Sean Jones: A Challenging Life

The trumpeter, who recently took the helm of the Peabody Institute’s jazz department, melds education with a career as a performing artist

Sean Jones
Sean Jones (photo: Monte Nickels)

Sean Jones is a man in motion. At 6 p.m. on a Wednesday evening in early summer, the trumpeter is sitting in a dressing room in the recently opened Keystone Korner in Baltimore, working on charts for that night’s performance by the Baltimore Jazz Collective. He’s just spoken to a group of area teachers about an initiative to bring jazz into classrooms. Before that, he spent the day working at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, where he now serves as a professor and chair of the jazz studies department.

He’s also preparing for shows that will present the electric music of Miles Davis in Pittsburgh and at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. Add to all that leadership of his own quintet, which actively performs and records. Oh, and he’s on the board of the Jazz Education Network, for which he’ll serve as president next year. It takes a lot of scrolling to get through the to-do list on his phone.

This may sound like too much for the average musician, but Jones, who is 41, seems unfazed and quite comfortable with it all. A trumpeter who combines artistry and virtuosity, with a sound reminiscent of vintage Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan yet completely modern, Jones has released eight albums as a leader and only recently left the SFJAZZ Collective. He is one of many contemporary jazz players who are taking on the dual challenge of combining a career as a performing artist with one as an educator—from Rodney Whitaker at Michigan State University to Nicole Mitchell at the University of Pittsburgh to Terell Stafford at Temple University.

In recent years, a growing number of working jazz musicians have been fulfilling the promise of Dr. Billy Taylor, who believed that the future of the music was tied to education and that practicing musicians should get directly involved with collegiate programs. It’s a path that was trailblazed by people like Rufus Reid, Larry Ridley, and Bobby Watson.

The Young Trumpeter

For Jones, accepting the challenge of leading both in the classroom and on the bandstand began very early in his life. He grew up in Warren, Ohio, near Youngstown and Akron, and played music well before he played the trumpet. “I grew up singing in the church—I was there all the time,” he recalls. “I used to make jokes that I was there eight days a week, 397 days a year. Then I eventually tried to play a little bit of drums. Believe it or not, on Friday-night church service people would be playing cymbals that were hanging from coat hangers, washboards, just banging on anything we could find, just to make it groove. So it was always a part of my life.”

It wasn’t until the fifth grade, when his school did the usual rolling out of instruments for the kids to choose, that Jones was drawn to the instrument that nobody else seemed interested in. “Because once you pick it up and you realize how hard it is, they had to convince people [to play it],” he explains. “But they didn’t have to convince me, because I gravitated towards the difficulty. I actually liked the fact that it was hard.”

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And not only is the trumpet a hard instrument to learn how to play; it’s also hard to play, even when you’re good at it. “That’s one of the things I love most about it. It really humbles you,” Jones says.

Jones’ early school band experience also enabled him to develop leadership skills. “If I’m being honest with myself, I realized I was a leader in high school because I would shed all the time,” he says. “When you’re that serious about something, people are naturally going to notice and I just kind of started to lead by example. I didn’t say anything, mind you. I didn’t say, ‘No, you guys suck and blah blah blah.’ I was just playing, always in the band room practicing. The other kids would see this and they got serious, they would practice with me. They would say, ‘Hey man, can I check it out?’ And I’m like, ‘Sure, come on.’ And I actually started the combo program in high school. At that point, I realized the significance of just doing stuff, and doing it at on as high a level as you can with the knowledge that you have. People are affected by that.”

Jones in turn was affected by one inspirational teacher: his sixth-grade band director, Jessica Turner, who took notice of the ambitious young trumpeter. “She noticed I was moving ahead in the book a little bit, and I was always the first one to class because we only had one black Manhasset stand—all the other stands were wired and they were falling apart,” Jones remembers. “So I said, ‘I’ve got to get to school first because I need that black Manhasset stand.’ She noticed that I always had the stand, and she said, ‘Hey, Sean, you really like this, huh?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I love it,’ and I played her a chromatic scale.”

