A Q&A with Ambrose Akinmusire:
Raising the greats
February 23, 2022 | by Richard Scheinin
To get ready for SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director Ambrose Akinmusire's week of performances (March 3-6), staff writer Richard Scheinin spoke to the trumpeter, bandleader, and composer.
When trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire was growing up in Oakland, he heard about a neighborhood jazz program. Doors were about to open.
Walking into the Alice Arts Center one afternoon in 1996, 14-year-old Akinmusire met a sharply dressed trumpet player named Robert Porter who would change his life. Porter became his mentor and friend — his guide to this new, beckoning world of music. Trumpeter Khalil Shaheed, one of the program’s directors, also took an interest in the new kid, showing him the ropes. And before long, Akinmusire found himself taken under wing by still more East Bay musicians including pianist Ed Kelly and drummer Donald “Duck” Bailey. They were genius players — legends, literally — though Akinmusire literally knew nothing about their status or achievements.
“So many incredible musicians,” says Akinmusire, who is now 39 and possesses one of the most original trumpet voices of the past couple of decades. He laughs at his younger self: “I mean, I sounded horrible. They didn’t have to let me sit in with them. They didn’t have to take me on gigs. They wanted to help me. They decided to really nurture me. They were all about community.”
Now he has composed a piece titled “Porter,” a musical portrait of Robert Porter and his other departed mentors — the people who made his life in music possible. Scored for 30-piece orchestra and his jazz quartet, it is an evening-length “thank you” note to these overlooked innovators. On March 3 and 4 at SFJAZZ, their spirits will be “activated,” the trumpeter predicts, when he premieres “Porter” during his residency at the San Francisco concert hall. (The residency also includes two shows, on March 5 and 6, with his special trio featuring guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Herlin Riley.)
During an hour-long conversation, Akinmusire makes clear the gratitude and admiration he carries for his teachers. They were open-minded musicians, grounded in tradition and feeling — and ever ready to experiment. Akinmusire has become just that kind of musician. If you watch him perform — or listen to his five albums on the Blue Note label — you will hear him swing freely between jazz, rap, chamber music and sounds you cannot put in a box. It’s a unified creative flow. It comes from inside him.
His teachers set him on the right path. Yes, they were “local heroes,” he says, but they were more than just local: “It’s important to tie these people in with the more famous jazz musicians, as opposed to almost penalizing them for staying local and addressing the local community,” he says. “For a lot of them it was a decision. They decided to stay local, and they’re just as important as the Wynton Marsalises and the Herbie Hancocks. I want to put Mr. Porter next to Wayne Shorter.”
Robert Porter (photo by Bob Hershon)
Q: Tell me about walking into the Alice Arts Center for the first time and meeting your teacher.
A: Mr. Porter was the first person I saw. We walked into the lobby — me and (trumpeter) Jonathan Finlayson — and Mr. Porter was sitting there with a three-piece suit and the hat to the side. And he said, “What are you doing here?” And I said, “I’m here to learn about jazz.” And he said, “Well, then,” and he took it from there.
Q: He dressed sharp?
A: Yes, always! He always had on the suit, always had on the hat. And he had a little walk; he walked with a lean, to the left. You know those images of Prez (saxophonist Lester Young), playing, with that lean? That’s kind of the way Mr. Porter was. He was just this throwback character, man. Much like Roy Hargrove, he dressed in the culture of the music. He looked like the culture of the music. Just like hip-hop is a culture, jazz is a culture. It’s not a genre. And just seeing Mr. Porter, you knew who he was, you knew what he sounded like.
Q: What kind of a trumpet player was he? What did he sound like?
A: I can still hear Mr. Porter: his vibrato, that certain sound he had — his notes were slippery, like the inside of an okra plant. I can still hear all these guys who mentored me. I will say this: there is a Bay Area jazz sound. And I don’t know how to describe it, exactly. But if you draw a line between (drummer) Smiley Winters and (pianist) Ed Kelly and Robert Porter and (drummer) Eddie Marshall — any of these guys, they just have a particular sound. You heard it, and you knew it was them.
