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Checking in No. 11: Jeremy Pelt

Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, 2018. Photo by Kasia Idzkowska. 
Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt cares a great deal about jazz and the people that have spent their lives dedicated to the music's creation. He has spent the last year completing a book of musician-to-musician interviews inspired by Art Taylor's 1993 book Notes and Tones. Photo by Kasia Idzkowska. 

Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt impresses with the beauty of his sound, facile improvisations that draw comparisons with Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan and the imagination and creativity of his compositions. He turns 45 this November, and as he looks back on the successful musical career that he has built since coming to New York in 1998, he acknowledges a debt to the musicians that have mentored him and paved the way for his art. At the same time, he feels concern over the apparent disconnect that he sees between young musicians (especially young Black jazz musicians) and their musical forebears.

To address this issue, Pelt has self-published a book of musician-to-musician interviews containing conversations with fifteen different musicians. Some, like Robert Glasper and Ambrose Akinmusire, are younger than Pelt. Others, like Bertha Hope, Warren Smith and Eddie Henderson, are now in their eighties. What all of these exchanges have in common is the inside perspective that only comes about through the shared experience of trying to live the life of a jazz artist.  

In this episode of Checking in, Jeremy Pelt discusses his evolution as a jazz musician. We hear about the writing of the new book and the accompanying cd and he talks about his experiences navigating the pandemic. Information Jeremy Pelt music and his new book can be found here.  

Transcript: 

PETER SOLOMON: I’m Peter Solomon. You’re listening to Checking in, a VPM interview series featuring conversations with members of the jazz community talking about what they do, how they’ve been impacted by the pandemic and what they are doing to stay productive and inspired. Today, my guest is trumpeter Jeremy Pelt. Originally from Southern California, Pelt attended Berklee College of Music in Boston and moved to New York in 1998. He established himself playing with all kinds of different groups. He worked with the Cannonball Adderley Legacy Band, Greg Osby, Cassandra Wilson, the Mingus Big Band, the Roy Hargrove Big Band, and, of course, his own ensembles. Pelt’s latest project is Griot: Examining the Lives of Jazz's Great Storytellers, a self-published book of musician-to-musician interviews. An accompanying CD has been released on High Note records. We’ll hear more about that in a few minutes. Here’s an example of Pelt’s music, a tune called Feito from his 2019 High Note release, “The Artist.”

Jeremy Pelt is joined by Victor Gould on piano, Vicente Archer on bass and Alan Mednard on drums. 

MUSIC: Feito by Jeremy Pelt from The Artist

That was this evening’s guest, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt. He’s now almost 45 years old and based in Harlem. He grew up in Southern California and New York. I asked him to tell me how he got started playing trumpet. His introduction to band came in in the fourth grade. He recalls being told it was time to pick an instrument.     

JEREMY PELT: You know, the way that I like to tell the story just to, you know, make me seem very important and very smart, is the fact that from kindergarten all through through 12th grade, I've rarely missed a day of school. I could count on both hands, the amount of days that I missed from school, and probably just one hand, and the one day that I missed of school was the day that everybody was picking their instruments. And so, when I got to school the next day, all that was left was trumpet  and clarinet. And I appraised both instruments. And I said, I'm gonna stick with - I'm gonna play the trumpet, because it's only got three buttons, as opposed to the clarinet that looked like it had a thousand. And so the teacher realized, oh, shoot, somebody has already chosen this trumpet. It's the last trumpet, but that person isn't here. And so everybody - this is when they still had instruments in the school and you could you could rent the instrument for the duration of the semester. And so you have to come in with a rental agreement slip and all this - and she said, "Okay, if this person doesn't show up tomorrow with their rental agreement slip then you could have the trumpet" and the rest is history.

SOLOMON: At some point, obviously, you you started to take the instrument seriously. When did it become the thing that you wanted to do?

PELT: Very early, very early. It was something that kind of just took over my life in a very profound way. Part of that might have been due to the fact that I really didn't like school. I think the only other subject that I was actually good at was English. I was a good pupil in the sense that I didn't skip school and, you know, run with the bad crowd, I always went, but I just never liked it but the only thing that kept my interest and the only thing that I truly looked forward to was music. Therefore, when I learned to play the trumpet, it was something that I naturally took to. I never had a private teacher until I got to college. So it was just something that I’d just toy around with all the time. And to be to be clear, it wasn't as though I was even doing a lot of the assignments that were asked of me on the trumpet. So I would slack off on those too. But it was still something that held high interest. And I think one of the things that also kind of egged that along was that we went to a church where every Christmas, they would have an orchestra come in, and they would do the complete Handel's Messiah. So you'd see the choir and you'd see the whole orchestra and I’d see the trumpet players in there. And I was just fascinated by looking at them doing nothing. Because, I mean, sometimes, there are pieces where they play. And then just like any orchestra, you know, you see cats, if it's not a horn-heavy piece, you know, they might have two notes in the whole piece. And they're sitting there for it, you know, but something is just so fascinating about it, just the look of concentration on their faces. And I think that was something that strangely - I was a weird kid - it's strangely appealed to me.

