I used to be really negative about it and sort of beat myself up over it. But, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to let those things go and just to make a mental note of what went wrong so that I can fix it and move on, not harp on it and put myself in a bad mood.
Do you warm up before a concert and if so how?
Absolutely. I don’t feel comfortable anymore if I don’t. I use my warm up to tell me where my chops are that day so that I know what adjustments to make on stage. I personally like doing Louis Maggio type warm-ups where I play softly from the low to the high register. This helps me to get my embrocure set so that I can play evenly all over the horn.
What’s the most important bit of advice you could give to new trumpeters?
If your brand new to the trumpet, or any instrument for that matter, my advice is to resign yourself to a couple of years where it just isn’t much fun to play. That’s how it was for me at least. Learning the trumpet can be incredibly frustrating. I remember once when I was in middle school, I got so annoyed when I couldn’t play something that I actually threw my horn into the wall and bent the bell. My parents were not happy to say the least. But, the good news is, after a while, you’ll hit a turning point where you have enough control over the instrument that you are actually making music. That’s when it becomes really fun. When I first started the trumpet in sixth grade, my parents had to make me practice, but by the eighth grade, they couldn’t get me to stop. So, my advice is to just stick with it. As far as learning jazz goes, my number one piece of advice is, again, to give yourself 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 really speak it fluently and effortlessly. The same applies to jazz. So, just be patient and enjoy the process.
Thanks for your time and consideration for this article and interview. Any last thoughts for our readers?
Just to keep supporting jazz.