A couple of years ago I was asked by author and trumpeter Thomas Erdmann to participate in an interview for his book How Jazz Trumpeters Play Music Today, along with 11 other players of varying renown including Christian Scott, Wadada Leo Smith and the late (great) Ted Curson.
We had a very interesting conversation covering a lot of ground, but since the book has been out for a while, and isn’t in a price range where most people can afford to pick up a copy (currently around $200, which I guess is the norm for academic publishing these days), I asked Dr. Erdmann for permission to post a few excerpts, which I’ll be posting in bits and pieces. Here’s the first:
One can’t help but know, in listening to you, that it’s obvious you practice the trumpet; people don’t just pick up the trumpet and sound like you do without putting in the time. What does a practice session of yours look like these days?
Thank you—it has not been a straight-line journey as I’m sure any musician in their middle age will tell you. I went through years of really difficult embouchure challenges that I think were formative for me. I was late in getting serious about practicing. I played the French horn up until high school, and didn’t get serious about practicing the trumpet until I was 16 or so. But at that first burst of trumpet interest things came really easy. I had high chops even though I wasn’t doing it in a healthy way; using lots of pressure and making all of the usual mistakes. In college I was unsatisfied with the pace of my progress and felt I had to move things along faster, so I was going to fix my embouchure for good. At the time I played out of the side of my mouth and so I decided I was going to move my embouchure by playing right in the middle of my chops. That would be the secret to finding a shortcut. Instead of being a shortcut it ended up being 10 years of wandering in the wilderness where I could not count on anything from day to day. It was tough, and there were many times I was on the verge of quitting.
There were some really positive things that came out of this like discovering late Chet Baker after his chops got smashed. I learned how much music there is to be made even if your body is not at its best that day. As messed up as he got he never lost that amazing gift for melody and swing. There is a version of But Not For Me he did on The Touch Of Your Lips where he plays a trumpet solo and then scats a solo and there’s almost no difference in feel between the two of them. The trumpet and the chops have nothing to do with what he was doing musically at that time; he was “letting a song go out of his heart” if you will. To me, that was a valuable lesson. … As things started to slowly get better with the help of teachers as well as dumb luck, and as I worked my chops back to regularity—it’s easy to kick myself over that detour—but as I came back to chops normality after having learned all of these lessons about music, the trumpet and my chops, I think it took all of that mess to be at the level of self-knowledge that I am now in terms of how my chops work and how to play.
I forget who said it, but the saying goes, “There are two things you should work on, stuff you’re good at and stuff you’re not good at.” The reason is that on the stuff you’re not good at you need to develop it, but with the stuff you’re good at you also want to work on it because it will become your sound, your thing. You don’t want to stop working on things you do well, you want to build on those things.