Q&A with Sean Jones: The Spirit Calling

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Sean Jones performs at the Pittsburgh JazzLive Festival as part of a string concerts that ran June 16–18. (Photo: C. Andrew Hovan )

A longtime time professor of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, trumpeter Sean Jones has served as Brass Chair at the Berklee College of Music since 2014. Earlier this spring, it was announced that Jones will lead the NYO Jazz as its first artistic advisor, directing the big band’s debut performance at Carnegie Hall in July 2018. NYO Jazz builds on the success of the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America (NYO-USA) and NYO2 programs.

In June, Jones performed selections from his most recent release, Live From Jazz At The Bistro (Mack Avenue), at the Pittsburgh JazzLive International Festival, alongside a newly commissioned suite inspired by James Baldwin’s 1963 essay collection, The Fire Next Time.

DownBeat caught up with Jones following his stint as a featured guest artist in Dr. Lonnie Smith’s Octet performance at New York’s Jazz Standard. We spoke at length about what he’s been up to since leaving Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in 2010, as well as his realization that he has nothing to lose—and far more to gain—as a prolific artist, educator and composer.

Hard to believe that our very first DownBeat interview happened back in 2012, while backstage at the Jazz Standard. Talk about what it has been like to chart your own growth over the past few years.

I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned is that I really don’t have to live up to others’ expectations of me. In the industry—jazz performance, jazz education, jazz whatever—there are certain qualifiers that they’ve put in there. And for a while, I felt the need to sort of be all things to all people. And now, just in the past few years, I realized, “You don’t have to be that, Sean. You’re putting that on yourself.” You really just have to be true to yourself, hold firm, take your beliefs and ideals and recognize that you’re on Earth for a certain reason. That reason is not to fulfill somebody else’s ideas of what they think you should be.

In hearing the new album, there’s a sense of fearlessness in your approach. Is there a specific experience in your journey you can attribute that to?

There are a few of them (laughs), both personal and in the industry. Leaving [Jazz at Lincoln Center] Orchestra was a big one. A lot of people said I was crazy for doing it, but at the same time, people also said, “Yeah, good job. You should go and do your own thing,” including Wynton. Once I approached him and told him that I’m going to leave the band, he said, “Why?”  I said I was hearing my own music. And he said, “Good, ’cause you’re not the type of motherfucker that needs to be sitting up in somebody’s big band!” We gave each other a big hug and we’ve gotten very close ever since.

Another incident, professionally, was while I was on the road with Herbie [Hancock], Wayne [Shorter] and Marcus [Miller]. After the second day of the tour, I basically told them that I feel like the music wants to go this way, and are you guys OK with that. I’m not trying to sound like Miles Davis, you know. They said, “Why do you think we hired you? We hired you to be in that leadership position. We trust you.”

At that point, I kind of said, “OK, Sean, you’re a leader. Take it and do what you’re supposed to do with it.” Also, after going through a divorce, giving up tenure at a major university and moving to Boston, once you do those things and you actually overcome them and you’re OK, then you do kind of develop [an attitude of], “Well, if that didn’t kill me, I must be OK.” So I do have this sort of fearlessness in my career now.

Leaving the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, especially when you did, was a very bold move. Would you do it any differently?

No, I wouldn’t. I was fortunate enough to hear the vision I had in my head and just sort of have the courage to leave at that point in time. Wynton was very supportive. And ultimately, he’s been more supportive of me leaving than he was of me being in the band.

JALC didn’t do anything to me but help me. Wynton didn’t do anything to me but help me. Why am I going to start bitchin’, moaning and complaining about a gig that has been more beneficial to me than hurtful? It was time for me to realize that I [didn’t] have much to contribute to this organization anymore because I want to do my own stuff, and at the start of my fifth year [of my six-year tenure with the JLCO], that’s when I decided to leave. Wynton and I discussed an exit strategy, and luckily, we found the right person to take my place.

Your suite at the Pittsburgh JazzLive Festival was, in part, inspired by Baldwin’s classic The Fire Next Time. Talk about the process overall in creating this powerful music.

Well, I’ve always been a fan of Baldwin. And actually, the pieces that [we performed] were already started a few years ago, and I put them on the back burner. But The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust recently decided that they were going to have me revive those. I brought them out, changed about 45-50 percent of it, finished the other 50 percent and then added something new. It was almost a brand new piece in a way, but I had the original concept there and there were certain parts of those pieces that really struck me.

To me, Baldwin was ahead of his time. What he had to say about the African-American [experience], as it relates to the human condition in Western society is something that strikes me as being extremely significant. Typically, we get caught up in race. And to me, there are enough people talking about how black people aren’t treated as equals. I understand that, and that’s what we should be talking about, but there are enough people talking about that. What strikes me is how black people are the way that they are because other people who are in power are manipulating racists and classists to pit themselves against one another. Ultimately, the people that are in power don’t give a damn about race—they only care about power.

The performance happened to take place just hours after the announcement of a “not guilty” verdict in the police shooting of Philando Castile. How did this, either wholly or in part, impact the work?

For me, I wasn’t thinking about the verdict at all. Although it [was] terrible to hear, I’m not one who reacts to things in the moment …. I like to consume it, process it and then put whatever energy that is towards something. [That’s] with all of the verdicts—I don’t necessarily get outraged by [just] one. I have accepted that that’s a reality. For me, accepting that as a reality allows me to combat that reality in a way that I can combat it without simply expressing outrage.

You grew up in the church. Creating music centered on Baldwin’s essay “Down at the Cross” certainly has a much deeper meaning for you in that regard.

When I was younger, I really appreciated the spiritual foundation that the church gave me, but I despised the restraints that the religion put on people. I’m all about the Golden Rule: Do onto others as you would have them do onto you. But I’m not into [rules like] women shouldn’t wear pants or that you shouldn’t go to movies because it’s sinful, or [the idea] that a certain type of music is sinful.

I remember listening to jazz for the first time and I was like, “Wow, this is some of the most spiritual music I’ve ever heard.” And there were certain people in the church who actually demonized it. I remember listening to Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and reading the liner notes, and I was like, “This is church music.” I remember talking to one of the preachers specifically, [who was] basically saying, “I’m not going to play this because it doesn’t belong in the sanctuary.” And I’m like, “Do you see these liner notes? He’s talking more about God than Kirk Franklin!” (laughs)

Do you think this interest in spirituality and religion might translate into a larger work for you?

I think that, musically, it’s the beginning of a shift in my career. There’s this concept that’s just burning inside of me and I’m now studying world religions and the sacred music of those religions. [My dream is to take] the most profound elements of their sacred music—Judaism, Islam, Christian, Baha’i, Hindu—and just of sort of see how these elements can play together on a stage to create almost like a worship ceremony. It’s a concert, but people would come expecting to go to a higher realm of existence. Not through religion, but just like a transformative moment where they can just get out of their own constraints and just be for that moment and allow the energies of all of these thoughts to take them to some place.

I’m not saying that it’s going to be easy and I’m not saying that it’s going to happen next year, but ultimately, that’s what I’m feeling inside of me. DB


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