Impressed, Turner then called up Jones’ mother and asked if she could take him to lunch. “Obviously my mom was like, ‘Yeah, keep him! Anytime,’” he recalls, laughing. “She took me to lunch and she gave me three things. First thing was pizza, and I loved it. Second thing was Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Third thing was Miles Davis’ Tutu. She played clarinet and she loved Marcus Miller, who also played the bass clarinet.” Years later, Jones would play that music with Miller during the Tutu Revisited tour, bringing things full circle both for himself and for Turner.

Another middle-school teacher, Rich Rollo, noticed that Jones was getting by and even thriving without knowing how to read music. “I grew up playing in church—I could hear everything. I mean, I could hear everything,” he explains. “The second trumpet player was kind of fine [laughs], so I was extra nice to her and I would just ghost my part. I heard her and all I needed was to do that. It wasn’t that complex, so I heard it once and [snaps] I got it. So they thought, ‘Sean is just a beast.’”

They thought that until a challenge for chairs happened in the middle of the year and new, difficult music was put in front of Jones. “I said, ‘I can’t read that!’ and they were like, ‘How did you get this far without being able to read?’ I said, ‘I just imitated.’” Jones got last chair and plenty of motivation to learn how to read.

The only time Jones can recall ever wanting to give up the trumpet was when he was taking lessons from his first classical teacher, Esotto Pellegrini. “I went to the first lesson and he pulled out this big red book called the ‘Arban’s Book’ [Jean-Baptiste Arban’s Complete Conservatory Method for Trumpet],” he says. “He was playing all of this crazy stuff in there like ‘Carnival of Venice,’ which was the first time I heard multiple tonguing. I said, ‘I can’t do that!’ I went home and told my mother, ‘I’m done. I’ll just play a little bit in church.’”

Naturally, when Jones didn’t show up for the next lesson, Pellegrini called his mother and said, “Where’s Sean?” When Jones’ mother said that he was quitting the lessons, Pellegrini said, “Get him ready.” Jones takes it from there: “He came over in his Alfa Romeo—he was hardcore Italian. He picked me up and he was driving on the highway, fast. Speeding, speeding, speeding. And I’m freaked out! He stopped the car and said, ‘So, how did that feel?’ And I said, ‘It was exciting. It was scary, but I want to do it again.’ He said, ‘Stick with me, I’ll make your career like that.’”

“I’ve been very fortunate. But I’m just not going to take that and be like, ‘Okay, I’ve got the tools. Let me keep them to myself.’ No, I know I’m supposed to be teaching.”

The Advanced Student

And so the ride began. Jones went on to Youngstown State University for his undergraduate years, while starting to work in and around Cincinnati. He later received his master’s from the jazz program at Rutgers University. Playing around the New York jazz scene, he soon was asked to join the trumpet section of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra led by Wynton Marsalis, one of the many gifted trumpeters who have mentored Jones over the years.

Among those mentors was Donald Byrd, whom Jones met while he was studying at Rutgers and who, despite his own disillusionment with educational institutions, ended up encouraging the younger man’s interest in teaching. Jones also met Jon Faddis while at Rutgers and the virtuoso trumpeter, himself a protégé of Dizzy Gillespie, had unusual first words for the student.

“The first time I met him, do you know what he said to me?” Jones says. “He said, ‘What’s your relationship like with your father?’ And I said, ‘What?’ I was taken aback and then I got offended because he wouldn’t let it go. He said, ‘Well, I don’t want to hear you play a note until you tell me about your father and the pain that you had to deal with with your father.’ And I’m like, Jesus Christ! Several weeks later, I sat down and I wrote him the letter he asked for. He called me up and he said, ‘How did that feel?’ And I said, ‘Man, it was like a relief. Like I needed to say it.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, I understand. I know what you’re going through.’ He just has great intuition. He was a great mentor, a great teacher.”

Another mentor was the late Bill Fielder, one of Jones’ teachers at Rutgers. “The thing with him that was deep was the attention to something specific, like one aspect of your playing, and just dealing with that alone,” Jones explains. “I played the mouthpiece for a year. Just the mouthpiece. And he’d be like, ‘No! No! No!’ He wanted me to get an absolute buzz on the mouthpiece. I didn’t play the trumpet for a year. Only the mouthpiece. That’s where the sound is generated.”

