Interview with Chad McCullough

Jazz musician. Jazz Trumpet Professor at DePaul University. Jazz Trumpet Professor, Merit Jazz Ensemble Director & Jazz Combo Director at Merit School of Music (United States).

«I’m not really a fan of differentiating between ‘Classical’ and ‘Jazz’ trumpet… we all play Arban’s and we all play Charlier»


Today, our interview is with Chad McCullough, am American jazz trumpeter with an impressive calendar of concerts in his own country and internationally. He was a student of, none other than, Allen Vizzutti and Tim Hagans, and played with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. When not on tour, he teaches at DePaul University and the Merit School of Music in Chicago. This is an interview you cannot miss, not just for jazz lovers but also for those that play “Classical” and want to expand their horizon! It includes an interesting exercise in PDF format for Premium members of Trumpetland! How could you miss this opportunity?!

Up close and personal
  • Age: 36.
  • City of birth: Seattle, Washington (USA).
  • A hobby: Coffee.
  • A food: Sushi.
  • A drink: Scotch.
  • A book: House of Leaves (Mark Z. Danielewski).
  • A film: UHF (Jay Jevey).
  • A place: Banff, Alberta (Canada).

Professional career

How did your trumpet career begin?

I was in the school band in 5th grade — about 10 years old. My closest two friends both were playing the trumpet, so I wanted to hang with them. My first professional gig was when I was 16 with a big band in Seattle.

When did your interest for jazz begin?

In high school. I was always into rock and grunge (Seattle in the 90’s!) and was drawn to jazz music by some of the trumpet players I was able to hear and hang out with on the Seattle scene (guys like Thomas Marriott, and Jay Thomas).

Were you initially self taught or did you have a teacher?

I had a few teachers, but nothing very regular until college. The lessons I had were very valuable — I studied with Jim Knodle who worked with me on technique and breathing, and then Thomas Marriott, who introduced me to some of the hippest music (which I totally didn’t understand at the time). Those are still some of my favorite records today! Albums like Woody Shaw’s Stepping Stones, Coltrane’s Crescent, Larry Young’s Unity… all deep!

What other musicians or bands that you have worked with have inspired you the most?

I was lucky enough recently to work with Miguel Zenón for a second. That guy is the best musician I’ve ever been around. I’ve spent time with Maria Schneider, Claudio Roditi, and a deep scene of incredible musicians in Chicago — Geof Bradfield, Ryan Cohan, Dana Hall… lots of incredible people who I learn from just by being around them!

Daily work

What should a jazz trumpeter practice on a day-to-day basis?

Scales, sound, harmony, and LISTENING (not just to trumpet players). Also, I think it’s a good idea to practice learning and reading everyday too.

Can you give us any advice to develop the ear and the ability to improvise?

Singing has helped me — and daily transcribing (even just a little bit), and investing in a great pair of headphones to REALLY clearly hear the music and the inflection you’re trying to emulate. Also piano chops are essential!

What are the steps to study a new piece?

When I’m giving new music to work on I deal with harmony in a very simple process — working from one chord/scale/tonality to the next. I’ll deal with any metric difficulties after harmony. If I’m learning a standard, I’ll find as many recordings of it with singers that I can to really learn melodic phrasing. If it’s an instrumental tune I’ll sing along with recordings over and over until I can sing away from the recording — before I ever play it on my trumpet.

Recording session or concert, which one do you like the most? How do you prepare for them?

Each is exhilarating in it’s own way. A recording session can feel sterile, but with great musicians, and a fun vibe in the studio, it can really be a different avenue for creativity. I prepare for a recording session by really making sure I’m comfortable and my chops are in great shape — so I can be ready to do ANYTHING at any time. I want to bring that flexibility into the music. A lot of recordings lately have involved sight-reading in odd-meters… so I know I have to be ready for anything. For a concert, I want to make sure that I’m working with musicians who are prepared and ready to go anywhere with me, or challenge me at any time. If those things are in place, there’s really nothing that can go wrong!


If you were a 20 year-old, where would you go to study jazz trumpet?

I’d spend my money on albums and a good stereo, and transcribe every single thing I could get my hands on. I went to a small college in North Idaho and I don’t regret it one bit. You can learn anywhere, at any time. You don’t have to be in New York. We all have the Internet. Spending time in a major scene is extremely valuable, but if you’re not ready, you’ll just feel slighted and depressed. Do your homework — doesn’t matter where!

Is it important for you to combine study with other fields as, for example, classic or natural trumpet?

I’m not really a fan of differentiating between “Classical” and “Jazz” trumpet… we all play Arban’s and we all play Charlier. If I want to sound like Phil Smith, I need to buy his recordings, listen to them, sing along, and learn how he phrases and articulates. No different with Freddie Hubbard, you know?! You can learn finesse and technique from treating a transcription like an etude, and you can learn them from playing an Arban’s Characteristic Study… I do both, and always have. It’s all music at some level. Now… Natural Trumpet… that thing’s terrifying.

