Sean Jones: The Philosophy of Hard Work

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Jones sat down for a live interview last December in Chicago at the Midwest Clinic.

(Photo: Jati Lindsay)

Sean Jones is riding a career high right now. And he’s doing it in a very modern way. In today’s jazz world, those who can play, teach.

It’s a large part of what makes the jazz economy and ecosystem work in 2022 and beyond. So, Jones just signed a new 10-year contract with the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. He’s been running the conservatory’s jazz program since 2018 as the Richard and Elizabeth Case Chair in jazz studies. But what happened next is a first. The conservatory is launching a fully funded masters degree program in which seven or eight musicians will study, tuition-free, and also receive a stipend of $12,000 annually to work on their craft. It’s a move that will put Peabody on a playing field with the very top jazz programs in the world, and the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that has distinguished Jones as an educator and artist.

All of this means Jones plans to be in Baltimore for the long haul. For him, the city, and its gritty blue-collar work ethic, reminds him of home in Warren, Ohio, a working-class town in the state’s northeastern corner. It’s far enough away from the big-city politics of Washington, D.C., to offer perspective, close enough to land quality gigs.

When Jones isn’t teaching, he’s working on his own craft with any of a number of projects. One of them is the Baltimore Jazz Collective, an ad hoc group of the best musicians around Baltimore featuring Jones, who serves as curator, tap dancer and vocalist Brinae Ali (who is also Jones’ wife), bass clarinetist Todd Marcus, pianist Mark G. Meadow, bassist Kris Funn, drummer Quincy Phillips and a rotating cast.

He and Ali also have Dizzy Spellz, their loving, hard-swinging, Afro-futuristic look at the world through the music of Dizzy Gillespie. And he’s in demand as a soloist, guest artist and pure jazz inspiration.

Jones gives back to the causes he loves, too. He serves as the artistic director of NYO Jazz, the newest of three youth orchestras sponsored by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, featuring some of the best young talent in the land. They’ll be putting out a recording this year with saxophonist Melissa Aldana as guest artist. And Jones just finished his term as the president of Jazz Education Network, an international organization dedicated to expanding the jazz universe.

One other thing that Jones wants to tell the world: He hasn’t had a drink since January. He felt that side of a musician’s life was getting in the way of what he wanted to accomplish.

“I think a lot of us are able to live this sort of life where if we can maintain our professionalism and, sort of, have that in the back pocket as a way of escape,” he said. “But eventually, it catches up to you. You’re forced to make a decision. Well, I felt that for me, I wanted to be able to make the decision before I was forced to.”

Jones sat down for a live interview last December in Chicago at the Midwest Clinic, one of the world’s largest music education conferences. A rapt audience listened as he waxed in practical, and very philosophical, tones about life, art and jazz.

These are his words, edited for style, length and clarity. The questions have been eliminated to leave more room for his thoughts.

I learned how to improvise in the church. My first musical experience was in the choir at church. I actually sang soprano at like 5 or 6 years old. It was a gospel church, specifically, the Church of God in Christ, a Pentecostal church. When you grow up in that environment, you have to sing or play some type of instrument. There were like three people in church who couldn’t sing or play an instrument. We thought something was wrong with them. [laughs]

The harder this trumpet got, the more I wanted to play it. And I told myself that I was going to master this thing. Long story short, Rich Rollo, who was my band director at the time, started to give me lessons after school for free. Then, Jessica Turner, who was also a band director, called my mother and said, “Listen, I’m going to take your son to lunch.” And so my Mom said, “Yeah, keep him as long as you want.” [laughs] As I’m shoving pizza into my face, Jessica pushed two CDs across the table. One was Miles Davis, Kind Of Blue. And the other one was Miles Davis, Tutu. And that pretty much sealed my fate.

The folks in middle school and high school started to hear about me. And they introduced me to a guy named Essoto Pellegrini. Pellegrini was a local-hero trumpet player. He decided early in his life that he wasn’t going to be an orchestral trumpet player because it was going to take him away from his family too much. He actually got invited by the Cleveland Orchestra several times to be in that section. And he said no. So, he taught at Youngstown State University, and he started to come and pick me up and take me for lessons at his house.

The first lesson, I’ll never forget. He pulls out his horn, and it looked weird. I didn’t know it was a C trumpet at the time. And he started doing all this double-tonguing and triple-tonguing. I’m like, “Man, I’ll never be able to do that.” So I went home, put the horn in the case and said, “All right. That’s it.”

