Pain Relief Beyond Belief





From Blakey to Brown, Como to Costa, Eckstine to Eldridge, Galbraith to Garner, Harris to Hines, Horne to Hyman, Jamal to Jefferson, Kelly to Klook; Mancini to Marmarosa, May to Mitchell, Negri to Nestico, Parlan to Ponder, Reed to Ruther, Strayhorn to Sullivan, Turk to Turrentine, Wade to Williams… the forthcoming publication Treasury of Pittsburgh Jazz Connections by Dr. Nelson Harrison and Dr. Ralph Proctor, Jr. will document the legacy of one of the world’s greatest jazz capitals.


Do you want to know who Dizzy Gillespie  idolized? Did you ever wonder who inspired Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey? Who was the pianist that mentored Monk, Bud Powell, Tad Dameron, Elmo Hope, Sarah Vaughan and Mel Torme? Who was Art Tatum’s idol and Nat Cole’s mentor? What musical quartet pioneered the concept adopted later by the Modern Jazz Quartet? Were you ever curious to know who taught saxophone to Stanley Turrentine or who taught piano to Ahmad Jamal? What community music school trained Robert McFerrin, Sr. for his history-making debut with the Metropolitan Opera? What virtually unknown pianist was a significant influence on young John Coltrane, Shirley Scott, McCoy Tyner, Bobby Timmons and Ray Bryant when he moved to Philadelphia from Pittsburgh in the 1940s?  Would you be surprised to know that Erroll Garner attended classes at the Julliard School of Music in New York and was at the top of his class in writing and arranging proficiency?


Some answers  can be gleaned from the postings on the Pittsburgh Jazz Network.


For almost 100 years the Pittsburgh region has been a metacenter of jazz originality that is second to no other in the history of jazz.  One of the best kept secrets in jazz folklore, the Pittsburgh Jazz Legacy has heretofore remained mythical.  We have dubbed it “the greatest story never told” since it has not been represented in writing before now in such a way as to be accessible to anyone seeking to know more about it.  When it was happening, little did we know how priceless the memories would become when the times were gone.


Today jazz is still king in Pittsburgh, with events, performances and activities happening all the time. The Pittsburgh Jazz Network is dedicated to celebrating and showcasing the places, artists and fans that carry on the legacy of Pittsburgh's jazz heritage.






Duke Ellington is first African-American and the first musician to solo on U.S. circulating coin



       In Her Own Words

Ambrose Akinmusire: On Expressing Beauty

Ambrose Akinmusire: On Expressing Beauty



“I’m also at a point in my life where I don’t feel like I have anything to prove, like at all,” Akinmusire says about his art.

(Photo: James Adams)

At the risk of oversimplifying and romanticizing the story, Ambrose Akinmusire came bursting on the jazz scene at the dawn of the 2010s. The uncommonly gifted, unquestionably unique trumpeter-composer out of Oakland swept his way into an upper echelon of jazz culture, embarking on a decade-long series of albums for Blue Note Records.

Along the way, Akinmusire scooped up numerous DownBeat poll-topping trophies and critical admiration for his conceptually driven album projects — bearing such evocative titles as When The Heart Emerges Glistening and The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier To Paint — and a growing list of commissioned works.

Without falling into predictable paths, Akinmusire’s music loosely aligned with the New Cerebralism in jazz and sometimes entailed chamber-ish stylings, but with a strong melodic directive in tow. He also found fresh ways to deal with social ills and institutional racism, stirring rap into the blend on the potent 2018 album Origami Harvest and elsewhere.

But after his 2020 Blue Note finale On The Tender Spot Of Every Calloused Moment, this man with the horn somewhat retreated from the public spotlight, partly in sync with the COVID chasm. Suddenly, he re-emerged, glistening, with three notable new projects in 2023.

On the discography front, Akinmusire made his first surprise move last spring by releasing Beauty Is Enough, a reflective solo trumpet recording made in the reverberant environs of a Parisian church and the first title on his own new label, Origami Harvest. Then, in October, he released his debut on Nonesuch Records, Owl Song, the first of three projects slated for the label. Distinct from his previous recorded work, Owl Song is a spare and subtle trio project sans bass, featuring the highly personal guitarist Bill Frisell and sensitive drummer Herlin Riley.

In between those releases came the rhythmically fired Monterey Jazz Festival commission piece Isakoso Ara (his second commission from the festival, after 2015’s The Forgotten Places). Whereas the first piece was more introspective in nature, Isakoso Ara ups the dance factor and accentuates the West African root system — Akinmusire’s lineage is partly Nigerian. An ecstatically simmering and undulating new twist on the Afro-jazz paradigm, the work also proudly showcases iconic Malian singer Oumou Sangare.

