Trumpeter Jones finds a way to 'make it happen'
By Bob Karlovits
Published: Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Sean Jones says he has been “relentless” about his music since he was 16.
Pittsburgh-area music fans should celebrate. It is a relentlessness that sees a world-touring musician so eager to play his trumpet, he sits in at Pittsburgh jam sessions. It is an attitude that has led the formation of the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra. It is a work-ethic that lures musicians such as bassist Marcus Miller here for free concerts.
“One of the most influential teachers in my life told me, ‘The only way to get things done is to make them happen,' ” Jones says. “So, if you think there is a need for a Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra, form one.”
Jones, 35, is one of the busiest musicians in the Pittsburgh area at this point. He is not only working a great deal, but doing it at a high level. He toured Europe for six weeks in the middle of summer with the Marcus Miller band, similar to a long, mid-summer tour in 2011 with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter in a Miles Davis tribute.
He also stays busy with his own band, which filled his summer in 2012. But amid that all, he is an assistant professor at Duquesne University and maintains an active presence in the area with the orchestra and shows such as Valentine's Day events Downtown.
Grammy award-winning trumpeter Wynton Marsalis used Jones in his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra for more than five years. He says there is more to the trumpet player than simply his music.
“As great a player as he is, he is an even greater colleague,” he says. “He is just good to have around. There is a generosity of spirit that makes us all love him. He is like family in the band.”
Bassist Tony DePaolis, who has worked with Jones in a number of settings in the area, understands Jones' reputation is far-reaching.
“We have to share him with the world, but, still, he's right here,” he says.
Mike Tomaro, co-director of the jazz orchestra and head of jazz studies at Duquesne, agrees Jones presents a special talent.
“What's really amazing is that as much as people in this area will see him for free, they will then pay to see him at another concert that comes up,” he says.
Stephen Gage believes that appreciation is easy to understand. It is a style with a tone that goes from gorgeous to aggressive.
“I told him once, ‘There was Louis (Armstrong), there was Miles (Davis), and, hey, you're next,' ” he says.
Gage is the director of bands at Youngstown State University in Ohio, where Jones got his bachelor's degree. He saw Jones the first time when the trumpeter was in 10th grade in Warren, Ohio, and took the lead of his high-school marching band's version of “St. Louis Blues.”
“And it was so stunning, the whole place went dead,” he says of the show at a marching-band festival at the university. “I said to my dean: ‘Do we ever give scholarships to sophomores in high school?' ”
Jones eventually did get a scholarship to Youngstown State, and it would not be the only time he played himself into a position.
Making his sound heard
When Jones was trying to establish contacts in the academic world to find a teaching post, he came to Pittsburgh to play in a band in a now-defunct club. Part of that move also was to meet Duquesne's Tomaro.
Tomaro says they were “cautious of each other” at first, but hearing him play and spending time with him convinced him of Jones' worth.
“It was being with him on the bandstand that did it,” Tomaro says.
About the same time, Jones says, he went to Columbus, Ohio, to jam with Wess Anderson, an alto player who knew trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Anderson was so impressed, Jones says, he called Marsalis and let the Grammy-winning trumpeter hear him over the phone.
“He said to me, ‘When can you come to New York?' ” Jones says.
Marsalis remembers that phone call.
“He was playing a ton of trumpet,” he says. “He has his own sound. He plays with extreme technical facility and has a sound that just makes people happy.”
The eventual meeting led to Jones playing lead and second trumpet in New York City's Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra between 2005 and 2011.
It would seem being relentless pays off.
Jones says the late Esotto Pelligrini, music teacher at Warren G. Harding High School in Warren, Ohio, made him more serious about music. He had been intrigued by music, he says, after hearing a great deal of it at the Church of God in Christ he attended.
He started playing trumpet when he was 10 as a school activity and “picked the instrument no one else wanted. I can see why: It's tough.”
Pelligrini introduced him to classical trumpet and performers such as Maurice Andre and even Marsalis, who also has performed classically.
When he was 16, his mother, Dorothy Jones, asked him to write down what he would like to be doing 10 years later.
“And that kind of made it serious,” he says with a chuckle. “Instead of just thinking about it, I had to write it down, and that made it a real goal. I said I wanted to be a professor, record and be a friend of Wynton Marsalis.”
Attending Youngstown State, which is near his hometown, put him about halfway between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, where he could go to jam and perform.
“Cleveland and Pittsburgh are so different,” he says. “Up in Cleveland, there was this big-band thing going on, but in Pittsburgh it was improvisation and playing from the heart with people like Roger Humphries. It was two sides of music.”
He won the Ralph Bunche Scholarship to graduate school at Rutgers University in New Jersey in 2001, a stretch where he further developed his style and technical skills. He also went through a stretch of cocaine and heroin use.
“It is an incredible high,” he says of drug abuse, “but one day, I woke up and said I wanted to live.”
A mission on his mind
Jones says he has a constant goal, and it shows up in the name of the band he formed shortly after he got here: Mission Statement.
The goal of the band — and his overall philosophy — is to “get people playing their music in the best way possible.” Mission Statement, he adds, worked to that goal by allowing greater development for musicians such as drummer James Johnson III, saxophonists Jacob Yoffee and Chris Hemingway, pianist Michael Murray and singer Carolyn Perteete.
Tony DePaolis says Jones “raised the bar like no one around here.” His work has encouraged creativity.
DePaolis says he was called in to sub for Mission Statement bassist Jeff Grubbs, who also performs with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and was asked to write a piece for rehearsal.
“I did, and we performed it the next day,” DePaolis says. “It just doesn't happen with other bands.”
The quality of his play is as strong as his goals, says Tomaro and Nelson Harrison, a trombonist who has been a decades-long staple in the Pittsburgh jazz scene.
“He is a throwback in his appreciation of the roots of the music,” Harrison says, “but he has his heart in this generation, too.”
That sheer talent shows in his time with Jazz at Lincoln Center, his formation of big bands in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, and his work with the JazzLive International Festival, Downtown, where he usually plays with several bands on each day. He also has recorded six albums with Mack Avenue from Detroit and hopes to have the seventh on the street in the spring.
He likes his work at Duquesne, where he is allowed time to follow his performance jobs. He also says he is impressed with life in Pittsburgh. He says he often is asked why he doesn't move his home to jazz mecca New York.
No need to, he answers. He can do it all from here.
“This is it, I think,” he says.
Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7852.
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