Same thing with Khalil (Shaheed). He had this percussive attack; almost like drums on the trumpet. And Ed Kelly, it was almost like he had all these colors coming out of the organ. Or (drummer) E.W. Wainwright — when he played, everything just sounded urgent. I’d hear him and think, “Oh! He has to do this now.” So many people — Babatunde Lea, the percussionist. He sounded like empathy. You played with him and it felt like he was saying to you, “I got you. I know what you’re going through.”
Q: You were nurtured by all these legends. I mean, Ed Kelly played with Pharoah Sanders. Donald Bailey made all those classic albums with Jimmy Smith.
A: I know! Although I didn’t know at the time. I was 15, 16 years old, and I had no idea.
Q: So what is this new piece of yours about? It’s about memory? It’s about your teachers and the Oakland of your youth?
A: It’s about Oakland, but it’s about more than that. It’s about mentorship-at-large in an African-American art form. It’s about the role of the griot, the people who carry the culture. All of that.
And if I had to sum it up, it’s really a big “thank you” to all of my mentors. Because a lot of times — well, I got to say “thank you” to Khalil (who died in 2012). But a lot of these guys — I was living in New York and they passed away and I just wasn’t around to say “thanks.”
Ambrose Akinmusire performing "Vartha" with the WDR Big Band
Q: You moved back to Oakland six years ago, right? The city had changed a lot since you were a teenager — all the gentrification, for one thing.
A: A lot of things had changed, but then I realized that sometimes the clothes on something can change, but the body doesn’t. I really believe that Oakland — for a lot of people, and for myself — is a very spiritual place. It’s a spiritual ground.
Q: Let’s talk more about Mr. Porter.
A: He was from Texas. This guy, he was so amazing. In hindsight, it was almost like he was clairvoyant or something. He definitely saw the potential in me early on. And he also just saw that I needed some kind of guidance, from not only an elderly person, but more specifically from a man, and even more specifically from a Black man.
Q: What kind of teacher was he? What was his method?
A: That was the magic of Mr. Porter. We weren’t sitting down and playing through books. Every now and then, maybe, we might play one of his transcriptions. But a lot of the time we were playing his favorite songs, random things, like by Tadd Dameron.
It was more just life, about dedication, and how to survive, and how to be an artist. He’d pick us up and say, “Hey, you’re coming to my gig today.” And we would drive all the way up to Sonoma, and we would just watch his gig. Very old school. And we’d see how it worked, being a musician. So he was a lot of things. He was our mentor, our friend. And he would introduce us to people. He introduced us to Wynton (Marsalis) and to Roy (Hargrove) and to Nicholas (Payton).
And the other thing, he was a Black Panther years before, so he was teaching us Oakland history. And when Geronimo Pratt (who had been a high-ranking officer in the Panthers) was released from prison, we went to De Fremery Park and we met him. So it was about how to play, and it was about how to present yourself, and it was about how to be in your community.
Everybody played with Mr. Porter. He had a jam session every Sunday at a club called the Birdcage, which was around 46th and Telegraph. And it was literally four blocks from my house, and they would sneak me in the club. And that’s where I met a lot of the local guys, like (trumpeter) George Alexander and (saxophonist) Vince Wallace.
Former location of The Birdcage, Telegraph Avenue, Oakland
Q: I imagine he knew a lot of trumpet players.
A: He was from Texas and he knew Kenny Dorham, who was also from Texas. He knew all the cats in the Basie band. Anyone from around his age, he knew them. He knew Miles (Davis). He knew Eddie Henderson, Curtis Amy, Harold Land.
Q: Did he tell stories about them?
A: All the time. And that was the thing that got me — that made me relate to the music. He would just tell personal stories. He humanized these people. I just think that if people in the United States — well, people everywhere, but especially here — had more access to older people and their stories, they could relate a little more to the music.
Q: Do you tell stories to your students?
A: Always. If we’re working on a technical thing, I’ll tell a story about Kenny Dorham or Clifford Brown and explain that this is the way they did it. There’s something about sitting down in a practice room and knowing that what you’re doing is something that Clifford Brown did many years ago — or that Louis Armstrong was doing a century ago. It connects you.