MUSIC: short excerpt Handel’s Messiah performed by the Boston Baroque Orchestra and Chorus 

You know, and, and the music itself, because there was also time where I fancied being a conductor.  I really was into, you know, the art of conducting and looking at different conductors. So I was into that, then, and so I think at that point, I had intentions on being a musician, and that was as far back as 10 years old. By the time jazz came, then it was, this is exactly what I'm going to do. And that was 15, 14, 15 years old. So I knew pretty early on.

SOLOMON: What was the thing that made it made you decide, okay, jazz is what I want to do. Was there a record or a performance?

PELT: Yeah. I got to high school and that was the year that Miles Davis died. And I think that everybody at certain points has heard names that they might not know what the music is, but it's just a household name. So Miles Davis was a name that I was familiar with. But it wasn't his music. I didn't know anything about it. I just I remember seeing, Entertainment Tonight would have a special on Miles Davis, this icon has died and what not, and you'd see like little footage and what not.

And then I remember going into class, and the upperclassman comes in, and he says - and this is at the beginning of the school year, right? He says I think we should play So What for Miles. I never heard of it. Teacher says "All right, well, let's go ahead and play it." And so we play the song. It's not particularly hard. Then he starts pointing at different people. And when he points at them, they start soloing. Only I didn't know that it was soloing. I was just like, Okay, what, what is going on? You know, and then after I asked him, I said, Listen, what, how come I don't know where he is on my chart? And he said, “Well, he's improvising.” “Oh, what's that?” And then he explained it to me. And then after school, I went to the record store in my neighborhood and attempted to find the record that So What was on and it happened that even though Kind of Blue could have been easily been in that bin, I just stopped with the first record that I saw So What on by Miles Davis and it was a live record in Carnegie Hall. And when I got when I got home, and I listened to it, that's all I needed to hear. It was that it was that simple. It was that fast. It was that effective.

MUSIC: So What by Miles Davis from Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall

SOLOMON: I’m Peter Solomon, you’re listening to Checking in featuring trumpeter Jeremy Pelt. Coming up in a few minutes, we’ll hear about Jeremy’s new book Griot featuring musician-to-musician interviews and the cd that it inspired.

Here’s some music that Pelt recorded in 2003 for an album on Maxjazz records called Close to My Heart. Jeremy Pelt is heard on flugelhorn with pianist Mulgrew Miller, Peter Washington on bass and Lewis Nash on drums. The Jimmy Rowles composition 502 Blues (Drinkin and Drivin’)

MUSIC: 502 BLUES (Drinkin and Drivin) by Jeremy Pelt from Close to My Heart 

I’m Peter Solomon, you’re listening to Checking in on VPM Music, 93.1 and 107.3. We just heard 502 Blues performed by trumpeter Jeremy Pelt. He’s my guest today on Checking in.

Were there one or two people that factored as formative influences on you and the direction you took as an artist?

JEREMY PELT: I can tell you that my earliest mentor was my music teacher in high school, Mr. John McGruder. He was somebody that I could ask any questions I had about jazz, because he was a jazz player. He was the same age as Horace Silver, he grew up in the same town as Horace Silver. He played with with a lot of people, you know, and he settled in Los Angeles, right? And so I would have all these questions that he would answer. I was that kid that would stay in the music room during nutrition and lunch, wouldn't socialize with anybody, I would just be there. Because at that time, they just bought a new sound system would be these great big speakers. So I'd bring my cds over and tapes. And I just blasted it in the room. And I'd be trying different instruments, even. I play bass. You know, I would say, "Mr. McGruder, what, what is he playing?" I got really into Paul chambers at the time. And I would start playing bass and trying to do the things that Paul Chambers was doing. But, you know, I asked him questions, and he was always happy to answer them. So he was my earliest mentor, in that sense. Now, when we go past that, and we talk about my arrival in New York, somebody that I considered a big mentor, and still do was, is Dr. Eddie Henderson.

MUSIC: Flight Path by Eddie Henderson from Shuffle and Deal

The number of lessons that I learned from him were just a measurable innumerable rather, it was just it was it was it is always just a pleasure to be around him and to kind of absorb the things that that he had to teach.