What kind of mouthpiece and trumpet do you use? Why?

I play AR Resonance trumpets and mouthpieces, and a Hub Van Laar flugelhorn. I love them all. Antonio at Resonance is brilliant, and totally no BS. I got so angry with these trumpet makers who cover their ineptitude with mystery and magic, and won’t sell you things because they think you’re not good enough to know things that they do — that attitude is so worthless. Antonio is brilliant, and is happy to work with me on exactly what I needed. Hub’s flugels are just fantastic, and I get compliments on the playability and sound EVERYTIME I play it, or loan that horn to someone.

What would you recommend to a young person who wants to devote themselves to jazz?

Do it, and do it 100% and no less. This music is important, and deep, and there’s no room for ego, so get rid of that shit right now and give yourself up to the intensity. There’s no other way. You’ll suffer, and you’ll hurt, and in the end it won’t matter — so you can’t let that weigh you down.

Performance anxiety

Have you ever had a bad experience on stage?

OF COURSE! I recently heard an interview with Yo-Yo Ma talking about having a bad experience live, and just thinking about Julia Child saying “oh! We dropped the chicken… let’s just put it back up here!” And I thought it was so poetic. We rarely get to perform exactly like we want to, and while I used to think that was magic, more I’m realizing it’s just being prepared. I’ve learned how to be more prepared as I’ve gotten older. And I’ve had things go south so many times, I’ve gotten better at “righting the ship” in the moment, and not letting things affect the next thing. Being nervous just means you care. It’s not a bad thing — and it’s not going away, so you might as well become friends with it!

How does one need to take criticism?

Criticism from someone else is tricky. You have to detach yourself from it and think “where is this coming from? — is it fueled by their own insecurity? Is it legitimate? Does this person hold my best interest in mind? Does this person have some sort of issues with me? Does this person have issues with THEMSELVES (not to downplay those — these are legitimate things we must deal with as we traverse the musicians in the industry)?” These help to put things in perspective, and give you tangible elements which you can put to work in the practice room. Self-criticism is difficult, as we need to be gentle with our self-talk and direct with the mind so as to always set up ourselves for success and how to be the best version of what we want to be.

It seems that for jazz musicians that so-called ‘performance anxiety’ barely exists; is that possible?

No way! Performance anxiety is present in everyone I know to some extent. We all want to do well, and communicate genuinely — regardless of musical style.

Any advice for the moment of stepping onto the stage?


Musical preferences

What sonorities and colors of trumpet in jazz do you like more? What style do you like more?

I’m of the persuasion that the trumpet should be a beautiful sounding instrument. I like the colors and manipulations of sound which bring it closer to the human voice. Miles Davis, Terence Blanchard, Freddie Webster, Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis, Woody Shaw, Avishai Cohen, Freddie Hubbard… the list can go on and on — they all can communicate at such a deep level of emotion. But also guys like Nils Petter Molvær, Arve Henriksen, Tomasz Stańko… different sounds — all trumpet… all wonderful and each person brings unique elements of self to the instrument. I don’t like people who play aggressively to prove things. That drives me crazy, and I want to leave instantly.

What are your favorite jazz musicians?

This changes all of the time, I really have very few people I don’t enjoy listening to! The ones I want to listen to EVERYDAY are Miles, Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard, Keith Jarrett, Bill Frisell, Herbie Hancock, Brad Mehldau, Miguel Zenón, Avishai Cohen, Charles Tolliver… I mean… I really enjoy just about everyone. If I had to tattoo someone’s name to my body, it’d be Miles.

What is your favorite jazz piece?

Again… this changes EVERYDAY (and I think it should — right? Like your favorite food, or drink!). Over the last year I’ve probably listened to Coltrane’s Crescent more than any other album.

What is your favorite non-jazzy piece?

Sometimes Rite of Spring is the right thing to listen to, and sometimes Soundgarden is the right thing to listen to, and sometimes it’s Joni Mitchell’s Shadows and Light. There’s a right thing for every moment, and that’s my favorite thing.

Sharing exercises with Trumpetland

Do you have any exercise you would like to share with the Premium members of Trumpetland?

Sure! This is a flexibility exercise where we work on timing the body’s movements with a metronome as we get faster and faster. Start at mm=60 and slur the entire exercise. The notes that are beamed together should always be played with the same fingerings. It’s really just moving up and down a chromatic scale and inserting a partial above each note. Working on different ratios, the body begins to internalize the time. When you get comfortable and increase the speed, you can really feel the tempo changes in your body. Good luck!

Free download:

Exercise by Chad McCullough (PDF 233,6 KB) [Only Premium members]