Interview with Sean Jones

Jazz musician (United States). Recording Artist (United States). Professor Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts (United States).

«If you can’t sing a melody, chances are that you can’t play a melody»

2017-03-14

Our guest today has become one of the most important names in the international jazz scene and a trumpeter and composer featured on several Grammy Award-winning albums. We are very fortunate to have him with us in Trumpetland. Do not miss his words of wisdom.

Up close and personal
  • Age: 38.
  • City of birth: Warren, Ohio (United States).
  • A hobby: I love to read about philosophy, religion and spirituality.
  • A food: Steak.
  • A drink: Cognac.
  • A book: The Bible.
  • A film: Coming to America (John Landis).
  • A place: Right here.

Professional career

How did your trumpet career begin?

I began playing the trumpet when I was 10 years old. No one else wanted to play it because it was difficult. I loved challenges as a child and I still do. I grew up singing in a gospel church and I began to apply that style to my trumpet playing at an early age. As I learned trumpet pedagogy more, I figured out that I could apply it to my gospel playing and eventually, jazz.

When did your interest for jazz begin?

My interest in jazz began when I was in grade school. My 6th grade band director gave me two Miles Davis albums, Kind of Blue and Amandla. From that moment, I was hooked on jazz.

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

My training on the trumpet was largely through instruction. I had very good teachers early on. I, however, learned how to improvise in the church through the gospel music tradition.

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

I’ve been inspired by so many groups over the years that it’s difficult to narrow it down. Early on, I had the chance to work with bassist Charles Fambrough who was a great inspiration. Also, I’ve worked with Ralph Peterson and Jimmy Heath early on. My longest periods in any ensemble were with The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis and Marcus Miller’s band. I learned how to develop a sound on the road with those two groups. Finally, I had the opportunity to tour with Marcus Miller, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock on a tour in tribute to Miles Davis. This tour changed my life and showed me what was possible when you put preconceived notion aside and live in your imagination.

Daily work

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

The most important thing to work on is your tone. The first thing that people hear is your sound. It should be crystal clear and have a vocal quality to it. Every passage, including those which are fast, should be sung through the instrument. It’s important that everything that you play be pleasing to the ear.

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

The best advice that I can give regarding developing one’s ear is to sing and copy. When you sing, notes resonate through your entire body. You’re in control of the pitches. If you can’t sing a melody, chances are that you can’t play a melody. Mimic everything that you want to play. Internalize it and sing it. This will develop your ear. Your ear is simply an extension of what resonates through you.

What are the steps to study a new piece?

Well, there is no perfect sequence to learning a piece. If it’s possible, get it in your ear first. However, if the piece has never been played, consult with the composer as much as possible. Learn why it was created, who it was created for, and the point of the piece. Then, learn the song in the music. All music has a song, an expression. Become one with it. Then, you will be able to express it honestly. Learn it inside and out. Embody its role the way that an actor learns their part. Go for the Oscar.

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

Recording sessions and concerts are both very enjoyable. I love concerts because you get to feel the audience. You get immediate interaction. It influences your performance in such a way that it can be different each time. I prepare for performances by opening myself up to the audience and having no preconceived notions about them. The recording session is almost opposite. In a record date, I want to express my thoughts and ideas as clearly as possible. Here, I have the opportunity to project an emotion without interruption. It's my concept and I want to document it as clearly as possible. Both are enjoyable for different reasons.

Education

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

If I was 20, I would without a doubt go to the Berklee College of Music. Not just because I teach there and am the Chair. But, because it is truly the academic representation of the future of music.

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

Yes. It is important to study classical music due to the fact that trumpet pedagogy had been codified for hundreds of years through the European Classical genre.

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

I use a Bach 1½C mouthpiece and a Yamaha Xeno trumpet for one reason only: I like the way I sound and feel when I play them.

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

Anyone one wanting to study any type of music should believe in it and believe in their ability to perform it. Music is a gift and a treasure and it takes great confidence and humility to do it. You must have both. And, you must believe that the music is greater than you are. Live for it.

Performance anxiety

Have you ever had a bad experience on stage?

I’ve had many difficult experiences. I choose not to call them bad because I’ve learned from all of them.

How does one need to take criticism?

One should take criticism with an open heart and mind and without their ego coming into play. Take advice and strain it through a sifter. Take what you need and leave the rest.

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

It’s possible if you overcome it. It’s not a genre thing… It’s a people thing. We’re human and we all have our quirks. Confidence helps you overcome performance anxiety.

Any advice for the moment of stepping onto the stage?

My advice is to breathe and get lost in the music… Breathe first!

Musical preferences

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

I like to use every color possible. I don’t want to have any restrictions. The entire rainbow is there for me… Why just pick blue and red? The more I have to draw from, the greater the picture.

What are your favorite jazz musicians?

I love Miles Davis for his leadership. I also love Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw. Also, Maurice Andre and Adolph Herseth.

What is your favorite jazz piece?

There Are Such Things.

What is your favorite non-jazzy piece?

My favorite non-jazz piece is Copland's Third Symphony. I love the recording of the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein. It's one of the most passion filled recordings by any major symphony.