So, he called my mother and says, “Get Sean together.” And he picked me up in his Maserati. He had a helmet on. He was like seriously Italian. He’s driving us around in his Maserati, and he’s going 70, 80, 90 miles and hour, and I’m like freaking out. Then, he pulls over. And says, “How did that feel?” I said, “It was scary, but it was exciting.” And he said, “Stick with me, and that’s how your entire career will be.”

Tony Leonardo, may he rest in peace, he was the director of jazz studies at Youngstown State. He was in Woody Herman’s band for years. He was the cat. And my little high school band played, and the Youngstown State University big band was the guest. And so I heard his big band. I never heard anything like that. I didn’t know anything. I’m telling you — green. I was like, extra green, like forest green.

So I’m looking at this band like, “Wow,” the power of the big band. These cats can play. And then Tony came up to me after the concert. He said, “Hey, young man, you sound pretty good. I think we can get you into school at Youngstown State University.” And I said, “OK, sure.” And they made a way for me, a full ride. So, without knowing what any of that meant, I found myself at Youngstown State University.

I took a year off to work on a cruise ship. Somebody told me it was a good idea to go play on a cruise ship and save some money. So, I went out there, and I had this nine-month contract.

The boat I was on, it was called the Big Red Boat. And the joke was it wasn’t big at all. We would dock in the Bahamas, and every other boat was bigger than us. [laughs] I was playing behind an Elvis impersonator and a Dolly Parton impersonator. It was horrible.

After the third week, I prayed to God, I said, “Look, if you’re up there, if there’s a God, get me off of this thing.”

That’s when I realized God had a sense of humor. Literally, a week later, the cruise line went bankrupt. We were stuck in the Bahamas for three weeks. And they turned the air conditioning off on the boat. They took all the passengers off, but the crew had to stay.

So we’re on the boat, no air conditioning. It’s September. And I’m sitting there like, “What am I doing with my career.” And then I remembered a letter that I wrote to my mother when I was 16 years old. I wrote a letter to my Mom, basically telling her what I’d be doing 10 years from that moment.

I told her I’d be a college professor. I told her I’d be a recording artist. And I told her I’d be Wynton Marsalis’ friend.

William Fielder, we knew him as “Prof.” The history of jazz trumpet from the 1980s up until now would not be if it wasn’t for William Fielder. He taught Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Terell Stafford and so many other cats. Kenny Garrett used to go and study with him — just wind. Yeah, Kenny Garrett, saxophone player. So all these cats went through him. I was one of his last students at Rutgers University. He said, “Send me a tape.” Two weeks later, he offered me something called a Ralph Bunche Fellowship, which is like a full ride, and I had a little bit of money to eat.

I said, “OK, this is my ticket to the East Coast, right?” So I told my mom, “Mom, I’m going to New York.” “You’re going to starve,” she said. [laughs] I said, “Well, Mom, you know, I’ll come back home. I’ll drive back home and eat some of your food.” You know, I’ll never forget that morning I left her house. I got in my little Beretta. I had my clothes. I had $600. And my Mom, God bless her, she went outside. And she took this anointing oil, like from the church, and she put it on the tires, on each tire, and she said a little prayer. And that was it.

I met Wynton on the cell phone. And this is a great lesson for any young person who is getting into the music. It’s all about choices. So, I got a phone call that Wes Anderson [saxophonist and a member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra] was going to be in Columbus, Ohio. I didn’t have any money. I had maybe $10 on me. I had no gas in the car. So I was like, “Well, I could fill up my tank, or at least put $10 worth of gas in the tank. I can get down there, but I’m not going to be able to get back.” And then in my mind, I’m like, “Yeah, but you can borrow money from somebody when you get down there.” And so for every excuse that came to my mind, I immediately started to think about a solution.

I got there, and I’m thinking I gotta borrow this money to get back home. Wes counts off “Caravan.” [Trumpeter] Pharez Whitted was there on stage. [Trumpeter] Derrick Gardener, too. They saw that I came in and said, “Hey, come on up here.” And so I got up there, and it turned into a trumpet battle — of course. You get three trumpet players together and it’s like, louder, faster, higher. [laughs]

And I looked out in the audience, and Wes Anderson is holding the cell phone up and laughing. I’m like, “Man, he must think this is a joke, or it sucks.” So, I walk off the stage. And Wes says, “Hey, man, take this phone. Somebody wants to talk to you on the other side.” So, I grab the phone, “Hello.” And somebody said, “Hey man, you sound good.” I said, “OK. Who is this?” “Wynton Marsalis.” “Yeah, right.” Click. I hung up the phone.

