I love it here. I’m from New Orleans and it reminds me so much of New Orleans. When I was growing up in New Orleans it was almost 99 percent black. And when I moved to Harlem the sea of faces literally looks like the same exact people. The only difference that I see here is that culturally is there are a lot of people from Senegal and Eritrea and the Dominican Republic so it’s like a rainbow of different nationalities of what people look like. It’s been really cool to be around that and see everybody get along. It kind of shows that people from different cultures and different races can live together. So I love it here.
Can you tell us more about your personal history?
I started playing music when I was about 11 years old, I actually started playing because I wanted to be just like my uncle. My uncle is an alto saxophone player named Donald Harrison, and he played with Art Blakey, Miles Davis’ band, Lena Horne and Roy Haynes. When I was growing up I always wanted to be around him so I could be just like him. I wanted to play sax because I wanted to be just like him but I realized if I played trumpet I could be in his band. My first training that I got was from my mother who would sing to me when I was a child. And my ear training as a child came from my grandfather who is a folk singer. The term that they use for his culture in New Orleans is Mardi Gras Indians or Black Indians but really it is just Afro Native Americans in New Orleans. And my grandfather and the type of music he sang came from that culture. He was actually the only man to be a chief of four different tribes. When you are born into this culture you are given a role in the tribe and you have to masquerade and pay homage to your ancestors. So I’ve been doing that since I was three years old up until now. My grandfather helped me develop my ear. He would play Miles Davis and make sure that I played it back and things of that nature. And that’s how I got started and he was instrumental in making sure that I didn’t put the horn down.
Immediately after that I enrolled in the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts which is an arts high school that Wynton Marsalis, Nicholas Payton, Terrence Blanchard, my uncle Donald Harrison, and Brandford Marsalis went to. My teacher was a guy named Clyde Kirk who was more or less like master yoda for jazz trumpet in New Orleans. He was my grandfather’s best friend so I started studying with him very early on. It was a four year program but I tested out of the curriculum so I started teaching my junior and senior year in high school then I got a full tuition scholarship to go to Berklee. And when I got there I decided I wanted to do film scoring and performance but you can also test out of the curriculum at Berklee and I actually ended up not having to take any theory classes and I ended up getting two degrees in two years. It usually takes about six or seven years to get those degrees.
I was given the opportunity to start my own record label after college so I finished Berklee just turning 20 and I started my own record label selling records at Virgin Megastore and Tower Records. I was approached by Blue Note to do a record deal and declined because I was making enough money selling my own records and eventually Universal Music came knocking at the door through Concord records. The deal they offered me was really great and the only stipulation was that I could make as much music as possible whenever I wanted to. My band just finished making three records so in the new year we are putting out a trilogy. It’s going to be crazy probably close to fourty compositions; it’s all wide ranging stuff. There’s music on the record that deals with the Afro Native American tradition in New Orleans superimposed on indie rock and Senegalese rhythms, there’s all types of stuff.
Can you talk about your the difference between your family home training and your traditional education? Did you experience any difficulty within your institution?
There’s more than one way of approaching and thinking about conservatory training. I think if someone is looking to go to a school like Berklee at a linear level for example it’s a music college, it might be sterile or there might be a lot of rules but one of the greatest things about going to Berklee specifically was that no one was in my face saying that I had to do anything in anyway which is part of the reason why I went there because I coveted the idea of going there and looking around in the classroom and seeing a guy from Saga, Japan that was wearing Fubu with hash marks under his eyes or he might even have a gold tooth. I was into that type of diversity. There were no rules. And coming from New Orleans it gives you a different mind state musically, because it is one of the places is that every aspect of the music and culture is coveted. Literally from block parties where you will hear bounce music like DJ Jubilee or Juvenile, and you can literally walk three blocks north and find a opera house where the older musicians and the philharmonic are also the old black people from your neighborhood. And so I when I was a little boy I could see people like Danie Barber she use to make a bread pudding called Yum Yum and I was a kid I use to go over to her house. I remember being a kid when I first started to play trumpet. Donald wanted me to have a really firm grasp of things and how to play “Donna Lee “ and navigate changes and play bebop. But if went Danie Barber’shouse they wouldn’t let you play “Donna Lee” unless you could play the “Tiger Leaf Rag.” So I didn’t learn to play music with a mindset that different forms and styles and genres of music were more valid than the other but at the end of the day it was about playing music with love in in your heart as a means to try to communicate with people.
The other thing that was really cool about growing up and playing music in that community is that you learn about the music from the beginning up until now. Most jazz musicians that I meet now usually learn the music from bebop on. A lot of them skip swing stuff. Where as when I was a kid, you really had to live with “Tiger Leaf Rag” to “Stompin at the Savoy” to a song like Nicholas Payton’s “Concentric Circles.” You learn the entire range of the history of the music. I was learning the music from 1897 to the guys who were doing it in 1997 and I could be learning it in the same day and it might be a guy that is 70 years old that understands all of it. And he might tell me about how what I’m playing is connected to what Little Richard was doing, the stuff that Jimi Hendrix was doing, and we could find things that could come from Chopin and Sartre. Growing up in New Orleans you don’t get an elitist sentiment about music you just learn as much as you can from as many people as you can, cause it’s such a giving culture.
That’s amazing. Your experience is unique because there are a lot of musicians coming up who are merely schooled in jazz in the institutionalized sense, so for them its not really this social music where you are learning from people who are your elders, can you speak about that?
Sure, for me literally three or four days after I could get a note out of the instrument I would go to a place like Donna’s where the older musicians coveted the opportunity to have the younger musicians who weren’t as refined play and have the opportunity to express themselves. So I was fourteen years old getting just as much if not more work experience than the average 25 year old musician gets in in New York. It’s a strange thing I see it a lot in New York, in order to get a chance to play with some of the great musicians you have to have proven yourself to be able to play on one of the highest levels that their is. Where in New Orleans, you can damn near pick up your horn at any contest and no one is gonna tell you to shut-up and put your horn down, because at the end of the day what you have to say even if you can’t play yet is still valid. Growing up in a culture like that where people nurture those things from a very early age it arms you with something a little different.
How do you think this has led you to your individuality and sincerity in your music? You also use your music as a space for protest and speaking about political issues, this is hard to find now a days in jazz, why is this important to you?
Well I learned from a very early age. My mom would take us to Preservation Hall and the music the musicians played was about their experience. There would be a blues that was written about a lady who grew up across the street from them and they watched this lady maybe starve to death because of lack of resources or lack of money. And as a kid I watched the musicians in that culture speak about those things and make art as a means to try and build resources for their community. I always looked at that as the coolest thing you can do through music, to try to help people. So for me I realized that because of the work I put in and the amount of refinement I tried to go about procuring for myself is affording me the opportunity to speak in circles where people from where I from can benefit.
You know I grew up in the 9th Ward and that’s not like the hip-hop hood, that’s the hood. So I saw poverty as a child. For me at my end, it’s my concern to speak on that as a means of illuminating that these ills are still around as a means of being able to procure the things that can help people. And if I didn’t do that it would be a “how dare you?” moment. For me lots of times in interviews, in the press, and when I’m dealing with people they make it a big deal about the fact that my music is political and the social nature of the music. But if no one hears any of these things then people are not gonna know that the people in my community are suffering. As a man I can’t really let that stand. I don’t think I’d be worth much if I’d use these resources that I’ve be able to get through my talent just for me and say forget everybody else, and I’m just gonna take it and make music and write songs about whatever I want to write about but I’m not going to deal with anything that I actually saw or actually experienced.
In context with the sincerity thing when I was a little boy my mom told me the most unique thing you’ll ever experience is being you and I had a conversation with Saul Williams and he said the same thing and I was shocked. You know sometimes you’ll hear the same things from different people. For some reason my mother of course when she speaks or says something I listen you know but when I heard it from Saul Williams as well, for me I think this guy, he’s the closest thing you can get to a prophet, he is amazing. When he said that I started to think more in it. I really started to think about that idea, that the most unique experience I’m willing to have in my life is seeing the world through my eyes and my scope and vantage point.
So I need to pay more attention to the way that I deal with things and the way that I react to the things that I see and the thoughts that I have. And if I take the time and do an appraisal of how I feel about certain things and question myself on why I feel this way. Is it based on this experience? Then that will give me a more profound understanding on how to deal with different things in my life and how to endure things, so my coping mechanism will be better. But as an artist one of the things that it does is that it makes you hone in on your personal sentiments about things. We have a lot of artists out here who are amazing but the problem is that they always see the world on the peripheral lens so it’s like they are constantly looking at the side of things instead of looking right in front of them. For me it is paramount that you understand and you take the time to question how you feel about certain things and try to be as honest with yourself and to be vulnerable enough to be honest about your fans. And when you translate those ideas to a musical landscape your expression is more sincere.