From another new avenue of musical work, Akinmusire has begun dipping his brush into the palette of screen music, scoring the TV series Blindspotting and appearing on the score of the film adaptation of the musical The Color Purple. Of his gradually growing involvement in film music, Akinmusire says, “I think that’s where my passion lies right now. I really love putting sound to narrative. And I love that there’s no part of Ambrose in it. I’m really just being a conduit. Maybe my career has always been pointing to this stage in my life, because I’ve always written to stories and pictures in my head. So when it came time to write for the TV show, it wasn’t as foreign as I think it would’ve been, had that not been a part of my process.”

Clearly, transition and artistic realignment are on track in Akinmusire’s current agenda.

Transition was also one of many topics on his mind during this interview at the aptly named Ain’t Normal coffee in his old hometown of Oakland, near his current Berkeley home. Akinmusire basked in the afterglow of the holidays, preparing for travel to the NYC Winter Jazzfest and then onto a tour with his Owl Song allies in Poland and points European.

On a crisp, sun-kissed late morning in January, he sat across the street from the middle school where his musical life began before he headed to the famed jazz incubator that is Berkeley High School — a music program that boasts Joshua Redman, David Murray, Elena Pinderhughes, Benny Green and Akinmusire’s drummer-ally Justin Brown as alumni.

After stints and stages in New York and Los Angeles, Akinmusire has found his way home, while branching ever outward and forward, artistically.

Josef Woodard: You have changed up contexts in the past year, at least in terms of releases, with projects unlike what you’ve done before. Does it feel like you’re in a period of transition?

Ambrose Akinmusire: I see why someone would see it as a period of transition. I think I’ve always wanted to be more versatile. I just love music, and I love playing with creative people. I can remember one of the best months of my life when I played with Joni Mitchell, then I played with Kendrick Lamar and then I played with Roscoe Mitchell. I really love these types of things, these opposites, and really living wholly inside of them.

I think I am in a period of transition in my life. I think everyone is because of the pandemic. During the pandemic, I became a film composer. It’s a whole other life, and that has influenced my relationship with the audience. I think I am in a period of transition, but not necessarily just because of music.

Woodard: Something internal?

Akinmusire: Yeah. And I’m a father now. I’m living in the Bay Area. [acknowledging the fair weather and scenic environment] I mean, look at this. This is so beautiful. [pointing across the street] That’s Claremont Middle School, where I started playing jazz. I pass by these things. My mom lives a mile away from here. Fantastic.

I think all those things are influencing me. And I think I’m also at a point in my life where I don’t feel like I have anything to prove, at all. I’m really happy, and I’m really just trying to express beauty. And I’m believing in beauty more than ever. I think it’s because of this, the life that I’m living.

Woodard: This is as opposed to a period in Los Angeles, where I interviewed you for a DownBeat cover story in 2014, when you actually lived on Ambrose Street.

Akinmusire: Oh, my God. I had just moved there. That was such a different period. I was so confused. I was running away from attention and trying to figure out the path that I was on. I was questioning life. Could my life really be that clear? And, you know, there has to be more to this. That’s kind of why I left [New York] and moved to L.A. and started teaching. I wanted to do something completely opposite or away from that road I had been on.

I didn’t know if I could make a second album. And, you know, I didn’t have a kid yet. I was just wondering. I was barely making it. That was an interesting time of my life. I’m glad that I went through that, and I’m glad that I questioned those things. And I’m glad that I did it away from the [New York] scene. I was in L.A. and this is before the mass exodus to L.A. happened.

Woodard: Tell me about the creative evolution of Owl Song. Did this grow out of the connection to Bill Frisell?

Akinmusire: Yes and no. I was just thinking a lot about threes — trinity in all the ways, spiritually, musically and questioning the classic rhythm section. When I was an artist in residence with SFJAZZ, I had to present projects. I always have these imaginary bands that only make sense to me, and this band was one of those. I was playing around with the idea and thought about asking Meshell Ndegeocello because I feel like she fits in that line of things. But in the end, we decided to just do the trio.

[In the Nonesuch deal] I always knew that I wanted to work on three albums at a time. There is another project with Tyshawn Sorey and Sullivan Fortner that’s been recorded. And then there’s the project that I’m really into right now called Honey From A Winter Stone, a sort of sequel to Origami Harvest.

Woodard: Owl Song has an almost ECM-ish quality. Have you been influenced by a kind of ECM aesthetic?