So I gave it back to Wes. He says, “Yeah, man. How was that?” I said, “Man, I don’t want you messing with me.” He says, “Did you talk to him?” I said, “No, you’re joking around.” And he said, “Man, that was Wynton.” And I’m like, “Can you call him back … please? [laughs]

So, check this out. Wynton gave me his number. He said, “You get to New York, call me.”So, I got to got to New Jersey and a year had gone by. And my good friend, her name was Michelle. She passed away a little while ago. I’m sorry, Michelle. One morning, I don’t know what got into her, but she said, “Did you ever call Wynton?” And as soon as I said, “Nah,” she grabbed my phone and ran. She was a track star. This was before you could lock your phone. She opened my phone, found Wynton’s number and called it.

He picked up, and she said, “I’m Michelle. I’m Sean Jones’ friend. He’s afraid of you. Talk to him.” She gave me the phone and Wynton says, “Man, you have to have your friend call me?” and I’m like, “I’m so sorry Mr. Marsalis.” He said, “What are you doing right now?” I said, “Well, later on, I have a final or something.” And so he says, “OK, you got a few hours, get on the train and come to my house.”

He gave me his address. I went up there. And I’ll never forget this. I walked in the door. He’s playing chess with Aaron Goldberg. Ali Jackson is sitting at a drum set. Carlos Henriquez is sitting with a bass, and there’s a grand piano there.

You know, for a kid from Warren, Ohio, I’m looking at this, like, “People live like this?

He didn’t even look up. He’s like, “Yeah, Sean, sit down, man.” So I sat, and they they started to rehearse for the Live At House Of Tribes record. And, so I’m sitting there watching this go down, and time is ticking. And I’m starting to think about this final. And I said, “Mr. Marsalis, I’m sorry, man. I gotta get back to New Jersey for this final.” He says, “All right, man, pull your horn out.” And, I started playing. And, then he says, “Hey, man, you know, you play too good to sound like other people you meet. Sound like yourself.”

Check this out. This is crazy. The phone rang. It was [trumpeter] Ryan Kisor [a member of the band]. Ryan Kizor couldn’t make the summer tour, and Wynton said to him, “Who would you who would you suggest me getting?” I was the third person that Ryan mentioned, Wynton looked over at me and said, “What are you doing this summer?”

I never met Ryan Kizor. I was just showing up. I was literally showing up everywhere. And for students that are in a room, you know, fate is where preparation and opportunity meet, and you create those opportunities.

Wynton offered me the lead trumpet chair during the tour. And I said no. Actually, I said no, twice. I wanted to be a soloist. And he said, “OK, I respect that.” A month and a half later, he said, “Hey, man, I need you to play on this gig playing lead.” So I went up, I played lead. I can’t remember what the concert was. But at the end of that run, he said, “Hey, man, I think you can do this. Are you sure you don’t want to check it out?” I said, “Nah, man. It’s not what I do.” A month and a half later, he called me back again. And he said, “Man, just do this one tour.” So I did the January tour. And at the end of the tour, I said, “OK, man, I’ll do it.” And that started my six-year run with Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Wynton is the hardest-working human being I’ve ever met. That is not sheer talent. That is work ethic. I saw this man write us practically a symphony in three weeks. He literally stayed up all night long. Just focus. That put a fire in me.

Newsflash, I never wanted to be on the road. Never. That was not part of my dream. I wanted to have recordings, but I didn’t want to be on the road. I wanted to be an educator.

The scene is in academia right now. I was at Berklee, livin’ life. All those killing musicians up there. Every day, it was like, “Yeah, I’m playing, it’s great.” Loved my job there. I heard that Peabody’s jazz program was pretty much falling apart, there was nothing there. And this position came open. And I looked at it. I was like, “That’s interesting.” And went back to my job. Then, I got a phone call from the dean at Peabody. And he said, “Sean, would you be interested in taking this on?” And I said to myself, “Why would I leave this to go there?” And then I heard [trumpeter] Donald Byrd’s voice. Donald Byrd said something when I was younger that I’ve never forgotten. He said, “Don’t go where the work is being done, go where the work needs to be done.” And so I’m like, “Oh, here we go again, universe.”

When I started at that program, there were six students. There’s now 47. We have two big bands now, five combos, gospel choir, hip-hop ensemble. All of that’s happening now. And it’s not because, you know, I think I’m so great. It’s just that I’m just willing to do the work.

My favorite song is “Danny Boy,” or “Londonderry Air.” Some of y’all might know it as “He Looked Beyond My Faults.” I love that song. And sometimes I play it right, sometimes I crack it. But I’m gonna keep playing it because it heals me. So that’s where you need to get — then everything else doesn’t matter. DB




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