I’m still just winding down from the chaos of SXSW. I haven’t even opened my business cards container to follow up with everyone I met and even though the festival concluded just 2 weeks ago it feels like a blur. A rose tinted blur lubricated with Bud Light (why, Bud you ask?), but a blur nonetheless.
One of the people I met, however, stuck out. Instead of the normal business card exchange, we did the phone thing. We met after my panel, Do Musicians Still Need Record Labels, and then again at Emily King’s Bud Light showcase, and instantly connected on a unique similarity – we’re both trumpet players. Kinda. I mean, I play trumpet, but this guy is a PLAYER.
Keyon Harrold, a NYC-based jazz trumpeter has played with Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Common, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Rihanna, Eminem, D’Angelo and the Vanguard, LL Cool J, to name a few, and is on the Grammy nominated Maxwell record.
And he is the trumpet player behind Don Cheadle in the new Miles Davis biopic, Miles Ahead which opens in the US today.
Harrold and I caught up over Skype a week after SXSW so I could learn more about his role in the new film and get to know his story a bit more.
Keyon Harrold, aside from being a sought-after, genre bending trumpet player, is a very intelligent, curious, charismatic dude. What’s most noticeable listening to his ballads is how much emotion drips out of his heart and floats through the bell. Harrold is an artist. Whereas it’s clear he’s a master on the instrument, his playing focuses more on communicating and less on showing off. When he plays, he speaks truth. His truth. Our truth. Truth. Listening to his solo during a live performance of a Derrick Hodge composition, I can’t help fall into his story. There’s a flourished nuance in every note that aches and stings.
Harrold grew up in the now infamous town of Ferguson, MO.
“It gets a bad rap for good reason,” he admitted. I asked him if what the country had been hearing about the town after Michael Brown’s murder was true and if he had experienced the racial disparities and police abuse of power growing up there. He sad “A lot of it is true, unfortunately.”
“Several times I was stopped for no reason. I’ve been in jail a couple times for no reason. Strip searched for no reason. Police have total authority and there’s nothing you can really say.”
He’s somewhat relieved that there is finally a spotlight on the town and that things are changing. And that this incident can bring perspective to those around the country who didn’t have to deal with the same disparities he had to deal with. “The way many people grew up, they had no idea that bullshit like that happens on the regular.”
Harrold gets back to Ferguson 4-5 times a year to visit family and he said he went back once around the time of the protests and that “it was a war zone.” But to his family, “it wasn’t new to them. It’s an unfortunate experience that everyone else got to see what our everyday life was. Same shit, different day.”
“I’m just happy I had a way to get away from it. There are better places for people to raise a family. My family.”
Harrold’s grandfather (ironically) was a police officer, but wanted to make more of a change in kids’ lives. So he left the force and started The Memorial Lancers Drum and Bugle Corp “which helped thousands and thousands of kids from the late 60s all the way through the late 90s. That’s how I started playing.” All of Harrold’s brothers, sisters and cousins were in the corp. “[We] learned discipline.” They were in the group from the age of 6 to 17 and sometimes later. Many who graduated the corp continued on as teachers, giving back. “It was always about giving.”
Drummer Mark Collenberg, one of Harrold’s closest friends from childhood would skip lunch and recess together every day to practice. It’s funny, when kids wonder what it takes to become a great musician. All you have to do is just ask any one of the greats, and most will reveal the super-unsexy answer of “Practice. Every day.”
Collenberg and Harrold moved to NYC together to attend the New School.
Harrold’s first professional gig was working with Common and it was the only audition he ever had. Shortly after landing the gig, Harrold suggested Collenberg to Common and he joined the touring band as well.
I’ve always been curious about prestigious NYC jazz programs like the New School. I asked Harrold if there were any comparisons to the 2014 film Whiplash and he laughed, “No. At the New School no one had to inspire us to be good. Everybody felt that ‘if I’m gonna be here I’m going to do what I need to do.’ We all had self discipline and self motivation.” He fondly recalls being able to study with people who worked directly with Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong.
Robert Glasper (the composer on Miles Ahead) was also at the New School around the same time, but Harrold and Glasper actually met at a the Vail Jazz Foundation summer camp in Vail, Colorado years prior. Glasper was the one who initially got Harrold the Common audition. Funny how things work out.
And Glasper brought Harrold in for the film. Harrold worked closely with Glasper to recreate Miles’s sound from various time periods and Harrold said that it was fairly effortless.
“Miles is one of the quintessential people that you listen to. I didn’t have to practice for anything like that. I know what that sound is like in my head.”
They actually played some of Harrold’s recordings for Miles Davis specialists and “they were fooled,” he revealed.
Don Cheadle, the writer, director, producer and star of Miles Ahead, is a jazz musician himself. A saxophonist. Cheadle also learned trumpet for the part and admitted on NPR’s ‘All Things Considered,’ “I’m probably as good as Miles was at 9 years old.” When shooting the film, Cheadle mimicked Miles’s playing style, but Harrold was the horn behind the look. In the recording studio, Harrold had to watch what Cheadle’s fingers were doing and come up with a part that matched and make it look and sound believable. “Making that art, was my challenge.”
From left: AnuSun, Robert Glasper, Don Cheadle, Keyon Harrold
Harrold said that Cheadle was such a good jazz saxophonist that he could have gotten a scholarship for music at California Institute of the Arts, but instead he studied acting.
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Harrold is quite a diverse talent. In addition to his trumpet virtuosity, he regularly composes for film and television.
“Your composition is what you’re really thinking. I want people to be able to feel that and somehow get into what I’m thinking. They can feel me more. When I put something down and I write it and people play it or perform it, there are no misconceptions on what I’m thinking.”
When I’m improvising, I’m always becoming.”
Listening to his live performance at the Winter 2016 NYC Jazz Festival performing his tribute to Michael Brown, “MB Lament”, I can feel the anger, helplessness, frustration and fear. He gives a stirring nod to Gershwin’s “Summertime” (Brown’s murder occurred August 9th). He twists the line which normally is sung “Summertime and the living is easy…” into a gnawingly sarcastic, angst-laden howl.
An impassioned lament indeed.
Miles Ahead opens in select theaters around the US today.