Q: Let’s talk about “Porter,” the piece itself. Are you channeling your mentors through the music?
A: They will be activated. That’s what I’m trying to do. And I’m trying to activate the space, SFJAZZ, with them. Because they should be there!
Q: I know you originally intended for it to be a big multi-media piece. You were going to project videos and images of your mentors, and interweave the imagery with the music.
A: That was the plan. But I started digging and trying to find interviews and images, and I realized these people weren’t interested in doing interviews and getting publicity. They were just interested in playing and being in the community. So when you Google them, you type in their names, and you don’t get much.
It ended up being more work, because I had to write more music. It’s come down to me being in that space with this music and bringing their spirit to the space. I’m really pretending almost like they’re still alive and their pieces are them.
Q: “Porter” basically unfolds in four movements. The opening movement is your portrait of Robert Porter. Can you describe it?
A: It almost feels like a Mahler piece or something, because Mr. Porter played brass and he was a small guy, but he had a big personality. So you get these French horns and all this brass blasting away. He was all about the feeling, as opposed to the theoretical approach. And so I wrote something to convey that feeling in almost a tactile kind of way. Because when I think of Mr. Porter, I just think feelings.
Ed Kelly with Ray Drummond and Tootie Heath at Yoshi's, Oakland, 1992.
Q: The second movement is a portrait of Ed Kelly.
A: When I think Ed, I think love and layers — there was just so much love. I could almost see love coming out of the organ or the piano. So this section I’m writing for him has two or three melodies and counter-melodies. And it starts with a very beautiful, almost overly joyous intro, and I just see Ed smile. And you couldn’t divorce Ed from his wife, his partner. Every time you’d see them, she’d give you this big hug and this wet sloppy kiss! And Ed would be on the keyboard, and so I’m just putting their spirits in the song.
It’s not a celebration, exactly. But it’s not just solemn, either. With this whole piece, I’m trying to be in the center of those two things.
Q: You’ve also composed a movement for Donald Bailey. How did you meet him?
A: He had jam sessions every week at the library in North Oakland, and so I’d go and play with Donald Bailey. He taught me so many things, and Donald Bailey at that point did not sound the way he did with Jimmy Smith. It was so open and big and I don’t want to say free, but he had kept his music in this open place, and he was still reaching for new things. We’d go to a jam session and we’re playing standards, and Donald might pull out his harmonica, and there might be an intro that sounds like someone in the AACM.
Q: I once spent an afternoon with Donald at his house in Richmond. I don’t think he even had a drum kit set up. He just played wooden flutes and the harmonica. All of these musicians who mentored you were unique. They were always surprising you.
A: Exactly. Like Ed Kelly, this man, not only was he just this amazing jazz pianist, but he played blues, and he’d break out gospel songs on the organ, and he also taught at Laney (College). And I remember when I heard him, I thought, “Why is this guy not more famous?” And I think maybe he was just this guy who wasn’t interested in the limelight. He just decided to stay and give back to his community. And I recently have been thinking that a lot of my mentors were like that: Mr. Porter and Khalil and Donald.
I didn’t know these guys were famous or popular. “Duck” Bailey was the guy who was doing the jam sessions at the Golden Gate Library. And every now and then he would say something about Coltrane, and I’m like, “How the hell does he know this?” And I’m getting goosebumps saying this, but if you could see the audience at these jam sessions, it was like an Aretha Franklin concert: It was for the community. He was making music for the people.
And so this new piece I’ve written, it’s for “Duck” and Khalil and Ed and Mr. Porter. I’ve composed a movement for each of them. But in my mind, it runs straight through all the musicians who helped me.
Donald "Duck" Bailey
Q: Tell me about some of the others. Make a list.
A: (Bassist) Herbie Lewis. (Saxophonist) Sonny Simmons. (Bassist) Jeff Chambers; I played a lot with Jeff. And Bishop Norman Williams — do you know him?
Q: Incredible saxophone player.
A: Oh, man, you’re going to have me crying with this interview. Bishop Norman Williams — man, I played a few gigs with Bishop. And my ears were so new. I was like, “Man, this guy is just as good as Charlie Parker! Why is this guy scrumbling around San Francisco?” This guy, when I would see him — he was jazz to me. When I saw him walking around, I immediately thought, “Charlie Parker on 52nd Street.” That was Bishop in North Beach, with his case, looking like he just got out of the shower, heading for the club.
Q: Explain how you first started thinking about this piece, “Porter.” In your mind it was to be a companion piece to another one of your pieces, “Banyan,” which you performed in Chicago a few years ago. That was a big multi-media piece?
Q: I like the title “Banyan” — like the tree with a whole crazy system of branches, like lineages. And you videotaped interviews with a lot of prominent musicians, and wove the videos through the performance. Who did you interview?
A: Wayne Shorter, Henry Threadgill, Bennie Maupin, Ron Carter, Maxine Gordon, Bertha Hope, Archie Shepp. We did it once for the initial commission in Chicago, and there were all these drawings and animations being projected — colorful tactile things moving around while people were soloing. And there was even a live DJ interacting with members of the ensemble. It was crazy.
And when SFJAZZ asked me what I wanted to do for my residency, I thought of doing a companion piece to “Banyan,” but focusing on the local heroes. Because it’s important to tie these people in with the more famous jazz musicians…
This thing about calling people “local musicians” — it’s penalizing. And doing this piece got me thinking about back in the day with the territorial bands — like in Kansas City or Texas — and how they stayed in their cities and had their own sound, and then they toured that sound.
Q: Connect the dots for me. Why were you thinking about that?
A: Everybody had their own sounds. And if you have these musicians staying in the town, then they can teach the younger generations — teach them in that style and that sound. And I feel I really benefitted from that. These guys were super-accessible to me.
And now a lot of masters have passed away, and there seems to be not a lot of mentorship nowadays — not because people don’t want to do it, but because we’re not cultivating the spaces for it to happen. It’s not like back in the day when you grew into this master status. Now it’s all about what’s the new thing, who’s the new hotshot.
Q: What are you doing to change that? You’re about to turn 40. What’s your approach to mentoring younger players?
A: I don’t like saying, “Look what I’m doing!” But I just do what everybody did for me — all my mentors. They just gave me their numbers and they never made me feel like it was a bad time to call. That was the local people, and it was also Wynton, Roy (Hargrove), Steve Coleman, Nicholas Payton.
They were so generous to me. These guys would call me — (trumpeters) Tom Harrell, Wallace Roney — just to check on me, just to say, “Hey, man, how you doing?”
I still have mentors. I’ve learned from all of these people. I’m about to be 40, and I’ve just gotten comfortable with my position in this continuum, and so the younger generation has access to me, and they know it. Everybody has my number and people call me weekly. I’m on the phone a lot.
Q: I wanted to mention that the drummer in your quartet at SFJAZZ will be Savannah Harris, who is Khalil Shaheed’s step-daughter. There’s a through-line there.
A: There is. And the bassist will be Marcus Shelby — who was the second person to ever hire me for a gig. The first was (saxophonist) Howard Wiley, who recommended me to Marcus. And now here we are again. Marcus is another one of my mentors.
Q: In the end, what did Mr. Porter and everyone else teach you about mentoring? What’s the key takeaway?
A: You open the door and you give access to young musicians and you make them feel welcome. And you let them know the truth, which is that we’re all in the same boat. On a creative level, there is no hierarchy, and we’re in the same boat and it’s a long journey and it continues way past our deaths.
Ambrose Akinmusire presents "Porter" with Gerald Clayton, Marcus Shelby, Savannah Harris and 30-piece orchestra, March 3-4, followed by the world premiere of "Owl Song" with Bill Frisell and Herlin Riley, March 5-6. Tickets are available here.
A staff writer at SFJAZZ, Richard Scheinin is a lifelong journalist. He was the San Jose Mercury News' classical music and jazz critic for more than a decade and has profiled scores of public figures, from Ike Turner to Tony La Russa and the Dalai Lama.
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