With his academic work, his touring and his family, jazz trumpeter Sean Jones has minimal time to sleep. But he’s fine with that. “I’m beautifully tired,” he says from Milwaukee, where he’s spreading the word about jazz to high school students as part of the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz’s Peer-to-Peer Program.
On and off the stage, especially the latter, Jones is frequently engaged in some form of pedagogy. President of the Jazz Education Network, he also leads jazz studies at Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute in Baltimore, and he formerly chaired the brass department at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He’s also artistic director for the NYO JAZZ Program of Carnegie Hall.
Performing and teaching “kind of go hand in hand in that they're both forms of human communication,” says Jones, who with his band will present Dizzy Spellz, a tribute to jazz great Dizzy Gillespie, in an SCP Jazz concert May 20. (Opening is the Thaddeus Tukes Quintet.) “When I'm in the classroom, I try not to use the banking system of education, meaning I deposit information into the students and the students are supposed to then take that and invest it.
“I try to make it a dialogue. I want it to be a big exploration for all of us. I don't know everything, nor do they. I have certain experiences, and arguably because of my age and being in it as long as I have, I've seen certain things or practices that work. And they have the benefit of youth and new inventions and a clean slate. In some respects, they have the ability to think outside of the box because they’re not yet in the box.”
And that’s what keeps Jones himself from becoming too insular, too mired in what was instead of what is and will be.
“They’re constantly fresh, constantly checking out new things, and so I have the benefit of aging while remaining young,” he says of his pupils. “Hopefully, they find that sort of fountain of youth for themselves, either in education or sharing from the stage.”
On the subject of which, Jones is big on communicating with audiences. None of that plant and play stuff for him. He used to chastise musicians who failed to engage with patrons, but nowadays he’s not so judgmental. Everyone, he knows, has a different approach.
Performing is “an experience of exploration. I could go on the journey by myself, but it’s much more fun if audiences go on the journey with me.” — Sean Jones
His preferred and more intimate mode of engagement, Jones says, “provides context. At most jazz performances, you don't have a playbill that describes everything we're doing, so I want to set the playing field for what they're about to hear. It’s also important to create that intimacy from the stage and invite people in so that they know that it's OK to sort of be the extra member of the band. I want them to know that they’re not by themselves and that this is an experience of exploration for both of us. I could go on the journey by myself, but it’s much more fun if they go on the journey with me.”
While he’s always looking to the future and open to new possibilities, Jones continues to pass along wisdom and techniques learned early on from his favorite teachers — those who instructed and mentored him during childhood in Ohio through his early professional days, as well as those from whom he learned — Miles Davis being a prime example — from studying their careers and playing styles.
First and most important, Jones stresses, is the need for a strong pedagogical foundation to make music or perform improvisation. (“The instrument can’t get in the way,” he says.) Coming in a close second is “open communication and respect for what the meaning of jazz truly is.” Which is nothing less than “the greatest representation of democracy, in that it allows for individual freedom but with respect for the group.
“I take that same message into the boardroom and the classroom,” Jones says, “and I treat it all like the stage.”
As for the impact of Davis, one of the most influential jazz trumpeters of all time, it’s three-fold and runs throughout Jones’ work.
“No. 1, [Davis] was always on the cutting edge and interested in the new sounds of the day,” Jones says. “And his leadership style — he hired people to be themselves. He didn’t put them in a box. Also, he’s still himself, no matter what situation he’s put into, and I try to make sure that my sound does the same thing. The different bands I’ve played with, from Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to Marcus Miller and Herbie Hancock, I’m still Sean. And my sound is diverse enough that it can work with all of those different types of situations, but it's also specific enough that you know that it’s still me playing.
“I try to make sure that I’m like salt. When you taste salt, you know it’s salt. And it goes with everything.”