This year the 35th edition of JazzAscona Festival has granted us a unique opportunity to conduct an interview with a true Star of New Orleans and of international music scene: Mr Leroy Jones. Apart from being a maestro trumpeter, instrumentalist, composer with an easily recognizable style and sound, Mr Jones has also revealed some of his deep insights into the realm of jazz and life. Enjoy this soulful dialogue conducted by the journalist Taliya Khafizova in the framework of JazzAscona 2019...
* Several years ago there was a great press conference with Kevin Louis, Shamarr Allen, Wendell Brunious and John Michael Bradford here in JazzAscona. We spoke about many things and I asked them about their perception of “trumpet” as an instrument. Dear Mr Jones, could you share your own feeling of this beautiful member of classical and jazz orchestras?
L.J. The trumpet for me, with its sound and position in the band, is an instrument that takes the lead, especially in typical jazz ensembles of New Orleans, where I come from, where the trumpet is in the frontline with the trombone and always carries the melody. Trumpet delivers the melody within the ensemble parts. So, even in the brass bands, which are very popular in the city of New Orleans, the trumpet is usually there to lead other instruments. I think that I am not a typical trumpet player because I prefer playing trumpet in a more delicate quiet manner. I tend to have very distinct articulation that people recognize... Once I was even told about playing saxophone in my hotel room here. I was practicing without putting a mute and there was a call from the front desk, a woman said: "Excuse me, Mr Jones, the guest in the next room is complaining about your saxophone practicing." I said: "I am not practicing a saxophone..." and finished the call. Then, the next day she knocked on my door and said: "Mr Jones, sorry, the guest next door is really angry because you're playing saxophone", I wondered: "Why? I am not playing the saxophone...I'm playing the trumpet!" and then the receptionist left and I came to them and said: "I'm sorry, I've been a smart aleck. it's my fault. It's 5 p.m. and I thought that no one would be trying to go to sleep at that time, and I don't play very loud... " (laughing) So...Just a funny story...
I try to be musical when I play the instrument and I want to be lyrical, want to be able to improvise, to play as many notes as I require or as few notes as I need to express myself.
Oftentimes when I listen to music I like, I am not necessarily listening to other trumpet players. These can be my favorite jazz pianists such as Harry Connick Jr, for instance...I take their improvisations and analyze these ideas from the trumpet perspective. But I do not think of myself as of trumpet player but as of instrumentalist.
* Dear Mr Jones, apart from being instrumentalist and trumpet player, you are also known as a great arranger and composer... I think that your vision of how the trumpet should sound is truly reflected in your art, it is very delicate indeed and as the Offbeat magazine describes it: your sound is "effortless, sweet and polished". But there is also that concept of "efortless mastery" shown in your sound and music....Let's talk a bit about your composition: "Sweeter than a summer Breeze"...- a true chef-d'oeuvre, filled with a delicate sound of not only a horn but also of strings in the opening which is so classic and beautiful. If we compare this piece with color, it would permeate for me the color of white which is very transparent, clear... You address this piece to everyone seeking Love or experiencing it. Could you share more about this piece?
L. J. I am very flattered and would like to thank you, I am glad you enjoyed it. Actually, this piece came out with a string section in 2009, but before that, I made it only with a rhythm section in the year of 2000 entitled "Back to My Roots". That was an independent release, I produced it myself. A couple of years later I redid it because I began to experiment with adding string orchestrations. I also played flugelhorn in that particular piece, because it has a very warm sound somewhere in between trumpet sound and that of French horn. And I also love the sound of a cello - that's why there are parts that are written for two violins and four cellos, which we then doubled. I like to believe in the mellow tone of the flugelhorn with the cello and the strings. "Sweeter than a Summer Breeze" is an instrumental piece about love, but it is also about hot summer days in New Orleans where heat is sometimes so strong with humidity being high, especially when there is no breeze. So I had that idea that in these hot summer days there could be nothing sweeter than a breeze. This is basically where the idea came from. Recently one singer from the UK has sent me the lyrics she wrote for this piece, and they fit quite well, actually...