Akinmusire: I haven’t. I knew Tomas Stańko as just a cool cat. He used to come to my gigs, and he would stick around and talk. But I wouldn’t say I’m influenced by ECM more than any other label or community of musicians.

A lot of people are saying that, but no. It’s funny — one of the main reasons I put “Henya” [an older, signature tune of his] at the end of the album was to sort of say, “I’ve had this part of me from the beginning.” It’s new because I’m older and the world is always changing, and each day it’s new, but this type of expression has been inside of me. Maybe I’m just living in that part of myself more these days.

Woodard: This is your first blast of work with Nonesuch, after five albums with Blue Note. Can you now look back on your Blue Note period and see it as a large chapter in your musical journey, a definable body of work?

Akinmusire: I can see how there is clearly a line. I took three years in between Blue Note and Nonesuch. … I’ve been thinking and pointing this direction for a long time. I had a great time at Blue Note. I think I was the last person that [the late, former Blue Note head] Bruce Lundvall signed, and I loved Bruce. We were so close. We would talk on the phone, and we would hang out and just shoot the shit about nothing. And I also love Don [Was, current label president]. But it changed, not for better or worse, just different.

I felt like I’ve always needed that type of support and openness to be able to create the music that I would like to create. At Nonesuch, it feels like I could, if I wanted to, come out with a polka album. [laughs] There would be conversations about it. I’m not saying that at Blue Note there wouldn’t, because Don gave me a lot of freedom. He didn’t come into the studios. He didn’t hear the music until it was mixed and mastered.

Woodard: When we spoke in 2014, you had reservations about focusing on the trumpet, on any emphasis on “blowing.”

Akinmusire: I remember that phase. Wow. Back then, I didn’t want to solo at all. In hindsight, I’m realizing it was because I was teaching so much at USC, and I was dealing in such a stressful environment around music, that it affected my relationship with improv and improv music. I just thought I had lost it, and I thought I couldn’t play anymore. I became really self-conscious about improvising. And when I quit [the USC job], a month or two later it started to come back.

Woodard: Do you think that break recharged you?

Akinmusire: Yeah, it did — to wake up and only have to deal with music. When I came back to teaching [Akinmusire is now artistic director of the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz Performance at UCLA], I realized I needed to have a sort of buffer. I don’t know if I developed a certain muscle, but I had a different relationship with teaching, and I feel like it feeds me in a different way than in that period at USC.

Woodard: Owl Song is surprisingly lean in terms of soloing. It’s not a “blowing” record. Was that design feature of this particular project?

Akinmusire: Yeah. I’ve always been thinking of [a grander plan] in terms of three projects. So while this project is like that, the Honey from a Winter Stone project is more about composition in long form. It has a lot of writing and a lot of collective playing, very involved. And then the Tyshawn-and-Sullivan one has me playing a lot.

I saw the solo record [Beauty Is Enough] as a sort of appetizer. “OK, here’s nothing but trumpet, ’cause the next album is going to be fuller.” It’s like, “I’ll give you the meat on a different plate.” I was thinking a lot about negative space in art, about how much can I carve the silence.

There’s something about playing with Bill Frisell and Roscoe [Mitchell]. I haven’t played with Roscoe in a while, but I was playing with them at the same time. For me, they’re like opposites. But there’s something similar about them: intent and mental endurance.

I played with Roscoe, and it was like my brain was exhausted. It’s the same feeling I get playing with Bill when it seems like he’s barely playing anything. But his attention is to sound, and clarity, and bypassing the first three things you thought about for that one thing that is perfect. He is really striving for that. Whereas Roscoe can be up against the wall for an hour-and-a-half, or he can be super aleatoric. It’s just high mental endurance.

I think Owl Song came from that. Also, I have always had an obsession with owls. The owl is my spirit animal. Somehow, there is a link between playing with elders, wisdom, owls, it all made sense. So, yeah, it was part of the design — silence. You know, when owls fly, you don’t hear them. It’s that way even when they’re killing their prey. It’s something graceful. They don’t make a mess.

Owls are stealthy, like little spies, man. You could be walking in nature and never see them, but you know that they’re watching you. And there’s something super spiritual about them.

Woodard: Among the song titles, you have “Mr. Frisell” — a hypnotically simple melody with roving bass notes — and the New Orleans-ish “Mr. Riley.” You’ve also written tribute tunes for Roy Hargrove and Roscoe Mitchell. Is the act of paying tribute important to you?

Akinmusire: I think that’s really important, making sure that people understand that it’s a continuum. If the younger generation and generations to come are watching me, hopefully they’ll see me do that and understand that they should attach themselves to that, too. It’s really important to be connected, because then you don’t have these conversations about what is jazz and where does it come from. It’s also really important to get people their flowers while they’re here, and I find that I get strength from saying “thank you” and feeling like this is bigger than me.

