Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, trumpeter Keyon Harrold has been making an impact on the jazz, hip-hop, and R&B scenes for some time now, collaborating with artists as diverse as Maxwell, Richard Smallwood, and Lauryn Hill. The Revivalist caught a moment with this self-proclaimed “musical athlete” to delve a little deeper into the mind whose talent is irresistible to so many of today’s hottest artists.


Photo by Deneka Peniston / Peniston Photography


You’ve played with an array of musicians, who have a variety of musical styles. What about your individual style of playing appeals to artists as aesthetically eclectic as Maxwell, Wynton Marsalis, and Jay-Z?

My style. The fact that my soul—I’m genuine, the way I play is very genuine. I’m very versatile, and very easy to adapt to. I have a very personal sound that usually works with the people that I’m working with, because most of the people that I’m working with are individual kind of people. It’s not cliché-type people, and since they’re looking for the type of person who has their own sound, I usually blend in perfect.

Speaking of Wynton Marsalis, I know you were his protégé. Do you have any protégés yourself?

At this moment, no. I do hook up with a lot of young cats coming up, but I don’t have anybody coming under me at this point. I’m such a person who’s always moving around, that I really don’t have the time to be in one place, so I haven’t taken one person on, but I am always teaching, I am always motivating cats.

What were some of your musical goals growing up? Have you reached them?

I wanted to work with some of the best jazz musicians in the world, and I definitely did that, by working with people like Charles Tolliver, who’s legendary, and such a groundbreaker, as far as being one of the first black jazz musicians to own his own record label—to actually work with him, and to actually be mentored by him was a great thing for me. Working with Billy Harper was incredible. He was the last saxophone player that ever worked with Lee Morgan. He was there the day that Lee Morgan actually got killed. Him, knowing what a trumpet should sound like. He allowed me to work with his band; I’ve been working with his band for the last 5 or 6 years. I’ve worked with so many different jazz artists that I’ve totally fulfilled that goal, as far as working with people. I think I’ve worked with enough people for a lifetime. At this point in life, it’s more about, for me, trying to do what I need to do with my career.

You attended the New School’s Mannes Jazz Program. How did studying jazz in an academic setting help you grow as an artist?

The community of musicians that was there with me was so overwhelming. Some of my closest friends and cats that were going to school with me were like, Robert Glasper, the Strickland brothers, Bilal Oliver. So many different people who went to the school were peers. That in itself helped so much. Academically, you did your class work, but just being around the school, being around those cats helped so much—just motivated, and just really helped your creativity, helped you always push to the next level because those cats really don’t mess around. So it’s like, “I better be on my shit, or they won’t give me that call.” Or, “I gotta work hard, so I can sound just as good, so I can be there, on that level.” It was more so a lot of connections, a lot of just being on the scene. Academically, I learned plenty. But the book knowledge stuff—you can pick up a book and learn that, but it was more about the people.

What are some of your non-musical influences?

My non-musical influence has a lot to do with sports, athletics. I pretty much liken myself to a musical athlete, if that makes sense. So when I see somebody knock somebody out, or when I see a boxer’s strategy, like basically him pick apart this cat for 12 rounds—when I’m on stage, when I’m playing trumpet, that’s what I’m going for. I’m taking my time, and eventually, I’m going for the knockout; I’m going for the kill. And hopefully, I get that. I like to watch boxing, because boxing puts me in that mindset.

When you’re on stage, you’re not thinking of boxing, though—or are you?

[Laughs] I’m not thinking of boxing, per se, but I liken the trumpet attitude to a boxer. The trumpet can be a violent instrument, but as well as it being violent, it’s such a beautiful instrument. You can play so beautiful, but then it gets to a point where it’s like, yo, I have to be violent. When you see a boxer, you can look at the speed, you can look at the technique, and it’s beautiful. But then when somebody catches that one moment of bam!—it’s violence, but it’s beautiful at the same time. That’s what I look at the trumpet as. It’s like when you hit that one phrase, or that one chorus, that’s just beautiful. But at the same time, when you listen back to it, it’s like, Wow! How did you think of that?

When you’re on stage, what kinds of ideas are streaming through your head? What images are you seeing? Do you have random thoughts, are you focused, are you in the zone?