Jones recognizes the impact that all these teachers and mentors had on him professionally and personally. “I’ve been very fortunate,” he acknowledges. “But what that does for me is like the saying, ‘To whom much is given, much is required.’ I’m just not going to take that and be like, ‘Okay, I’ve got the tools. Let me keep them to myself.’ No, I know I’m supposed to be teaching.”

The Instructor

Jones’ own teaching career began in 2003 at Duquesne University, where he worked for eight years and even got tenure. But somehow, with the challenge gone, his motivation dissipated as well. “Here’s the thing: I busted my butt to get tenure, and I got tenure, and I felt like shit,” Jones explains. “And the reason I did is because I felt complacent. Within a year, I gave tenure up and I started teaching other places. Because I never wanted to be comfortable.”

He eventually ended up teaching at Oberlin, and then later became the chair of the brass department at Berklee. “I got the gig [at Berklee] because I wanted to learn how to lead a department,” he says. “And I had some successes, some things that didn’t go so well. But I learned a lot there. It’s amazing. If you want to study contemporary music, there is no greater school than that. Or technology? No better school.”

When the opportunity at Peabody came last year, Jones ignored it at first. “And I thought about it, and the two things that kept coming back to me were: First, Peabody is the oldest conservatory in the country,” he says. “What does it mean for the oldest conservatory in the country to not have a flourishing jazz department? What does that say for the nation? [Three of Peabody’s seven jazz faculty members, including former chairman Gary Thomas, had departed from the program within an 18-month period amid allegations of discrimination.] The second thing is that I kept hearing Donald Byrd’s voice. Donald said, ‘Don’t go where the work is being done. Go where the work needs to be done.’ I thought to myself, ‘Okay, Sean, if you’re worth your salt, you can make this happen.’ So I took the plunge.”

Jones sees the challenges at Peabody as just like those anywhere else, including recruitment, scholarship opportunities, curriculum, professional development, and more. He recognizes that the current crop of students has a great deal of access to information, including music from every generation. “But information does not equal knowledge,” he explains. “Knowledge is the use of that information. That’s what you can only get from a good teacher—how to use the information you have. Basically, these kids come in and they may have awareness of x, y, and z, but what we want to do is show them how to use it and when to use it and when not to use it, and how to make it lift up the room that you’re in.”

Also, one of the unique problems of jazz education now is how to prepare students for life in the real world, in which organic mentoring experiences with the big bands or the informal schools of Art Blakey and Betty Carter are largely gone. Jones believes that to teach life on the bandstand, you have to live it—and build it into the education.

“You design a curriculum that forces them to do that,” he says. “What that means is that they have to go out into the community and play, they have to do gigs, they have to sit in. Also, the way that we teach—we’re not just teaching out of a book, we’re showing them this is what it sounds like, ear training, things like that. Jazz seminar courses where we get together and talk about what’s the motive of this, why do this.”

Jones sees today’s students as possessing all sorts of unique advantages over the students of his youth. “The level of chops is super-duper high,” he says. “Their level of awareness, in that they have a lot of information. Some people don’t see [this] as a plus, but I do: They don’t have any barriers. These cats play rock, they play hip-hop, they play jazz. And they know how to rhythmically make it work. It’s exciting. I feel like the generations that are coming up now are picking up where the ’70s dropped us off.

“One of the things about jazz education, and this is one of the reasons I’m in it, is just the whole notion of ‘This is the only way to play’ or ‘This is what jazz is.’ That’s not what the music is about at all. And so [Peabody students] are exposed to everything. I have a good time when they come over to my house and they listen to vinyl and I’m like, ‘Check this George Duke record out,’ and they’re like, ‘Oh my God! That sounds like Thundercat!’ and I’m like, ‘No shit.’”

Looking back on his own trajectory, Jones recognizes the pattern of dealing with challenges and how it has shaped his unique approach as an educator. “My whole path was not conventional,” he says. “That’s why I’m in education now, because I want these kids that didn’t go to performing arts high schools, who didn’t grow up in New York or Miami or a big city. I didn’t do any of that, none of it. And I still made it—whatever making it is. I get to play music at a high level with decent musicians. To me, that’s making it. And so, I teach for that reason. I don’t teach for the stars. I want that kid that grew up in a situation where you have to make it happen for yourself.”