Music interview: Sean Jones on preparing the talented teens of NYO Jazz for their Edinburgh International Festival debut

Sean Jones PIC: Jimmy Katz
Sean Jones PIC: Jimmy Katz
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As a teenager, trumpeter Sean Jones underwent a transformative experience. He’d been hooked on jazz since hearing Miles Davis when he was ten, but driving home late one night, he heard John Coltrane’s magisterial A Love Supreme on the radio: “I had to pull over, I was so overwhelmed with emotion,” he recalls. “It completely changed my life and I started to understand what spirituality was.”

They might not experience quite such a dramatic epiphany, but for the 22 teenage players he’s bringing from New York to next month’s Edinburgh International Festival, their time in the Carnegie Hall National Youth Jazz Orchestra may well profoundly influence their future musicianship. Jones, a respected trumpeter and jazz educator, is artistic director of NYO Jazz, as it’s known, still in its first year, which will perform in the Usher Hall as part of a European tour.

Launched earlier this year by the Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, NYO Jazz is an intensive summer programme for emerging players between the ages of 16 and 19 from across the United States. Their Edinburgh concert will see them in the company of both Jones and the Grammy-Award-winning singer Dianne Reeves.

“Our programme is falling into place and they’re doing a great job,” says Jones of the students, speaking during their fourth day of rehearsal. Audiences can expect an adventurously mixed programme, combining such big-band standards as Duke Ellington’s Isfahan and Thad Jones’s Tiptop with specially commissioned works by Miguel Zenón and John Clayton. “One of the things I love about the jazz orchestra is that it is truly America’s orchestra, and can cover the entire gamut of American music genres, so you’re going to hear sounds ranging from R&B to hip-hop.”

Jones has toured and recorded in the past with Dianne Reeves, who is often compared with such greats as Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, and won Grammy awards for three consecutive albums, a first in any vocal category.

The commissioned pieces, he agrees, will fully stretch the young players: “Miguel is a genius and I don’t use that word lightly. He definitely didn’t tame himself writing this piece for us,” he laughs. “And John was in yesterday, a master teacher, and it’s just amazing what someone like him can do when they walk into the room.”

At 40, Jones is a much-in-demand trumpeter who has played on several Grammy-winning albums. Describing his robust yet lyrical trumpet style, he suggests, “if you take a combination of Clifford Brown, Woody Shaw and Freddie Hubbard, then sprinkle some gospel music on top, that’s me,” referring to the legacy of early years singing in church choirs.

A committed educator, he recently relinquished his post as head of the brass department at Boston’s famed Berklee College of Music, to take up a chair in jazz studies at the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “It was a hard decision, but in my heart of hearts I thought it was best that I transfer my services to Peabody. It’s the oldest music conservatory in the United States and I want to be part of revamping their jazz programmes. I never shy away from challenges.”

It was similar thinking that prompted him to quit his lead trumpet desk with the esteemed Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra after six years. “It was hard to leave, but, in the words of Miles Davis, ‘no musician should ever get comfortable.’”

The challenge now is down to the 22 young players of NYO Jazz, and Jones stresses that playing with students in no way cramps his style: “On day one I told them that I would be treating them as professionals. We wouldn’t be playing down to them, we’d be playing up to the level expected for the music.

“So they’re ready to go. They play the way I play and they’re rising to the occasion.” n

NYO Jazz play the Usher Hall on 5 August, see www.eif.co.uk