The PNC Legacy Project opened the Celebrating Black History Month exhibit on Martin Luther King Day 2014. To bring the exhibit to young people, the Legacy Project introduced an essay contest for 6th-8th grade students in Pittsburgh Public Schools. The three winning students later interviewed the subjects of their essays. This is the final of three entries in a special profile series exclusively for the New Pittsburgh Courier. Here, Gabriel Yancy, an 8th grade student at Pittsburgh CAPA, interviews Sean Jones, critically acclaimed trumpet player, composer and professor of music at Duquesne University.
On March 17, I had the great privilege of being able to both interview and play with the amazing Sean Jones. We talked for a little over an hour, and I can say that it’s an experience I won’t ever forget. Everything he said really resonated with me and his life lessons will continue to teach me for a long time. Sean’s metaphors, images and phrases have already helped me with my thoughts about music, and I now am more certain about what I want to do and about the life I want to lead. As a musician who has been playing piano since I was four, I just can’t even really explain with words how great it was to do this. He was a complete inspiration. Although this incredible experience can never be expressed fully by words, here is a small excerpt from my interview.
What led you to play the trumpet?
“In church there’s drums, organ, piano and a lot of young kids playing the saxophone. Nobody really played the trumpet. I wanted to be different.
“When I started playing the trumpet, it was very difficult for me to play it. I couldn’t get a sound out of it for a month. I like a challenge. I was one of those nerds when I was growing up. I fell in love with the challenge before I fell in love with the actual sound. The more I became acquainted with the instrument, the more I loved the sound.
“Often, people have told me to find a more stable career than music. There are a lot of poor artists, poor musicians. So, I’m wondering what you think are the pro and cons of choosing music as a career?
“Wherever there is music, there is somebody making that music … It’s the soundtrack of our lives. Behind that soundtrack there are people making that happen. Whether they are billionaires, millionaires or have nothing, they are contributing to this life force that’s making people happy, lifting people’s spirits.
“That being said, you have to ask yourself, what’s rich? What’s poor? If I took a stack of money and put it here, would I be rich? Maybe with money. But if I took that money away, I’d still be rich because I have B flat, and I know what to do with it. I have C, and I know what to do with it. I have F, and I know what to do with it. I can take those notes and put it together to make a song and heal somebody. Money can’t do that.
“If it all goes away tomorrow, I still have that inner peace and the joy that comes with doing something I love and doing it at a high level.
“There’s a saying, the race is not given to the swift nor the strong but he who endures to the end. You have to stick to this. You have to build it. Have goals. Just go after it.”
When did your career begin? And any suggestions about where I should begin?
“I started playing around different churches when I was 13 or 14 years old. When I was 18, I was going to Cleveland—I lived in Warren, Ohio—and Pittsburgh to try to sit in with different musicians.
“Then I listened to one of my professors. He gave me one of the greatest pieces of advice I got. He said to put as many irons in the fireplace as you can and when one gets hot, you grab it. Then I asked my professor, ‘What happens when all the irons get hot?’ He said, ‘Get big gloves.’
“You’ve got to do as many things as you can. Put yourself in scenarios where people can hear you…All you got to do is start. Your beginning is your beginning. It’s not Beyoncé’s beginning, not Jay Z’s beginning. It’s not my beginning. You start at your starting block. All you got to do is keep walking, keep going. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
“The one thing that will stop you is fear. Fear is your worst enemy. It will stop you right in your tracks. It will paralyze you. It will make you question everything. Am I good enough? Eliminate fear right away. Just do; do things. You will fail sometimes … you just have to keep moving forward. Do, do, do, do.”
What’s your most memorable performance?
“There was a time right before my father died I was able to play a song that I wrote for him. It was a release of emotion; that was an important moment.
“There was one moment when I was just a few years older than you. This would be the crowning moment or the moment when I realized that I should be doing this without a shadow of a doubt.
“We were on the road for three weeks in Europe. I was tired. I didn’t want to play. But something inside me said to get up and give your best. Just do it. At the end of the concert this older Italian guy came up to me holding his chest, talking. Then he starts crying. So I get the interpreter. I said, ‘Look. What’s going on?’ She asked the gentleman. And she starts crying. I’m like ‘what’s he saying?’ She said that he was contemplating suicide and that when he heard my playing he realized that there was more beautiful things to experience in the world regardless of the pain that he was going through. So he decided that he wanted to keep living. So, of course, I started crying.
“So I think to myself, wow, not that I’m so great, but music has that power, man? Life and death can be a note. Are you kidding me?
“I felt very thankful. It was the greatest joy and the greatest burden I felt at the same time. Then I decided that when I play I’m going to be real. I’m going to be honest. I’m going to write songs about real moments. People need to relate. Then I’m going to be the best version of myself that I can possibly be on stage. I’m going to kill it every time. It lit a fire under me.”
You’ve traveled to so many places and just returned from the jazz festival in Dubai. What are some of your favorite spots around the world?
“The places I like the most aren’t tourist destinations. Like the Eiffel Tower. I mean, it’s cool to see. But it’s almost cliché now. I like going to little villages and towns. Usually when we’re on the road I’ll get off the tour bus, check into the hotel, put on shorts and a t-shirt and go running through the town. Just to see what people are doing and smell the food that’s coming from the houses. I like doing that kind of stuff.
“Every place is unique. Rio is beautiful. You can name any beach there. Dubai was cool. Japan is awesome. I’ve been to every continent except Antarctica, and I’m not trying to go there.
“But what I enjoy now is seeing how similar we are. Obviously there are things that separate us. But I like the similarities.”
The Celebrating Black History Month exhibit will be open until the fall of 2014. Exhibit hours are Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Nonprofits are welcome to schedule events and meetings in the exhibit at no cost.
Contact the PNC Legacy Project team at 412-762-3380 to inquire.
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