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Learning curve

Sean Jones 

Learning curve

When trumpeter Sean Jones begins his residency at Penfield High School, students of all ages will encounter not only a first-call jazz musician, but also a first class educator. Jones, whose visit culminates with performances involving a variety of school ensembles in concerts on Friday and Saturday, has thought a lot about how to teach music.

Jones was recently named Chair of the Brass Department at Boston's Berklee College of Music. There, and in Penfield, he can be counted upon to apply a philosophy of music education that had its origin in the Pentecostal church of his youth in Warren, Ohio.

He describes it as a 24/7 musical experience, featuring a modern gospel style embracing every kind of music.

"If it's hot at the time, those musicians are going to check it out," Jones says. "Most of my training was by ear, watching, listening, and copying everything around me."

Jones says he now teaches in the same way he learned. "I try to share as much as I possibly can in an organic setting. I try to take what's formal and make it informal so that the stigma is taken off of it and it's just like a child learning.

"Children learn in a very organic way. They don't really care how difficult something is or what it takes to get it, they either want to do it or they don't. Once they decide they want to, it's easy for them. They don't even know it's work; they do it because they like it so much."

Jones may have learned music in the church but, ironically, his spiritual outlook came through jazz.

At 19 years old, while a student at Youngstown State University, he was driving along, listening to a jazz radio show, when the DJ played John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme." Three minutes into the tune he had to pull his car to the side of the road and listen to the entire 40-minute composition.

"It was like an awakening," Jones says. "That's when I changed my thinking in terms of spirituality. When I was growing up everything was very religious: you have to play by these rules, you have to do this, that, and the other. It was you're either Christian or you're wrong.

"I always knew there was more and always felt, how could all these billions of people all over the world be wrong? How could Muslims be wrong for how they think? How could a Jewish person be wrong? All those people are just doomed?

"I read the liner notes and I really got into what Trane was saying in terms of universality, that all things are connected, all things are equal, and all things come from the same place."

When it comes to role models, Jones names a "Who's Who" of great trumpeters.

"Miles [Davis] wasn't limited by what people thought he should play, he played what he wanted to play," Jones says. He also looks to "Freddie Hubbard, just for the sheer ability to execute an idea, and Clifford Brown for his clarity and happiness in the sound. In modern times I would have to say Nicholas Payton and Wynton."

That would be Wynton Marsalis who hired Jones in 2004 to fill the first trumpet chair in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Jones held the position for six years, but in the beginning he found it a bit daunting to play first chair under the best-known trumpeter of our time.

"I thought, am I going to screw up?" Jones says. "Then there was a moment of clarity; I realized he hired me because I deserved to be here. Then my confidence level immediately ballooned and I just kind of did my job in the band."

After a few years, Marsalis told him, "'You're the type of guy that doesn't need to be sitting up in somebody's big band,'" Jones recalls. "I said, 'I'm cool for now.' But the top of the fifth year I came to him and said, 'I think I'm going to leave, I'm going to give you a year to find somebody.'"

After leaving in 2010, Jones joined Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Marcus Miller in a "Tribute to Miles" tour. The trumpeter obviously played an important role, but...

"I wasn't trying to channel Miles," Jones says. "That's not what they hired me to do. I asked them, 'Why me?' They said, 'It's because you're the furthest away from Miles that we could get.'

"They didn't want a Miles copycat. They just wanted to see what else they could pull out. Those cats live in exploration. They don't care as much about the money and the fame. They use those things as tools to move music forward. They'll do that till the day they die."

Jones' new album, "im.pro.vise: Never Before Seen," reflects a similar approach. Along with his superb quartet — Orrin Evans on piano; Luques Curtis on bass; and drummer Obed Calvaire — Jones approaches each tune with a spirit of adventure.

"I was walking down Broadway the other day. I looked in this café and there were tons of people in there," Jones says. "I started to think about my own mind, and it was racing that day. To me, my world is huge; all of our lives seem big. Then I looked back in that café. I thought, 'Wow, there's a bunch of worlds just like mine.' I looked down Broadway and 'Wow, there are thousands of worlds walking around.' I just suddenly felt really small, man.

"My little world that I think is so big and meaningful and right, there's a billion other worlds like that. When another one of those big worlds comes in and interacts with my big world, I just try to join it, live in it, and point out things. That's my job as an educator."

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