* Speaking about lyrics: yesterday during your gig in Ascona, I have listened to your original song "Paradise on Earth" dedicated to New Orleans. I haven't been in New Orleans so far but when I heard those lyrics I just thought how well they corresponded to Ascona as well. People hanging around, smiling faces, jazzy vibes... Do you feel that similar atmosphere both in New Orleans and in Ascona, which actually became the first place in Europe where the New Orleans Jazz Festival got established?
L.J.: Oh yeas, this is a slice of heaven. My first visit of Ascona was in 1995, as a sideman with a Band from New Orleans. Every year thereafter I came as a frontman. In 1996 I came with a trombone player Craig Klein, and the year after I brought the band from New Orleans and we became very popular at JazzAscona festival, having performed here 10 years in a row. We were for the entire length of the festival, for 10 days, which was wonderful and gave us time to meet our music friends from Europe and make new friends and to see fans coming every year to listen to our music. And to just enjoy the beauty of the nature in Switzerland, of this Lago Maggiore, to walk around this old town of such a unique atmosphere. It is paradise, so I agree with you that those lyrics correspond with nature and things here in Ascona, especially during the festival time. It is so picturesque, people are friendly just like people in New Orleans: they are very hospitable, they like food, they like to cook and to eat, they like music and dance. The piece "Paradise on Earth" was actually composed by my wife, Katja Toivola, who is a trombonist. She is from Helsinki, Finland, and she wrote that song. The recording of that song was initially been done with a singer Tricia Boutté who is from New Orleans but lives in Norway. We did it in a band called "New Orleans Helsinki Connection". I've just begun to sing this song, changed the key for my voice and added this song to my repertoire. We do it often because people seem to really like it. This song mentions all those things of New Orleans: "Crescent bound...friends... food...a Second Line...red beans...Donna's bar", which was in French Quarter back than and "Mardi Gras and Indians...Calas, beignets, and CDM...The oak trees...The scent of magnolias". Another singer from the UK even did a cover of this song on the ukulele and posted it on Youtube because she liked the song and Katja's lyrics so much. This piece is also about the post-Katrina time when we were evacuated, it's all good now but at that time when we were away, Katja thought about these lyrics because she said: "If there is any place that I want to live in the USA, it's New Orleans and nowhere else. It's a "Paradise on Earth".
* Do you believe that the energy of such places as New Orleans or Ascona, "paradises on Earth", let's say, influences the improvisation process? L.J.: I do believe that there is a certain spirit - which is also energy - that can convey a reality...As you said as well, I also like to look at musical tones in colors. When I hear chords I see them in colors. It helps me to better understand and learn tunes rather than thinking so much mathematically about certain chord being C7, diminished, 11 or 9. But visualizing certain color to certain sound is helpful and it has something to do with a place, too. It is also about understanding the audience, people who come and provide you with a channel to perform in a certain way, cause you to be creative. People who come can be non-musicians, but they love music and ears are their instruments. And I always tell them that without you, musicians can't serve their purpose - music is for the people, it is not a selfish thing. I know musicians who bring it to the level when music is spiritual, it feels that it is stimulating the soul of listeners and inspiring. Then for musicians and bands music fulfills its purpose. * Would you advise to other musicians to be open to audience needs when improvising? What is necessary for the successful performance?
L.J: When I speak about jazz improvisation, I also think about the audience. If we speak about jazz and older audience, who have been around when swing was the popular music. They love it because that's the music they remember when they were very young, and usually, those audiences are the ones who come to listen to traditional jazz, that I also play, as opposed to the avant-garde or alternative jazz. That's why I try to improvise in a very melodic manner. Although I am far away from playing the exact melody of a song, whatever I'm playing is on the chordal harmony so that people can still hum along even if I am playing around the melody, embellishing it. And I improvise on the chord changes where people can relate to it. I can keep their attention so that they don't get bored, I am not playing something that is maybe far over their heads, so to speak. It is still something that gets respected by my peers, musicians that know it is about trying to make something easy to listen to, although it is complicated and difficult. * Yeah, effortless mastery...