SOLOMON: Can you give an example of one or two of the things that you've picked up from him?

PELT: A lot of it, I’ll tell you the truth and these are some of the questions that I asked in my book too, and to certain extent, with a lot of cats, I understand the answers because it's the same thing with me, which is a lot of it is just from seeing and not necessarily, you know, something that's told. You know, a lot of it has to do with the musicality that he applies, and the way in which he phrases a melody. You know, he was the first person to talk about just playing quartet, and its effect on making you a stronger trumpet player, which helps in terms of your ability to play for long sets. So he was the one that told me about that and he kind of, affixed that to the history of - the lineage of trumpet players that had come before him. So he was talking about Kenny Dorham used to play, sometimes he would record quartet records. Miles did. You know, so, that left an impression on me for a while, cause I used to play quintet. And then after I had quintet, and I said, all right I have to do quartet and I did quartet for a long time. And that made me a stronger player. So, I mean, you know, things like that.

SOLOMON: Pelt has just released a self-published book called Griot: Examining the Lives of Jazz’s Great Storytellers. It includes conversations  that he conducted with fifteen musicians ranging from younger players like Robert Glasper and Ambrose Akinmusire to veteran musicians (some of whom) are now in their eighties like Bertha Hope, Paul West and Eddie Henderson. That’s the trumpeter that mentored him when he got to New York. The inspiration for the book came from legendary drummer Art Taylor’s book of musician-to-musician interviews, Notes and Tones. He came across it while working in the library at Berklee College of music.

JEREMY PELT: I vaguely knew who Art Taylor was, because, you know, I'd gotten Giant Steps and, you know, a couple of recordings, but I was really more interested in the fact that, oh, here's a Miles Davis interview, here’s a Freddie Hubbard interview, you know, and so I read them. And, you know, the thing about it is that, you know, I look back on now, on the verge of being 45 years old, versus when I was 17, 18 years old, is the fact that the book means something different to you, every cycle of years, right? And so, you know, back then there were a lot of things that I wasn't necessarily prepared to understand about the book. But then the more I read it - you know, came back to it in different phases of my career - that it made a lot of sense. And one of the things I think I remember earlier on in having moved to New York after graduation I was, I call it the "somebody shoulds." It's almost like a cold. My whole thing was, “Somebody should write another book,” because this was also at the time, that there were murmurs that there's a volume two somewhere. (Rumors that) Art Taylor wrote another whole volume. So everybody's like, Oh, wait, can you find it? So nobody knows if it exists or not. Then there were people that say, yeah, I've got it, but then they don't really have it. But in my mind, I'm saying Somebody should write something like this for the current generation. Somebody should, somebody should, somebody should." And that was, you know, a recurring  thought.

And then in 2018, I was at home, and I was going through YouTube, you know, and I was like, okay, you know, I've always had a thing for drummers. I love drummers. I'm a frustrated drummer myself and I found this interview with Warren Smith, who's a great percussionist. And he was interviewing Art Taylor. And I was just transfixed to it. You know, I'm watching the screen. I'm watching this interview. And it lasted for almost two hours. And at that point, I said, you know, I'm going to go ahead and do this, I should. So that was part of the impetus. The other part of it was that I sincerely always felt like there was this disconnect that was growing between the younger generation of musician and the older generation of musician. That's one tier of it. The second tier to it, specifically, was that there was a disconnect between the younger generation of black musicians that are coming up, and the older generation that hadn't existed when I was coming up on the scene, and so that, to me, always presented itself as being problematic. For whatever reason, I mean, there's a variety, you know, it wasn't necessarily me pointing fingers as much as it was just like, there needs to be some kind of connection. Because, you know, the other thing is, that not everybody's gonna have the access to, you know, Louis Hayes or to, you know, some of these these very old, seasoned musicians. Sometimes you have to earn that, a lot of times you have to earn that connection.

So, this was a way, an attempt - this is an attempt to kind of bridge that gap so that you could read this stories, and see the parallels between their stories and where you might be at this particular time, or what might be ahead. So the whole purpose of it was to provide something that you could go back to, you read first, and then you go back to it at different parts of your career, and see how other people dealt with it.

SOLOMON: Along with his new book, Pelt has put out a CD containing excerpts of some of the conversations. 