It’s all of that. I’m in the zone, I’m focused. It has a lot to do with what I’ve been drinking. It depends on the night. It depends on what movie I’ve just watched. It depends on what somebody just said to me. All that goes into play, as to how I’m going to interpret all the information that’s going through my head, and basically mixing that with all the other musicians on stage. It’s like, “What am I going to say right now?” I’m always thinking of what’s going to make great music, and I’m always thinking about how to push the envelope. I don’t want to say what somebody else already said; I want to say what I’m saying. And I want you to understand what I’m saying. So I’m going to try to be as individual as possible, and also, be as thorough as possible—theoretically, harmonically. All of that, at the same time, but at the same time, be total straight-from-the-hood, which I am. I want to give you all of that at the same time, so you can feel me—that’s what I’m thinking about. I basically just want you to feel exactly where I’m coming from, where I came from, and where I’m going.

Would you say that you enter a different space mentally, when you’re backing someone, or when you’re playing a solo, or one of your own compositions?

There’s definitely a difference. When I’m backing up someone, like, say if I’m playing with Maxwell, I’m basically not going to step on his toes, because it’s not about me at that point; it’s about him getting off what he’s trying to say, and so everything I do is going to be counter, and that goes back again to the boxing thing. I’m countering. He’s singing now? I’m waiting…Okay, now. Whenever I get the opportunity, I’m going to fill it in, and not try to do too much, because it’s still about him, but what I want to do is just add a comfort zone, basically a pad under him, to help him get off what he’s trying to get off. That’s in that context, when I’m backing someone up. And the fact that I know how to do that, that’s one of the reasons why I’m able to work with so many different people. I don’t have to be in your way, I don’t have to shine right now when you’re trying to get yours off. I’ll be cool and content with the fact that we all sound good together. Versus, Let me try to get mine off. It sounds great together. And that, in itself, to me, is a science. I’m good with all of us sounding good, versus being very selfish.

Do you consider your audience when you’re playing, or when you’re composing? If you’re backing Jay-Z, or Maxwell, or someone of that ilk, do you ever think, This might be too jazzy, or too complex for a hip-hop audience?

Sometimes, that comes into play, but 9 times out of 10, my jazz influence, my jazz language, my jazz lingo that I’ve picked up over the years…there’s only 12 notes in the spectrum, so how they’re arranged is what makes it a certain…how someone plays it may be more jazzy. It’s like speech. If I’m speaking to you, and if I’m speaking to someone who doesn’t speak English at all, like, they may know 5 words, I’m going to speak different. But if I’m speaking to you, and you know English, I’m going to give you everything I know, even though we don’t have the same [way of speaking]. It’s like, I’m going to give you this. Oh—you don’t like that? Well, I’ll change it a little bit. But for the most part, you like what I’m saying, so it’s cool. A lot of times, that jazz [knowledge] that I have is what the artist is missing. The artist is used to somebody coming in and playing, stat quo, as to what people think it should be, or they’re going to play what the record said. You know, I studied music. I studied for years. This knowledge that I have is going to enrich your music, versus it being too jazzy, or cluttering your music. I know I can get in right here, or I can get away, I can back out here, and it’ll be cool. Everything that I add, for the most part, I feel like I’m enhancing. And for the most part, 9 times out of 10, they feel like I’m enhancing. If they feel like I’m in the way, they’ll just say, “That’s kind of in the way—but maybe later it could work.” Versus, “It’s in the way, and, please don’t ever play that”—I’ve never heard that. I’m trying to stay out of the way of the artist. And the more I stay out of the way, the more they’re asking me, “Hey—give me more. Give me another way to look at that part.” So that’s what I feel I’m here for. That’s in composing, that’s in producing, whatever.

We have to have an audience. People have to be like, “I can understand where that person’s coming from. I can understand that person’s music.” I’m not just wigging out on stage. I want you to feel me, but I want you to think that I sound good at the same time. I don’t want to be up there, just some weird person playing notes. I want you be like, “Oh—what you just played came from somewhere, and I’m attached to it.” I want you to feel that I’m coming from the black experience, I want you to feel that I’m coming from a European experience, I want you to know that I’m coming theoretically from somewhere, I want you to understand and feel all of that, but that ultimately, you’re feeling good that you heard some good music come from Keyon Harrold.


Words by Kyla Marshell


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