Renowned jazz trumpeter Sean Jones came to Pittsburgh in 2004, as an artist in residence at Duquesne University. In his 10 years here, Jones has brought back the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra, released several albums (including his latest, Im•pro•vise — Never Before Seen), and has now accepted a position as chair of brass at Boston's Berklee College of Music. He plays a free show at Riverview Park Sat., July 26, then leaves for Boston the next day. Jones talked to us about his time in Pittsburgh and how things have changed in the past decade, for jazz and for Jones himself.
What was the jazz scene in Pittsburgh like when you first came here in 2004?
The scene was great. A lot of the same cats are still on the scene. There was a couple clubs. Actually, I think it's a little bit similar to what it is now. [The] main thing that I saw lacking was just opportunities for musicians to do special projects.
A lot of cats will play gigs, going out and playing standards, music from other people, but I didn't necessarily see a lot of people doing a lot of their [own] music all the time. So that's something I wanted to do when I first started. I started a band called The Mission Statement. I just wanted to give younger artists, younger jazz musicians a chance to write their own music for this group.
How has the jazz scene changed? Are there things that are still lacking? Have there been improvements?
There are a ton of young musicians coming up that are — this new generation, they're gung-ho. So they're putting out their product. Pittsburgh has a couple new stars — like Brett Williams. The city is really proud of the people they produce, and Brett Williams, to me, is like one of the new jazz stars. It's only a matter of time before he's really doing big things. He already is, playing with Marcus Miller, but I really think he can do some big things.
One of the things that I would say needs to change with the scene is that we're spoiled in Pittsburgh. You can see Roger Humphries on Thursday night for free. That's absolutely absurd. Not only do musicians need to stand up and say, "I'm worth this," but the audience has to say, "You know what? They are worth this. They are making me happy. They're giving me an outlet."
But there's a lot right with the scene, a whole lot that's right with it. There's jazz seven nights a week in multiple venues in Pittsburgh. That's unheard of outside of New York, Chicago, New Orleans.
Were you offered other opportunities, as far as being a professor? Why have you stuck around Pittsburgh?
While I was at Duquesne, I was teaching part-time at Oberlin. They would come back every year and offer a full-time position. And I would tell them over and over again, "You would really have to do a whole lot to get me to leave Pittsburgh."
I love Pittsburgh, man. This is home. I grew up an hour and 15 minutes from here. Although I didn't grow up in Pittsburgh, I grew up with Pittsburgh in mind. And just moving here, I've been able to do a lot of wonderful things. And I've had a lot of life stuff happen while I was here: get married, get divorced, get married again. Meet new people. See people pass away, see people born.
I want Pittsburgh to understand, I'm not leaving Pittsburgh. I'm going to do a job. And I'm hoping to bring that skill back home. Pittsburgh will still always be home, and I'll always have a connection to it as long as the city will have me.
What is your defining moment as a musician/professor in Pittsburgh?
Wow, man. My defining moment as a performer in Pittsburgh? I would have to say the first time I played with the [Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra] and led the PJO. That was the first time that I realized that if you have a vision for something bigger than you, that that vision is what you live for. I learned that once you have an idea and it's birthed through you, then that idea no longer belongs to you. It belongs to the world. And it's your job to work for that idea. And that's what I've been doing with the PJO. The PJO is not about Sean Jones; it's about Pittsburgh.
My defining moment as a professor is when a student, who will remain nameless, came into a lesson crying. I didn't have any notes to show 'em. I didn't have any scales. All I had was a hug. And I realized that it's more important to express spirit in music than it is to express notes in music.
Then there was the moment when I got tenure. That was one of the happiest and saddest days of my career in higher education. I was happy, because I felt that it was a major accomplishment, and I was sad because I felt myself inside — just kind of feel a sense of complacency. I got tenure; now they can't get rid of me. [Laughs.] I got a job for life. And I hate being comfortable. No musician should ever be comfortable.
Going back to my move now: It's a big step to potentially step away from a tenure position. But you have to grow as a person, and comfort doesn't allow you the means to grow. So I just want to move on upward and take this gig and do the best I can in this gig, because it's my duty.
Your new album, im•pro•vise, is out. What's new and different about this album? What are you most proud of about?
This particular record, I'm proud of it because I've really defined what I'm about as a jazz musician. I believe in the tradition of the music. I believe certain traditions should still stay. Now, while saying that, I'm not denying that music needs to move forward. But my place in this music is to represent certain traditions: ensemble playing, ensemble synergy, mastery of musicianship, mastery of your art form and mastery of rhythm and improvisation. So I've pared down the ensemble. I went from a sextet-quintet format to just a quartet. So my connection with the rhythm section is really celebrated on this particular album. And also my writing style.
Your show Sat., July 26, at Riverview Park, will be your last one in the city. How do you feel about this last Pittsburgh gig? What does it mean to you?
It will be my last gig as a resident. It will not be my last gig. I want to make sure everybody knows that I'm gonna play in Pittsburgh as long as they'll have me.
It's kind of like a going-away party. Like a bon voyage. That's how I'm looking at it. It will be bittersweet. I'll miss seeing everybody all the time. But I just want everyone to know that I'll still be around. Sean Jones, even though he's moving to Boston, his heart is still gonna be in Pittsburgh.