sun 14/07/2024

10 Questions for Trumpeter Keyon Harrold | reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions for Trumpeter Keyon Harrold

10 Questions for Trumpeter Keyon Harrold

Acclaimed trumpeter discusses crossing genres, speaking out and Miles Davis

Horn in the night: Keyon Harrold

Trumpeter Keyon Harrold grew up in Ferguson, Missouri and studied alongside Robert Glasper at the School of Jazz at The New School, in Greenwich Village, NYC. He has been a sideman with many of the biggest performers in music including Eminem, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Dr Dre, Maxwell and Common, and recorded two albums in his own name.

His second album, The Mugician, was released last year to great acclaim. With collaboration from artists including Robert Glasper, Bilal, Big KRIT and Pharoahe Monch, Harrold incorporates elements of soul, reggae and hip hop into a transcendent musical statement of hope. On tracks such as “MB Lament”, about unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, and many more, Harrold comments powerfully on contemporary politics and injustice. He spoke to theartsdesk about music, politics, and the unquantifiable influence of Miles Davis.

MATTHEW WRIGHT: The trumpet sounds on "Stay This Way" are extraordinary. Are they as much fun to play as they sound? Do you need to be a certain type of character to play solo trumpet?

KEYON HARROLD: On “Stay This Way” I try to paint a picture. Colours, sounds, and bursts of a longing for a perfect instance or moment of love. A moment to be encapsulated and remembered as the perfect bliss forever. When I think of my life and what I have gone through, I remember the perfect moment(s) before the fall, the times that I never wanted to end. So my improvisational approach was to reflect the feeling of passion and fire between two lovers.

The Mugician contains hip hop, soul, reggae, as well as jazz. Or am I applying false categories? How do you keep this diversity of music in your head at once?   

Music is ultimately a continuum. The main thing that differentiates genres is the beat or the rhythms, as said by Quincy Jones. Ultimately there are only 12 notes so, already, there is a lot of room for overlap between the genres. I am a person who has studied music and respects many genres. So there is no surprise that hip hop, R&B, Afrobeat, reggae, classical music, and gospel music all influence my jazz and who I am as an artist. What you hear on The Mugician is a collage of the music that radiates in my soul.

Your album is, overall, optimistic about the role music can play in society, with many songs such as “When Will It Stop” and “Broken News” that have a direct political message. Do you still believe music can bring about change, even during the Trump presidency?

Keyon HarroldMusic is a vehicle to paint the state of our lives. I love to use music as a tool. I feel that my platform is a way to inspire hope and change in people by taking conscious aim at hate and indifference between peoples. It is my job to aggressively speak and create music that highlights issues of poverty, racism, sexism, bigotry, fascism, xenophobia, police brutality, classism, homophobia, and bullying. With songs like “When Will It Stop” and "Circus Show" (featuring Gary Clark Jr, written by myself and Andrea Pizziconi), the idea is to speak up and speak out! The reality is that we do live in the time of an unsympathetic leadership in America. One that has no shame of its separatist ideals. I most certainly intend to use music as a healing force to counteract the hate force in today’s political climate. “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” as Martin Luther King said.

You grew up in Ferguson, Missouri (near St Louis, home of so many jazz musicians), where unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown (subject of the song “MB Lament”) was killed by a police officer in 2014. How does a town recover after something like that?

The idea of Michael Brown being killed was an eye-opening event. One that gave birth to powerful movements such as Black Lives Matter. It was the removal of a veil of racism and prejudiced behaviour that exists and has been a fibre of American history. That tragedy was a microcosm of a reality that some people’s very existence are worth less than others. That opened the eyes of many and also opened the floor to an important conversation about racial bias, police brutality, and injustice in America. Ferguson and many other cities will never be the same because of the scrutiny and perpetual findings of the DOJ, that showed proof of injustice to many people of colour. But in all this event has sparked outrage, and many who were not privy to the wrongdoing are indeed marching and speaking out in hopes that tragedies like the untimely death of Michael Brown never happens again.  

Your career has followed a more traditional jazz musician’s path insofar as you’ve learnt your craft as sideman in other musicians’ bands (“making other people sound wonderful,” as you put it) before recording in your own name. Is that what you’d recommend to young musicians starting out?

Energetic, soulful, honest, vulnerable and daring; rooted in the history and vernacular of jazz but in no way limited to it

My musical journey has been a path that allowed me to learn and develop from a variety of amazing situations. From my first professional touring opportunity with rapper Common, to Jay-z, to Billy Harper, to Cirque Du Soleil, Maxwell and Dangelo. All have shaped me and added to the message of what I am able to deliver now. I advise younger musicians to study and put themselves in environments that challenge them and enrich them on every level: personally, musically, and financially. Ultimately, one that helps the young artist solidify their own vision. I advise young artists to learn from masters as much as humanly possible.

Did you have a favourite session gig? You’ve played with Eminem, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Dr Dre, Maxwell, Common, and many more...

A few of my favourite sessions were working on Jay Z’s American Gangster album and Maxwell’s Black Summers Night album. Going to the studio, hearing the art go from demo to final form, and being an entity that moved their vision forward was an honor. To then hear the final versions in the studio loud on the speakers, then in the club or on the radio, is a feeling that I can’t get enough of. That feeling when you see people dancing and loving the art that you created, makes the many sacrifices all worth it.

Wynton Marsalis’ quote that you are the “future of the trumpet” features on all of your publicity material. Is that title a privilege or a burden? What is the “future of the trumpet”?

When Wynton said I was the “Future of the Trumpet”, I was 16 years old. It was great for him to say, but it is for me to define what it means. I am focused on thinking of ways to create new vibes and to give my sound a place In world culture. I want to be someone who brings more people together with the timbre of my horn.

You told Rolling Stone you would rather be known as a “social music activist” than a jazz musician. What do you mean by that?

I mean that the idea of social music is a conscious focus and realisation that music is the soundtrack of our lives. It is above being pigeon-holed as simply a jazz musician. I am much more than that and capable of much more, from the standpoint of being human. Being a father, a friend and an emphatic person. Defining and addressing social issues is prime to me as a role model.  

You played Miles Davis’ trumpet in Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s biopic, and Miles has always been an important influence. In some ways, your career has picked up on what Miles was doing in the 1980s. What does his influence mean to you now? 

Miles’ impact on me is unquantifiable. As an artist and as a player, I have been able to internalise and adopt some conceptual ideas; but not to merely copy, but to use as a launch pad. Miles was always thinking ahead, a visionary. I aspire to run with that notion by continually looking for the next fusions and evolutions of music and culture, that will evoke progressive thoughts and good vibrations.  

Can you give readers a preview of the Ronnie Scott’s show? Do you have anything new to preview?       

Ronnie Scott's will be a spectrum of feelings and sounds and a show to remember. Performing the music of the new album The Mugician. I feel that I have assembled a great band, one to be reckoned with like one of Mile’s great ensembles, plus some special guests. Energetic, soulful, honest, vulnerable and daring; rooted in the history and vernacular of jazz but in no way limited to it. We are a progression.


Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters