Ambrose Akinmusire: Upholding Tradition & Breaking Decorum

A conversation with the creative jazz trumpeter about his musical life and career

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Ambrose Akinmusire Photo by Pierrick Guidou

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The trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire was raised in the musically fertile Bay Area along with many other notable jazz players such as Jonathan Finlayson, Dayna Stephens and Justin Brown. Signed to Blue Note Records in 2010, he released his debut album for the label, When the Heart Emerges Glistening, in 2011 and the imagined savior is far easier to paint in 2014. His newest album is a live session – A Rift in Decorum: Live at the Village Vanguard – that features his working band of Sam Harris (piano), Harish Raghavan (bass) and Justin Brown (drums). He also performs with the Blue Note All Stars featuring Marcus Strickland, Lionel Loueke, Robert Glasper, Derrick Hodge and Kendrick Scott. In addition to touring with his own group throughout the summer and fall, Akinmusire will perform with the Blue Note All Stars on the Blue Note at Sea cruise in January 2018.

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Lee Mergner: You grew up in the Bay Area and it really was such a formative time and place for you. Do you feel that your upbringing in that area shaped you? And if so, how?

Ambrose Akinmusire:  That is definitely true. The one thing that I would probably elaborate a little more on is the shaping coming more from the streets—more from the local musicians who were around than the actual programs that are in the Bay area. There are some great programs that I was a part of, but most of the programs I just met these local heroes in and that’s where the real mentorship started to take place.

Who were some of those mentors?

Eddie Marshall. Another great drummer was E.W. Wainwright, a piano player named Ed Kelly who passed away, a great trumpet player named Khalil Shaheed. My main mentor was a guy named Robert Porter, who mentored a lot of people around here, like Teodross Avery and Benny Green, [who] had some of his first gigs with him. And Donald Bailey, the drummer who used to play with Jimmy Smith, was around and he had a jam session that he would get us to come to. He would take us aside and tell us stories about the borough and about music and all these other things. Bobby Hutcherson was also around. Joe Henderson was around. Jeff Chambers. Herbie Lewis, the bass player. Marcus Shelby. All these guys are around and there were also a lot of great places to play when I was in high school. In a normal week, I had maybe anywhere from three to six gigs, as a teenager with cats that were really high level. So it was really kind of as close to mentorship, or at least mentorship back in the day, as it could be in the ’90s.

Berkeley High School was a great place for me to be around likeminded younger musicians, sort of like an incubator. There was another program called the Young Musicians program that was a summer program up at Cal where you did really formal training. There was a choir in the morning that sang classical choir pieces, and you had classical theory and at the end of the day you had a jazz band. And a lot of musicians went through that—Dayna Stephens, who was also at Berkeley High School with me, Jonathan Finlayson, Charles Altura, Justin Brown…

It’s interesting how jazz can’t just be a formal education. It probably can’t also just be the informal gigging.

That’s the way it seems. But I don’t know if that’s any different from the way it used to be. For me, when I think of formal training I don’t necessarily think of [being] in an institution. I think maybe sitting around a piano with Monk was equivalent, or as close as they could get to an institution. And when someone says, “I learned on the streets,” I’m thinking they literally just sat out there and played on the street.

With the Blue Note at Sea cruise, you’re performing with the Blue Note All Stars. One of the challenges of an all-star group is how to make it a real band.

That’s a great observation and a great question. To be super honest with you, the only reason I am doing this Blue Note one is because I feel like it is a band. Everybody in that band, we all grew up playing together in New York. We used to play at the Jazz Gallery in different configurations. I’ve done gigs with Lionel, Robert and Kendrick before. These were the guys that were at the jam sessions. Robert did my senior recital before any of this stuff. When they first had the idea of us doing it [Blue Note All Stars] in Monterey, I was like, “Oh, yeah, that’ll be cute.” But it really felt like old times, when we used to play at the Jazz Gallery. And none of this other stuff mattered.

You’re with the Blue Note label and have been with them from the beginning. Have you felt the weight of the label’s legacy?

I don’t know if I feel the weight of much related to music because I don’t believe that it’s me that’s creating it. But am I aware of the rich history and do I go out of my way to remind myself of these things when I start to feel like I’m estranged from it? Yes, I do. In my bathroom I have two Blue Note books. So I’m like, “Oh shit, wow … Clifford Brown … Lee Morgan … wow.” Do I feel like I’m in a line or like I’m directly connected to them? Yes, I always feel that way. And I’m trying to do my best to uphold that tradition. To me that means sometimes [bucking] up against the decorum. Because to me that’s what Blue Note was always about. That’s the Monk. That’s the Blakey. That’s the Wayne. That’s Blue Note. Blue Note wasn’t about fitting in. I guess you had the Lou Donaldson and things like that on the record label, but I don’t feel like those were the ones that were really the defining thing of Blue Note. And so, even up to Jason Moran and Greg Osby.

Did you get to know Bruce Lundvall who was the head of the label for so many years?

I was the last person that Bruce signed actually. So Bruce was very important to me. I can’t see myself signing with a major label if it wasn’t for Bruce. Because I didn’t know what I was going to create, but I definitely wasn’t willing to have somebody who was not an artist tell me what to do. If it hadn’t been with Bruce I wouldn’t have signed with anybody, or no major at least.

How do you think your composing has developed over the years?

For me [with] composition, whatever I’m checking out in my everyday life is what I’m checking out compositionally. And it took me a long time to realize that. Now in my everyday life, I’m thinking about time and form and details. And I think all those things are things that are being developed in my composing. I’m being super aware of what’s happening over a certain span of time, and of the things that are repeating in it. And how, when they come back to you, how you’re dealing with them or not dealing with them. It’s just like in life when you’re constantly confronted with the same problem over and over. Some people, either they don’t recognize it or they run away from it. And in composition, I have a rule where: if it comes back, you have to deal with it. And change it to be something different. Otherwise you’re just kind of repeating, like “Groundhog Day” or something. I think that’s how my composition has changed from the first album. I think before I was just going with the vibe, just writing, or maybe just thinking about dealing with those elements in the improv, not necessarily in the composition. But now I’m trying to put that in the composition, because I’m dealing with that in my everyday life.

What is your creative process for writing? Do you have to be alone or do you have to walk out into the world?

I think for me, it’s not so much what the process is as what does that process get to me, or where does it get me. I think that usually gets me into a state of submission. There’s a bunch of things that I do, or I can do, to get into that state. It can be meditation, it can be the things that you said—going for a walk—it can be turning off my phone for a few hours, it can be eating ice cream. Whatever it is that allows me to get into that state where I’m ready to submit to this thing that’s higher than us. And then that thing comes through to you, and then your job—just like when you’re improvising—is just to make sure you have enough understanding and enough technique to write it down as quick as possible. And sometimes submission means getting rid of your ego, or what it should be or what it shouldn’t be, or what it is or what it’s not. Is this jazz? You know, all of that stuff. That gets in the way of the submission. The end result of the process is submission, but the process itself varies for me. I think that’s the healthiest way, at least for me, because you’re not judging yourself. And I believe the same thing about my playing. And so when someone says, “Oh man, that’s the most amazing album I’ve ever heard,” or “Oh, that’s the shittiest album,” I say, “Well, great. Thanks.” And I really believe it. I don’t know if it’s just that I’ve convinced myself of it, but I really do believe that this stuff comes from something higher than us. When we all die, this shit will still be here.

Your new album, A Rift in Decorum, is a live record, recorded at the Village Vanguard. What was the reason that you chose that over going into the studio?

There are so many reasons. I think that a statement has been made that there are young musicians that are playing creative music that are intelligent in 2017 who are also getting attention from establishments—like, real, validated establishments like the Village Vanguard. It’s hard for me to really talk about it without saying people’s names, but there are a lot of young musicians that are watching us. And they may have been discouraged in the last few years by some of the things that have gotten attention. And I would like to be able to say, “No, just stick to your guns and be creative and investigate things, and you can also be on Blue Note and develop a band of creative musicians and play at the Vanguard and do things that you’ve always valued. Or keep those dreams. Or be in line with the history.” So there’s that.

There’s also that when we first signed with Blue Note, Bruce’s idea was for us to do a live record. He said, “Look man, this band is too great for you to put it in the studio. You guys are a band. So you guys should just do a live record.” And it wasn’t for any money, we had already negotiated the budget. He said, “People need to hear what this sounds like live.” And, to be honest, after the first record, I recorded a live record at the Jazz Standard but through negotiations it took too long. And by the time we were ready to put out an album, it was already a year and I felt like I was already kind of over that kind of music. So it’s all those things. It’s to sort of take a snapshot of where the band is and what we’ve got. And also to sort of make a statement against the decorum of today. It’s like a lot of people are making albums to be successful, or for a Grammy, or to be a part of this thing that they think is popular right now. And I just wanted to make a statement that you don’t have to do that, and you can just be who you are and still be loved and still get some attention, if it’s all about that for you, which it’s not for me.

I was really touched by the story behind the first tune, “Maurice and Michael (sorry I didn’t say hello).” Would you mind telling the story behind that composition and its title?

This is just one story. There are other stories I have about friends of mine. But this particular story is about this guy named Maurice who had a brother who was my age. Maurice was actually one year younger than me. And we grew up on literally the same block—we played football and baseball together, and we went to the same elementary school. We even grew up playing hide and seek together at like 6 or 7 years old. And they went to Catholic school, and they went to private school, and all that other stuff. And they were good kids. They went to church every Sunday, and so on. A lot of stuff started to change once I went to high school. Because I went to Berkeley High School, and a lot of my friends had to stay in Oakland. And Oakland schools, at least during this time, most of them weren’t as good as surrounding districts. If you got caught up in that, then you had a lot more obstacles in front of you that you had to deal with than going to Berkeley High School or going to these other high schools that were a lot better. They didn’t end up going to Berkeley High School. That means that we started to grow apart. And I didn’t see them for years.

Then, just maybe three or four years ago, when I was the composer-in-residence at the Monterey Jazz Festival, I was coming down out of Carmel—that’s where the residency takes place, in this beautiful thing overlooking the ocean. I had to do a private benefit at SFJAZZ, and I was taking a BART [train] back to wherever I was going, and I saw Maurice. He was sitting, maybe three or four rows behind me, and I was staring at him and I was like, “No, it can’t be Maurice.” He had his head down and was nodding off or whatever. And then he stood up and I said, “Oh shit, that’s Maurice.” And my first reaction was to say something to him, but it was almost like I hit a wall. And I just couldn’t. I just couldn’t. And he walked past me, stumbling, and his eyes were red and his clothes were dirty and then he got off the train. And when the doors closed, I was like, “#[email protected]%, man.” I was just in a weird mood for a very long time. It’s hard. It’s a complex thing, because you can’t arrive at an answer, you’re just like, “Why?” The thing that I did arrive at was that I definitely should have said hello.

It’s kind of like when you know someone who’s had a death close to them and you don’t know what to say, so you don’t say anything.

Yeah, you just don’t say anything. Exactly. But that really [messed] me up. That’s the tune I wrote that night when I got back up there. But that story is so common in my life. I had this one guy—Jonathan Finlayson—so we grew up together, and we were in middle school together, and there was a guy named Ramon Burns. And he played piano, he played jazz before any of us, and he was amazing. He was already checking out Herbie Hancock and all of that. He was really dealing, even in seventh grade. And, again, they didn’t let him into the Berkeley school districts and Ramon ended up going to the local high school and he ended up selling drugs on the corner. I remember I came home once in college and Ramon had been jumped on the corner. And almost lost his life. And I was just thinking that this one decision … the only reason that that’s not my story is that my mom fought for me to go to Berkeley High School. This kid was really talented. There are kids that I hear now getting full scholarships to colleges in New York that weren’t on this guy’s level at seventh grade. Now he’s just trying to survive in Oakland.

You have done a lot of work with spoken-word artists as well as vocalists. Do you enjoy that aspect?

I don’t see it as them seeing the music differently, because when I’m collaborating with someone I always try to leave room for someone to insert something into it. So I don’t arrive at anything, so I don’t see it differently. But I do love the process of collaboration, and I do love the human voice, and I do love words. And I hope to do more of that in the future.

And tell me about your band, because you’ve been working with many of the same people for a while.

Right after we recorded When the Heart Emerges Glistening, Sam joined the band. We never toured that record with Gerald [Clayton] after it was recorded, even though Gerald is on the album. Harish [Raghavan] is on the album and he plays with a lot of people. Sometimes he plays with Vijay [Iyer]; sometimes he plays with Eric Harland; he played with Charles Lloyd recently. I’ve been playing with Justin Brown since high school, I’ve been playing with Sam since college, and Harish since I was in the Monk Institute. We’ve done hundreds and hundreds, probably thousands of gigs now together. So we really know each other on and off the bandstand. And the thing I love the most about them—everybody in the band—is that we’re always investigating things. So when we get together, everybody’s just always at a different place. We’re always growing. Sometimes in different directions, but that’s part of growth too.

Getting along is a big part of what makes a band work.

I used to tell people, “Man, I can’t be in a band with anybody who wouldn’t fight with me off the bandstand.” Like, we’re gonna fight on the bandstand, and we need to be able to fight off the bandstand. And in order to do that, you definitely have to have some sense of camaraderie or friendship or love for each other.

Have you ever done a cruise before?

No, I’ve never done a jazz cruise before. But I’ve heard many stories and experiences of people who’ve gone and done them. But I don’t have any expectations. I’m just excited to play the music. It’ll be cool to just experience something that I haven’t experienced. For me the focus is just the music. But, yeah, I’m looking forward to it.

What music have you kind of rediscovered lately?

Lee Morgan, because I went and saw that documentary last week. It was great for me, even to hear him talk. I had never heard him talk and to be reminded that, oh yeah, he died at 33. Like we talk about Clifford Brown and Booker Little, who were 25 and 23 when they died, but at 33, Lee Morgan [had done] a hell of a lot of stuff. I went back and checked out some of his stuff. I’ve always been checking out Lee Morgan. But after seeing that, I guess I’m checking it out with a different perspective. Or with a renewed perspective I would say.

The trumpet is a very unforgiving instrument. Is that true for you? The physical aspect of it?

You’re asking the million dollar question. How do you deal with it? You just jump in there and try to deal with it. I’m up every morning sharing technical stuff, trying to address that part. I’m on the phone with other trumpet players. This morning, I just sent Sean Jones a text asking about this tonguing thing that I’m having problems with. That’s kind of the beautiful thing about the trumpet and trumpet players is that there is a community, because we’re all dealing with the same shit: the horrible reality of not only who invented this instrument, but who decided to improvise on this? Just playing the instrument—I don’t want to say it’s easy, but that’s a manageable task. But to improvise, you’re changing air speed and embouchure and coordinating that with your fingers, but in the moment. It’s not like you know what’s coming. You’re reacting. Man, it’s impossible. It’s like figure skating but only on the tip of the figure skates. It’s damn near impossible to really improvise on this instrument. So you deal with it by practicing every day.

Could you leave it for a couple days?

No, I can’t. I tried it once. My girlfriend convinced me to take a vacation to Puerto Rico when I was like 21 or 22. And I said, “OK, sure. Great! Maybe you’re right.” And I didn’t play for a week. It took me a good six or seven months to get to a place where I felt like, OK, now I can start to rebuild my chops. Yeah, it’s horrible. So I don’t skip days. And anybody who says that they do, I always just kind of look at them sideways, like, “OK. Well …” But it’s also a beautiful thing, man. That’s one of the reasons why I love the trumpet, because from the first few notes of a trumpet player you can tell how serious they are. You can tell if they’ve been practicing, because the first thing to go is your sound. And then your dexterity, and then your range, and all these other things. I like that it weeds out people who aren’t that serious. You can’t casually play trumpet and get away with it. I figured that a guy like Clark Terry was practicing up until the end. You know, Woody Shaw. These guys did it. Who the hell am I to be taking breaks?

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Akinmusire will perform with the Blue Note All Stars on the Blue Note at Sea cruise in January 2018.