Jean Toussaint Interview
Saxophonist Jean Toussaint proudly proclaims to be a ‘Jazz Messenger for life’ and this is reflected in his performing, as he helps keep the tradition alive through his extensive teaching and bringing younger players through. Like many former Jazz Messengers, he’s grateful for his time with the band. “It was one of those experiences that you couldn’t pay for. You’ve just got to grab it when, and if, it comes. I was lucky because I did it for about 4 and a half years, and I learnt a whole lot from Art. I wouldn’t be the musician and bandleader that I am today without having gone through that experience, definitely.”
Toussaint is keen to point out that bringing younger players through is very much a part of the jazz tradition and not just something exclusive to the Jazz Messengers. “That’s always been the way. The established musicians always made a place for the up and coming musicians. Not just with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, which was one of the main ways that his band ran, but a lot of other bands did that as well. It’s a way of passing on that experience, and hoping and helping to keep that music alive, because the more people you prepare and pass on your experiences to, the more that they can do that to others and it makes this music valid and gives it a place. It makes it continue, or else, if you keep everything that you do to yourself, then it stops with you.”
Toussaint’s latest band, which performs at the Emergence Festival in Hastings, reflects his commitment to bringing through younger talent, and features trumpeter Mark Kavuma, pianist Ashley Henry, bassist Daniel Casimir and drummer Ben Brown. “They’re all in their early twenties and have graduated from music conservatoires. I met most of them in that situation, while teaching them or just being in that environment and meeting up with them. There’s a lot to this music that non-musicians don’t realise, like a lot of hard work and study that goes into becoming an effective and strong jazz improviser. It takes many hours of preparation and studying. I went to music college myself, Berklee College of Music, so I can appreciate what these guys have to go through, and whenever I can be of assistance, in my own teaching, I definitely take the opportunity to do that.”
Toussaint believes that the challenges facing younger jazz musicians today are slightly different, “but in trying to keep this music alive, it’s always been the same. I see that jazz is more on the fringe and every now and again the media takes notice. We seem to be in one of those eras where the media is starting to take notice, and a lot of the young musicians that are coming up, that I’ve taught, are now starting to get some kind of attention from the media. I’ve seen that happen so many times so I know well enough that it’s only going to last a few years, but in the background we continue to work whether there’s attention or not. Once you enter this music and the possibilities of being a jazz musician, once you’ve been bitten by that jazz bug, there’s no turning back. You might think ‘am I doing this for money’ but no, if you’re doing it for money then it’s not gonna happen, you’re not going to be as effective. You just have to have the passion for the music and the love for the music and the art of improvisation. That’s what you find in any jazz musician, regardless of how successful they are. We do it, sometimes it falls on deaf ears; other times we’re successful and we can reach the audience. But we have no choice but to do it. We’ve already been taken over by it.”
Toussaint’s teaching style is very much about encouraging students to teach themselves. “There are two schools. Some teachers teach what to do, some teachers teach how to do it. I think the ‘how to do it’ is more effective in creating more creative-minded musicians, and more exploratory-minded musicians. Once you show someone how to do something they then know how to make it happen for themselves. They might have a different experience that allowed them to take that idea into a different territory, that you didn’t foresee, as opposed to regurgitating all the stuff that you hear, which some people do and they’re quite effective at doing that, but for me that’s not being as creative as you can be. I much prefer to analyse and take things apart and see how it’s put together. And then try and put it back together in my own way. This is what I try to pass on to my students.”
Toussaint composes mostly at the piano. “I think the piano is like the orchestra, and like Art Blakey used to say, it has everything in it. All the other instruments are within that as far as the range is concerned so it’s easy to write from that point of view, because the bass, melody and harmony are covered. It makes it quite effective to get your ideas into some kind of shape. Sometimes ideas will come to me and I’m not at a piano. I’ll just sing it or play it into a recorder if I have my saxophone. I try to use as many different ways as I can. If I have a good idea while I’m walking down the street then I might pull out my phone and sing it into my recorder, and then try and develop it once I get home or once I get to a piano.”
Whilst spending the remaining part of this year touring his latest album, Brother Raymond, Toussaint has other projects planned for the future. “This is more of a straight ahead thing that we’re doing at the moment as it’s more influenced by my time with the Jazz Messengers. Even though it’s all original music, I’m still influenced by the sound of the band. All the instruments are all acoustic, so it’s more in the tradition. We’re still trying to be of the moment, of the era that we’re in, but we’re using the sound of that tradition. I have other projects in mind where I’ve done other bands that are more contemporary, using more electronic instruments. And definitely I’m looking forward to doing more of those type of projects in the future. I try and move in as many different directions as I can, at once.”
But for the moment, the tour is the main priority and something that he’s looking forward to. “It’s exciting doing this tour and this band of young musicians are really sparkling so I hope that the audience really come out and try to catch us and see what we’re up to. Even though we’re working off this sound palate of the tradition, we’re still bringing today’s ideas to it, which is always my thought: to try to be as creative as possible with whatever medium you’re working with. That’s what we’re trying to do and I hope the audience can come and enjoy it with us. The Jazz In The Round people do a great job. It’s a good tradition. They’ve been going for quite a while so they know how to organise things and make it happen, so we’re looking forward to the weekend!”
Jean Toussaint tours the UK from 13th September to 14th December and appears at Emergence Festival, in association with Jazz In The Round, on Saturday 29th September, 2018.
The album Brother Raymond is out now on Lyte Records.
Jean Toussaint was interviewed by Charlie Anderson.