PELT: In 2018, like I said, that's when I finally made the decision to go ahead and do the book. But at the same time, I said I'm going to release a book and a CD based off of the interviews at the same time, I’m going to write some music towards sound bites. And so that's, that's essentially what I did. I chose the subjects that I wanted to write about that had some very profound statements that I could hear music behind. And that's essentially what I did. And I incorporated it into a soundtrack that I think came off pretty well.  It's an extra dividend, when you actually hear the voice of the interviewees, and I think that that kind of helps to complete the overall picture. 

LARRY WILLIS: (Interview excerpt below contained on disc Griot: This is Important. Complete interview is contained in Jeremy Pelt’s book Griot: Examining the Lives of Jazz’s Great Storytellers

PELT: What doe\s it mean to be a black musician in the United States? (Laughter)

LARRY WILLIS: What does it mean to be a black musician in the United States?

You have to make a real commitment to this music. You got to want this for yourself in order to survive at all and you and I have done that. There’s a certain pride that I take in doing what I do knowing that the music that I play economically represents less than two per cent of the music that is played, that makes money here in the United States. Okay. But I don’t mind being the underdog. Cause Being the underdog gives me a reason to play.

SOLOMON: That was pianist Larry Willis in conversation with Jeremy Pelt. At the end, in case it was hard to understand, Willis said “Being the underdog gives me a reason to play.” Here’s a bit of the composition that Pelt wrote to play off of that idea. It’s called Underdog. The band included Chien Chien Lu on vibes, Victor Gould on piano, Vicente Archer on bass and Allan Mednard on drums.

MUSIC: Underdog (excerpt) by Jeremy Pelt from Griot: This Is Important!

Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt with Underdog from his new recording on High Note records called Griot: This is Important.

You’re listening to VPM Music, 93.1 and 107.3. This is Checking in, conversations with members of the Jazz Community about what they do, how they’ve been impacted by the pandemic and how they stay productive and inspired. My guest is Jeremy Pelt. I asked Jeremy to go back to last March and describe his experiences and how he felt when the pandemic started.

PELT: There was a lot of different things, you know. The uncertainty of things left to you feeling two different ways: downtrodden and also, somewhat clinging to this hope that this is not going to last.  Because, as Americans, we always have that hope that this is the most powerful country in the world and there's no way that this little, you know, disease is going to affect us in this, this type of way. So it'll blow over. That's what everybody thought. That's what a lot of people thought. I was one of them. But, at the same time, once it started to really settle in, then it was it was jarring. You know, I had just come back from Europe. George Cables and myself had just come back from Europe on March 13th. In many ways, I felt, you know, especially coming back from Europe, like some sort of leper, because, to give you an idea, before we left for Europe, that was in February, right? I had this trio tour set up with myself, George Cables and Ray Drummond on bass and Ray dropped out a day before we were to leave. He was talking about his daughter's afraid for him. Because he's been following the news. Like everybody was following the news. And the big story was Italy at that point. No place else. And you're like - I was emailing every place in Europe, saying, okay, you know, Ray just dropped out so we're gonna do this duo, and a lot of Europeans were like, "Nothing is happening here!" And like in France, people were like, "Nothing's happening here in this country." And it's being contained and this and that, you know, people were mad. And then we get to Europe, and we were supposed to go to Italy. That didn't happen, of course. So we pieced together the tour, came back. And even though we weren't in Italy - you know, I didn't really even have a clear picture of the enormity of what this was. But you know I also, at the same time, I felt like this kind of leper, because at this point, US hadn't really been affected yet. So now anybody that's coming back from Europe is looked at like some kind of leper like, "Oh, my God, he's got it," which I never had it, but there'll be no place to tell. No way to tell, right? So automatically, I get back and you know, and the scene is closing now. I'm not able to see my kids. I'm separated for a long time. Then friends of mine start dying. And all that with emails that keep popping up saying yes, we're gonna have to close this down.  We can't do this gig, we can't do this can't do this... That goes straight way past the spring and into summer, and then finally into the fall. So, I mean, that was that was what was happening at that point.

SOLOMON: That's a lot to contend with. Did you have specific ways of, of keeping your spirit up of dealing with everything that was going on and the way that this rocked your, your, the world that you existed in