On the solo record, there’s a piece called “Carvin,” for Michael Carvin, who I studied with during the pandemic. He really helped me.

I wonder if people who are considered to have singular voices are supposed to give back or to say “thank you” even more. Because I think having a singular voice often means you’ve stolen from more people than the average person. I’m hugely influenced by Marcus Belgrave and Charles Tolliver, who most people would never even hear. I’ve stolen from so many people.

Woodard: But if you steal from enough sources and synthesize them into your own voice, people might lose the trail of influences.

Akinmusire: I tell people that all the time. People ask, “How do you come up with your own voice?” I don’t. It’s really just that I stole from people you don’t know. I had this conversation with Bill [Frisell]. He was saying the same thing. He was saying he believes that his style comes from him just doing a poor job at imitating these people that nobody knows. I can totally relate to that.

I also have to say “thank you” because a lot of these cats kicked my ass, like Roy Hargrove, Jeremy Pelt and Wynton [Marsalis]. When I was younger, all these guys would come to my gigs and sit in and beat my ass, and I would go home and just practice. I’m so grateful that they took their time and energy to do that. Dave Douglas … Terence [Blanchard] was another one. And I can remember Nicholas Payton giving me a lesson at 8 o’clock in the morning when I was like 16 years old. I’m so grateful, man.

Woodard: Your solo album was something very special, and unexpected. There aren’t many other examples of that format, apart from Wadada Leo Smith, including his tribute to Thelonious Monk.

Akinmusire: There’s not much. There are select tracks, like a Tom Harrell solo version of “Joy Spring” on a Helen Merrill tribute record. Roy Hargrove does a solo “Dewey Square” on Parker’s Mood. But there’s not much with trumpet players just playing solo. That was another reason I wanted to do it. I gave myself just three hours. Nothing prepared. It was in a church in Paris, and I hired an engineer. It was high stakes — put up the mics, and we have three hours to see if we can come up with something.

Woodard: I also love the title Beauty Is Enough. It is enough.

Akinmusire: I know that now. When I was first starting to record, I knew it, but I didn’t act on it. I felt like I had to do all the other stuff to get to the beauty. “Look, I can play all that. I can do all that.” But now, I would love to just play a ballad, the whole set.

Woodard: Origami Harvest was a special project, blending many musical ideas but also dealing directly with some social issues and the pervasive face of racism — and this was pre-Black Lives Matter. Are you continuing that strain of your work and activist spirit on your upcoming record?

Akinmusire: Yeah, I am. It’s not as explicit as it was on the first one. Those issues will always be a part of my music. If I wasn’t seeing this as a triptych [of projects], it would’ve been more pronounced, but it’ll be in Honey.

The idea of having the trio with Tyshawn and Sullivan is related to that, too — just having three creative Black men from the same generation recording an album. You don’t see that. Tyshawn and Sullivan are geniuses of my generation. I like to look back on history and figure out these people that you think would make great music together, but never played together. There aren’t too many records with Tyshawn and Sullivan on them. There’s a Lage [Lund] record, but that’s it. I wanted to facilitate that and also give thanks to some Black creativity.

Woodard: Taking an overview of your career thus far, you’ve managed to dodge archetypes and maybe old-school modes of what jazz is supposed to be and how you’re supposed to do it. Was that a goal of yours, or does that just come naturally?

Akinmusire: I think it’s both. I am certainly always aware of what the masses are doing. And when I see too many people going one way, I’m going another way — even if I don’t know what’s over that way. When I was hanging out with Joni [Mitchell], she always used to say, “Don’t have that herd mentality.” That was her favorite. She’s like, “If you see all the cows going that way, go the other way.”

I think it comes natural to me. When my mom and my family tell me stories of me as a kid, there are things related to that attitude already. But I do try to stay aware of what’s going on, the trends and all that stuff, and I think it does subconsciously influence the decisions that I make. I’m never consciously trying to be opposed to what’s going on, but I do consciously try to stay aware of what’s going on, in music and in the world.

Woodard: In 2014, I asked if music was a calling more than a career. How would you answer that now?

Akinmusire: It’s definitely not a career — it’s a 100% calling. I am starting to ask myself, when I say “yes” to a gig, can I help people here? Is this just for the money? Is this just another gig? Or do I feel like I have something to contribute right now?

I think it’s more of a calling. I am aware, and I value, that I can make people feel, and I really try to take care of that. It’s not something I take lightly. DB

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