Jazz is a very diverse music, it’s inevitable that there are going to be many different people who play jazz. Everyone is involved with black culture at this point and then there is no getting away from that, but not everybody is going to have the social responsibility to go back to black communities and really help people. How can we move forward specifically as a jazz community now that we have this very large community?
I think about that a lot. And one of the main reasons I think about is because where I’m from jazz isn’t really diverse as it is in other places. In New Orleans the vast majority of the jazz musicians are black people. Even to the point that it almost seems like there is a self segregating thing in some circles in New Orleans based on jazz groups. It’s a strange thing because, don’t get me wrong I appreciate everybody willing to contribute. The problem for me comes when people claim the music is theirs then try to efface the fact that it is a black music. America has a history of doing that. What America does is they have these musical forms that black people create, and then it is looked upon as marketable and economical, and it is bought and washed down and sold back to the same culture. Once that transformation happens and they try to sell it back, black people say, “no that’s not happening,” and then they change and make a new thing.
Let’s be honest as a culture black people are very creative. So historically that’s what happens and black people move on. I was doing a lecture a few months ago speaking to a group of kids and they were saying that rock and roll was white people’s music, and you get that all the time. It’s mainly because black people are so creative and willing to move on from certain things, that they don’t covet the fact that they created this music. I’m not saying that people can’t contribute, but I’ll be damned if you say a music is your music if it’s not your music. You and I both know that I can’t go to Bombay in a hall where they are playing ragas and take out my b flat trumpet and start playing with them and say I’m a raga musician. They are going to say no you’re not because first off this music has a history and a pedigree in which you have not refined. You don’t exist in this culture you don’t understand this culture you haven’t lived here so how can you say that you are a raga musician. Most people look at that argument that’s actually very valid even though I hear those phrases and I can play in that way and improvise in that way but I’m not going to be accepted in that way.
How come anytime anyone from any other culture decides that they want to put their foot mark in black music it is totally accepted. People approach it as if it’s not specifically jazz, it’s just black music. So you can have a Polish musician come to New York and play jazz music and that is perfectly accepted because black music automatically gets put into the universal column. But I can’t go to Poland and play polka music or else I’ll have people looking at me sideways. Jazz has a specific pedigree and very refined and dense history as well. So at the end of the day if I have to be forced to respect your musical culture and your musical tradition then you should respect my musical culture and my musical tradition. And at the end of the day you’re no more valid than I am, we are both valid. So it is a respect thing for me.
You talk about your mom a lot and I read that in your tone you aim to mimic the sound of your mom’s singing voice. It’s scant times for innovative jazz vocalists, and the voice is really the foundation of the blues and jazz sometimes it seems as though the human voice isn’t valid anymore.
It’s weird. I understand exactly what you mean. It’s very unfortunate because at the end of the day that’s where it comes from. The voice predates the instruments, let’s just be real about it. As far as jazz is concerned before you were aloud to play clarinets in the fields you could at least sing. What you are talking about is a technique that we call the “whisper technique.” It took me three or four years to try to do this thing but it was incredibly difficult. You are talking about an hour to an hour and half practice just on that damn near everyday for three years. It originally started as me trying to mimic my mother’s voice and through the course of three years I think I kind of lost my way a little bit, and I tried to figure out technical ways to do this technique. And it wasn’t until I realized that the aim of this ultimately was to try to mimic my mom’s voice, and when I went back to what I originally started then I could do it, and it’s never gone away after that.
And in the context of jazz vocalists. It pisses me off. I actually see that a lot and I’ve gotten into arguments with musicians and cats about that. As a jazz vocalist in this day in age if you decide that you are going to have any uniqueness in the way that you approach singing jazz, you are almost automatically shunned. Because a jazz vocalist is supposed to sound a certain way. And to me it’s like is that a joke? If they are all supposed to sound the same then Billie Holiday never would have been Billie Holiday. It’s something that I see a lot. For me I think a lot in the context of resources and a lot of the resources that get disseminated to jazz vocalists. I mean it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a sista’ gets the props that she deserves for her talent in this medium. It’s almost like they have to seek work elsewhere. It t seems like that merely because you have a unique thing going on you will get shunned if you don’t sound like Sarah Vaughn. Don’t get me wrong I love Sarah Vaughn, but Sarah Vaughn is Sarah Vaughn. There needs to be more heart and compassion in this music to allow people to be themselves a little bit more. I think that’s the main thing that is missing in this music that everyone is trying to be what everyone wants them to be instead of who they are.
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Interview by Tamara Davidson