PELT: It took me about a month to kind of get my bearings. And I feel like after that month, then I started talking to, you know, I would check in with people that never really even called before, because all this is brand new, you know, people's, like, "Who's this?" you know, "Oh, Pelt," you know. And I think as early as, you know, April, there were people that were starting to kind of adapt to an online model. Before it became, the thing to do. And, you know, a good friend of mine, a trombone player named Clark Gayton. We were talking and he was talking about how he's doing these, you know, horn lines remotely with people. And he would record them on his on his computer, and then send it and get paid. And I was like "Hook me up," you know. I can do that. And then he told me how to do it. And, you know, the funny thing is, I had like, all this recording apparatus and everything in storage. I had that 10, almost 15 years ago, but I never really used it. I never had the wherewithal, because ironically, I was so busy. I'm on the road all the time, I don't have time to learn all this stuff. I got it with the intention of learning, because I was like, yeah, I'm gonna learn this, I'm gonna be have a home studio now. But the reality was, I was gainfully employed. And, you know, I was busy. And I started, you know, thinking about different ways of, trying to keep, you know, my head engaged, then I got all this stuff out of storage, and started learning these these computer programs and everything. Not to say that I'm a pro at it now, but I'm a lot more knowledgeable. And I kept writing, which, you know, the music that you hear on the cd had already started, even in December of 2019. But then, I was more intent on completing it because at a certain period, the scene did start to open up in a like a kind of a secretive way. Some people will make it seem like everything was shut down, but not everything was completely shut down. So studios will start to open because they gotta pay bills, too. You know? Once I knew that, that was an option, and I contacted my label and said, I still want to do this. Then nI started getting engaged more in writing, like I always do, but more so. And also doing, you know, different, projects, like I put together a 15 minute piece for the Festival of New Trumpet that Dave Douglas runs. So there were things that I was writing towards, and that kept me more engaged. And then every once in a while I would do you know, live in the living room series.

SOLOMON: So would you have other people come to your apartment? Or would be like solo trumpet or how what kind of shape did that take? 

PELT: It was solo trumpet. It almost seemed like I'm sitting there doing this and I'm like "Who in the world is gonna pay to...? You know, you put out a tip jar, you know, virtual tip jar and you just go ahead and play all these, you know, at that point, my newest record was a ballads record. Because people wanted to hear me play all the songs that I played on the record, but I had no accompaniment, but I'm just playing, you know, just solo trumpet. Which even me as a trumpet player, I can't stand to hear too much solo trumpet. 

SOLOMON: Right.  

PELT: But that's what it was.

MUSIC: Don’t You Know I Care by Jeremy Pelt from Close to My Heart

SOLOMON: Are you playing out now?

PELT: As much as I can. You know, I think that there are places that are starting to open up right now. Small's certainly being the one place in New York that that has always tried to keep their doors open through all this. I was actually in the first band that played at Smalls, when they started streaming again last June as part of a Joe Farnsworth group. And that was like a big thing. Because everyone's like, "Wow, people playing together again!" Because I'm telling you, not playing really puts a whole different psychological spin. Because you could be at home practicing. That's not a problem. You could practice till your fingers fall off, till your lips fall off. But the minute you start, none of that really matters. Unless you're you're you're engaged with other people. And when you do that, you see how much you've been missing. So even in four months, it had been four months since I actually played with somebody, you could feel that. You could hear it in everybody’s sound no matter how great they were, I mean, Wynton did one at Small's too. And as great as Wynton is, I can hear, you know, this is this is a bit of a struggle. You know, I'm playing now. You know, as far as I've been hired. There's some months where there's a lot of - it's weird to even talk about a lot of activities and mean three gigs in a month. But there's some months where there's a lot of activities and there's some months I don't play at all. February, I didn't play at all.

SOLOMON: Wow.

PELT: Well, I did like one streaming thing at the very end of the month, but that was it. This month is a bit busier. Because the CDs You know, I'm starting to you know, do little virtual CD release parties. So...

SOLOMON: What do you think the big takeaway from this whole experience of living through this pandemic is? 

MUSIC: Sweet Rita Suite Part 2: Her Soul played by Jeremy Pelt from Soul 

JEREMY PELT: Don't take anything for granted. Right? Especially what I just was telling you, you know, I mean, when you're so busy, and you're playing, and everything is just the way it's supposed to be. You don't realize how important that is until it's taken away from you. But also, be constantly thinking about your future and your stability for the future, which is something that I never really thought about. Embarrassingly so. When it hits you like a ton of bricks and your like "Oh, damn." And you start doing things and you start spending differently and you start seeing the bigger picture. Especially as a musician. 

Right before I got on the phone with you, I read this New York Times article talking about the musicians in the Met, and how 40% of them left town. You know, they're not in New York anymore. A few of them just retired. Because they don't know when they're gonna work again. And this is the Met. You know, one person said, "I'm a one trick pony. And now, I can't even do that." You know, it's devastating. 

SOLOMON: Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt spoke to me from his home in Harlem over Zoom. His recording Griot: This is Important is available from High Note records wherever you get your music.  Information on his book can be found at www.jeremypelt.net.

I’m Peter Solomon