L.J.: Yes, that's right. So I would advice young musicians, and trumpet players, in particular, to always remember to consider the audience that is coming to listen to you. Especially the audience that have paid to come to you and have driven from wherever they come from, from many miles away, to get a bit feeling of the music. I think it's important to remember that we deliver something that will be taken away with them, and it should leave a good feeling, should bring some joy. * You once told that you like saying: "my one foot is in the past, another one is in present, and I see the future"... So, also seeing what the influence of music will be in people's lives as well...
L.J.: Absolutely! What I am doing is expanding on what has done before by my Mentors, jazz innovators from years past. And trying to put my own stamp on it, where I have a unique voice signature of mine that people and musicians recognize. Every musician has his signature once he is matured to perform when he has mastered the instrument to a point when it has a sound. I've always been taught that you must to have a sound even if you play one note or half-note, that "sound" is an important thing. Not necessarily how fast can you play, how many notes you can play in one measure - the sound is important. And people recognize the sound right away because like the human voice that's your tone. I feel very satisfied when musicians and music lovers come and say: "Oh, I know that, from the very first two notes, I know: that's Leroy!". I think that keeps me motivated to continue to practice the instrument no matter how old I get so that when I am on the stage and have a performance I can try to give my best. * Do you think that in order to get that very sound, unique for a musician, there is something that goes beyond technical abilities? Is it about playing with a soul? I mean, has the energy of musicians and their thoughts something to do with the soulfulness of sound and how the such can be attained?
L.J.: It is a combination of all those things. Having a technical proficiency, to be able to play what has been defined as "honest playing", when it comes from the heart and it is not just a bunch of notes, scales and technical rhythms that any student can do and play. And they sound just like each other. If you have control over the instrument, you are able to express yourself - what is coming to your mind and heart. It's important for young musicians to think that people come to be fed; in essence, Musicians are like Ministries (laughs), and therefore you need to have something that is intangible but it can be felt. It comes with diligent practicing and listening to music because improvisation is a language with many dialogues. And in life first comes the hearing and then the speaking. So whatever you've been listening to, eventually it's bound to come out. According to how proficient you are in that instrument... * Thank you very much for these insights, dear Mr Jones... Since this interview is done in a series of dialogues entitled "Some soulful stories", one of our last questions would be about your life vision which I am sure our future readers and viewers will be interested in... As I said before, "Sweeter than a Summer Breeze" is associated with a color of white for me; which is also a color of God, let's say; and with a feeling of Love which is also divine... What would be your perception of God?
L.J.: God is everywhere. I thank God every day for my talent; I think I have been blessed with a gift that comes from God. There are a lot of musical families in New Orleans - both of my parents played music in our house but they were not professional musicians. I have three younger siblings who doubled a bit with musical instruments when they were in school but after a couple of years, they decided to do another vocation. And they do very well as adults now, successful with their lives and families. But that just wasn't something for them. Before I was big enough to pick a trumpet or clarinet I was always intrigued by the music from old recordings and I could not wait till I become 10 years old to take part in school bands and enjoy music lessons. Parents never had to tell me to practice. You often hear these horror stories about parents forcing their kids to go practicing for piano lessons. I think that with my children I won't force them to play anything if they don't want it. But if they see my example and they like what they're doing, then it's okay. Whatever they wanna do, as long as it is a good thing and makes them happy and does not hurt anyone else, is fine. That's the way it has always been for me. To these days I love to play; I believe that the Angel Gabriel is a lead trumpeter out there and I pray that someday I will go that way and I would like to be in that section... I know there are many others who are out there now.
I definitely believe that there is a divine purpose for me here to have a message through the music and to inspire people to love each other no matter what they look like...and I think that the music that I chose to play in my life brings people together in many different walks of life.
Everybody comes together and there is no war, it's about peace and happiness. This music, particularly traditional jazz, is something that brings people together, it is happy joyful music. There is nothing political about that. * That's why I like music journalism, too. :) And I am grateful to life for having granted me an opportunity to have a conversation with such a great person and a true master musician as yourself, dear Mr Jones. Thank you very much!
L.J.: Oh, thank you, Taliya! I appreciate your questions and I am delighted that you chose me as one of your interviewees.
* Thank you very much...
Text by Taliya Khafizova
Photos by Almira Khafizova