Interview: The Curious Artistry of Ambrose Akinmusire

by Brian Howe on October 8, 2012

Ambrose Akinmusire

Before he was considered a leading trumpet player of the new generation, Ambrose Akinmusire was a self-described “annoying kid” in Oakland brazenly approaching jazz masters for counsel, only to find himself gigging with them. After studying at the feet of giants as well as at the Manhattan School of Music, Akinmusire would go on—by his current age of 30—to collaborate with his most illustrious young peers, win two of jazz’s most prestigious competitions, and sign with Blue Note to release the acclaimed album When the Heart Emerges Glistening. Before this uniquely self-directed and inquisitive musician brings his quintet to Duke Performances for two shows at the Casbah this weekend, we reached him by phone to explore his fascinating life-story and perspective. Learn why jazz’s premier young trumpeter doesn’t really consider himself to be a jazz artist—and why another break from the public eye might be in his future.

The Thread: From the outside, your career seems to have had this charmed arc. Does it feel that way from the inside?

Ambrose Akinmusire: A lot of people ask me that, and I have always been on this strange path. Since I was 15 or 16, I’ve had access to legends and masters. What winning the Monk Competition did for me was to give me a more public persona. It didn’t change my career so much; it just turned on this weird light. But yeah, one of the first few gigs I had was with Billy Higgins. Then I played with Joe Henderson and Steve Coleman. I’ve been lucky enough to be out there for a long time, even when I didn’t deserve it. People saw something in me that I definitely didn’t see in myself.

Was there any milestone that made you say, “Man, I can’t believe that happened!”

Yeah, but a lot of the milestones aren’t really related to music. I was just telling somebody that being a musician is like a speck of dust compared to the other roles I have in my life—being a son, being a partner, or even just being a man and a human being. Those are the milestones that I have.

When you hit those personal milestones, is it reflected in the music?

Exactly. I focus on those because if you have milestones in your life, it affects your music, but if you have milestones in your music, it doesn’t necessarily affect your life. If I can play “Giant Steps” in 12 keys, it’s not going to make me a better man! [Laughs]

When did you know that jazz was the music for you?

Ambrose Akinmusire

I still don’t know that jazz is the music for me. I fell in love with music by the time I was four years old—going to the church, listening to the choir, and wanting so much to be a part of it. I have vivid memories of running up to the piano in the church and just banging on it. I literally loved the sound, like you love your partner. I love collective sound and was always intrigued by the black choir and gospel music. A lot of them aren’t trained singers and if you hear them individually, they’re quite horrible. But when they come together, it’s such an amazing sound. I remember being fascinated by that and I still am.

“Jazz” is something one can label me, but I’ve never had time to think about what type of musician I am. My focus has always been on being an artist, expressing myself and my time on the planet, trying to inspire and move people and—kind of like in gospel music—to celebrate the highest order. That can be God or nature, whatever it is. I don’t get so caught up in being a jazz musician. I studied it, but I’m not pigeonholing myself. The people I grew up with never did. They never had this “jazz Nazi” kind of mentality.

Did learning the harmonic language of the piano first affect your trumpet playing?

Oh, definitely. I started playing piano when I was four, but didn’t start playing trumpet until I was twelve. There was no written music in the church I played at, so I had to use my ears a lot. That alone had a huge impact on my approach to the trumpet.

When you got into the formal study of music, what was it like for you?

That was hard for me because I didn’t have a teacher until I got to college. I was an annoying kid that would go to all the concerts and have no qualms about asking a bunch of questions. Even today, I don’t recognize hierarchies. When Wynton [Marsalis] was in town, he was just a normal dude that I could ask questions of. That gave me access to people like Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton; all these trumpet players I learned so much from. I played with Joe Henderson and Billy Higgins and Sonny Simmons and Eddie Marshall.

When I got to school and the teachers were telling me, “This is the history; play this scale over this chord,” I would think, “Wait a minute, I know these guys personally and this is not the way they approach the music.” So it was weird for me. Music schools teach you how to be a great musician, but they never teach you anything about how to become an artist. The way the musicians I knew talked about the music was way more progressive than it was in school.

It was also weird that in school, anything after 1959 is not even recognized as part of the history. If you do anything after that, you’re considered avant-garde or whatever. A lot of jazz institutions are becoming these bebop schools. It’s just one period of jazz! That’s not even a speck of dust in the whole history of music, which is barely a speck of dust in all the arts out there.

These jazz greats you were brazenly questioning—people must treat them with such reverence. Did you get the sense that they found you refreshing?

Looking back on it, yes. Then, I was just so hungry for information I didn’t even think about how they were perceiving me. I’m still that way, so quick to pick up the phone and call someone I have access to and ask questions.

One of your first big jobs was with Steve Coleman and Five Elements—what did you learn from that?

Steve Coleman (photo: Tracy Collins)

So much. Every time I think back on it, there is still more to learn. I got to see what it was to be an ever-developing artist. Steve is so committed to music, always searching for something new, and he’s one of the few people I can definitely call a master. To be 18 and on the road, watching Steve take the most amazing solo and then come offstage saying, “I’m not even close”—you would go, “Man, you just took the baddest solo I ever heard in my life.” And just having conversations with him, where he would ask these really pointed questions like “What do you want to sound like?”—to hear those questions at 18 was very shocking.

Shortly after touring with Steve, I just stopped playing. From age 18 to 21, I played local gigs here and there but didn’t really record stuff. I had to figure out what I was really trying to do.

Most people get a taste of the spotlight and then chase it—for a young musician to step back that way seems wise, but also rare.

I’m starting to feel a little like I want to do that again now. I’ve gotten to the point where I can play the way I want to play, but I want to get even deeper. Maybe go to Africa—go somewhere—take some time off and investigate other things.

The idea of an established artist stepping back to learn is startling. We have commercial musicians on such a treadmill, don’t we?

Yeah, isn’t that crazy? You’re always running toward this mirage.

You’ve collaborated with a lot of the biggest younger artists in jazz—Vijay Iyer, Esperanza Spalding, Jason Moran. Was any certain person really important?

You just hit probably the biggest three right on the head. I knew Vijay when I was in high school; he was over at the University of California working on his PhD. There was this piano player named Ed Kelly, a local legend, who would have this birthday party every year where all the musicians in the Bay Area would jam in the back yard. I heard Vijay at the party, playing standards, and he was already working on his own shit. To hear the development of that was amazing.

Esperanza Spalding (photo: Johann Sauty)

Esperanza, her work ethic is unmatched. That’s something people never talk about—they see this beautiful woman, this and that. But of all the recording sessions I’ve done, there’s nobody that works harder and is more prepared. I recorded on her album before she got the Grammy, and I’ll tell you, she had music three inches thick ready to record—a hundred-something tunes. I still haven’t written a hundred tunes in my life!

And Jason, he’s one of the first guys I contacted when I got into the Manhattan School of Music. He responded to a blind email. He made such a strong statement on his first record and then kept along that path. He never sacrificed himself. That’s what I aspire to do.

What gels your current Quintet together?

It’s just knowing each other and trusting each other to continually invest in the moment, and, when we’re not together, to stay evolving and curious. Each time we go back on tour, everybody sounds completely different, so it keeps everybody engaged. And I grew up in Oakland, where there’s just a certain mentality that you always stick with your crew.

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