Trumpeter Russell Gunn, whose music has defied categorization for 25 years, is in residency at Columbia College Chicago this week, addressing students in their classrooms by day and leading ensembles through his new compositions for big band at the Jazz Showcase each night.
“I haven’t made jazz education a big part of my career, yet; I’ve been on the road too much,” the 46-year-old hornman said by phone from his home in Atlanta. “But I’m interested in getting into it more. I want to help students understand you can’t build a house without a foundation, and that if you want to have a career in this, you have to really, really want it—it’s not for the faint of heart.”
Gunn proved himself stouthearted and eager for professional engagement at 18, when he quit college during his freshman year to tour with r&b singer Johnny Taylor. Two years later, Gunn was called to New York City to work with Oliver Lake and soon after record Blood On The Fields with Wynton Marsalis. Since his recording debut, 1995’s Young Gunn, he’s released 16 albums as a leader, including the Grammy-nominated Ethnomusicology, Vol. 3, melding hip-hop rhythms, bits of spoken word, turntablism, effects, keyboards and drum programming with brash brass playing, jazz structures and a cohort of collaborators who regard the music’s legacy as essential but not an end in itself.
“At Columbia, we are providing experiences in and out of the classroom that are relevant to what student’s are doing with their own groups outside of school,” explained Scott Hall, the college’s director of Jazz Studies. “Russell brings a perfect blend of tradition, mixed with his other musical influences. What I hope our students will get from his time here is encouragement to be free to express themselves through their own music.”
Columbia currently has 230 enrollees in its Contemporary, Urban and Popular Music program out of 380 total music majors, and Hall said all performance students “develop their skills utilizing jazz as a foundation, even if they are pop-oriented singer/songwriters.” That seems like a perfect base for Gunn, who cites LL Cool J as his first music idol and Charles Mingus and Count Basie as major influences. His schedule for the week includes master classes, private lessons, rehearsals and an improvisation workshop, plus visits to area high schools. He’s working with the Columbia College Jazz Ensemble (established in 1999 by Hall with famed composer-arranger William Russo), a fusion ensemble and ChicagoVox, a vocal jazz troupe. All three groups will appear at the Jazz Showcase March 15-18.
Born in Chicago but moving to East St. Louis when he was 10, Gunn first heard jazz classics on vinyl that belonged to his grandmother’s boyfriend, a Chicago radio show host. He credits saxophonist Ron Carter, his public high school band director, with having provided him and other students with “the tools for us to go try to learn on our own, and a place for us to be in healthy competition,” and claims his “real education” began with on-the-job training he got from older players.
“But none of my being able to play with some of the great people I’ve played with would be possible if I didn’t have a foundation in the sound of the music, the language of that music,” he said. “That has allowed me to be able to take my experience and move it forward.
“I’m not one of the older guys that hates the direction younger musicians are going in, because I’m greatly responsible for it. I just want young people to understand that a foundation is critical. Playing over different rhythms is —New Orleans’ language, Charlie Parker’s language—pretty much stays the same. Without that, it’s all just fluff.”
At the Showcase, Gunn will lead the Columbia ensembles in charts from his as-yet unissued album Get It How You Live, which extends his mix-it-all concept to conventional big band instrumentation.
“The parts may be demanding,” he said, “but by the time students are in school, they should be able to read music. That’s the least of my worries. The actual music is in the conception and execution, based on understanding of the sounds, because even a C7th chord can take on a bunch of different feelings. Music can be equated to math easily, but the real magic and mystery is the interpretations of sound.
“The other thing I hope students will get from my being with them is that if someone like me, who comes from East St. Louis and had to learn how to play pretty much on my own, had to navigate my way to New York myself, yet became a person that they want to bring in to teach them—if somebody like me can do that, then anybody can do it with work and dedication.”
For more information about Columbia’s music program, visit the school’s site. DB