Vail Jazz Workshop alumnus Curtis Taylor answers the trumpet’s call
When you think of some of history’s greatest jazz trumpeters — Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis — you might wonder: Was their ascension to greatness destined to be? Would jazz sound different today if these trailblazers had never picked up a trumpet in the first place?
For Vail Jazz Workshop alumnus Curtis Taylor, fate seems to have played at least a supporting role in his development as one of his generation’s leading jazz trumpeters. Taylor was the trumpet chair on acclaimed vocalist Gregory Porter’s Grammy-winning album “Liquid Spirit” in 2014 and more recently joined in recording the soundtrack to a documentary about Porter, “Don’t Forget Your Music.” Taylor has also performed, recorded and toured worldwide with the bands of saxophonist James Carter, bassist Rodney Whitaker and pianists Cyrus Chestnut, Billy Childs and Patrice Rushen.
Yet, as a 10-year-old growing up in a suburb southeast of Cleveland, Taylor had his heart set on playing saxophone. During grade school, he tried the trumpet and trombone. With the sax, Taylor became convinced he had found his calling. The school’s band director noted the cost of a student-model saxophone. “Wow, that’s a lot, and I’m not even sure he will be sticking with this music thing,” Taylor recalled his mother saying. A trumpet was more affordable, so the band director suggested it.
“That kind of forged my destiny,” Taylor said. Not once since then has he felt the urge to pick up and play a saxophone.
Alternatively describing the trumpet as “humbling,” “frustrating” and even “jealous”— as in, the trumpet will know if you miss a day of practice — Taylor became intensely disciplined to keep his chops up and stay in shape. He also developed a “voracious appetite” for attending live performances, interacting with musicians and finding opportunities to participate in jazz master classes and workshops. This led Taylor to the Vail Jazz Workshop, which he attended in 2001.
Each year, the Vail Jazz Foundation invites a dozen of the country’s most talented high school-aged musicians to the Workshop for 10 summer days of mentoring by six of the globe’s most influential jazz performers. Despite his laser focus and rigorous practice, Taylor recalled that he felt “a little bit behind the 8-ball” in the company of young musicians who, like himself, aimed to play at the highest level. Today, he said, a list of the Workshop’s alumni reads like a “Who’s Who” in jazz.
During the Workshop, Taylor worked one-on-one with trumpet mentor Terell Stafford, who taught him fundamental concepts of wind and proper blowing of the horn. He was taken with the disciplined and regimented approach to practice displayed by Stafford, who still arises at 6 a.m. to practice long tones and other routine elements.
Taylor took this lesson to heart. He also learned from Workshop director John Clayton and John’s brother, the late Jeff Clayton, that a critical underpinning of success in music or other life pursuits is having good character and caring about people.
Taylor said that he and his 2001 Workshop colleagues shared the view that “I don’t know exactly how it’s going to happen but I know I’m going to go on and do something great” in music. Today, he said, “You’re not even surprised when you meet somebody and they’re doing great things in music and you hear that they went to the Vail Jazz Workshop,” likening it to “a rite of passage.”
Taylor’s path to “doing something great” in music continued with earning a B.A. in jazz at Michigan State University and a masters in music at Rutgers. There he studied under William “Prof” Fielder, who had taught trumpeters Marsalis, Stafford, Terence Blanchard, Sean Jones and Ralph Peterson. Fielder helped Taylor develop a systematic approach to breathing, embouchure and jaw position, seemingly small things that make a huge difference in sound quality, flexibility and range.
In late 2013, destiny made another call. Taylor flew to California to participate in a recording produced by Kamau Kenyatta, an acclaimed producer who quickly recognized Taylor’s talent and introduced him to the local music scene. Taylor was impressed.
Without any solid prospects for work, and knowing very few people in California, Taylor took a leap of faith and relocated to San Diego. There he continued the affiliation with Kenyatta, which blossomed into numerous performances and recordings. “I’ve lost count of how many recordings I’ve been a part of with Kamau,” Taylor said.
Taylor also released a couple of albums of his own as a leader, most recently 2019’s “Snapshot,” a live recording at the World Stage in L.A. His ensemble was scheduled to record a new album on March 29, 2020, “and the world knows what happened,” he said.
Yet, Taylor made the most of the new reality brought by the pandemic. He was among the first to partner with organizations to provide pre-recorded and online concerts, culminating in his band’s September live-streamed performance at the Detroit Jazz Festival. He made plans for a return to the studio soon to “put down my original work and showcase it in proper fashion,” and he secured a music professorship this fall at the University of Iowa.
Not least, he cloaked himself in the comfort of family.
“I think I was supposed to have this time with family,” Taylor said, “and to focus on things that really make up a person.”