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"If you aren’t touching the listener’s soul, then you aren’t really playing music.” ~Joey Sommerville~
WJM: You are described as a soul-jazz trumpeter but your sound is inclusive of so many genres; jazz, funk, gospel and bebop. How do you describe yourself as a musician because the extensive list of the artists that you work with certainly covers the gamut?
Joey: I’m all over the place. I’d say eclectic is a fair word to use. I have a catalogue and history but I’m always evolving. I’m actually working on new music now which is definitely not jazz per se. I grew up playing in a church and went through the whole jazz thing but also played funk and R&B. I still visit all of those worlds from time to time. The records that I’ve done until this point can be categorized as contemporary jazz. The video I’ve done called “The Man Behind The Curtain"" is a long way from jazz
WJM: Obviously you’re a skilled professional but is it difficult to adapt from one genre to another?
Joey: It’s not really hard. It’s like when you visit some place and you get the feel for that place. Usually if the genre is jumping, you’re jumping with other people who are familiar with whatever genre you’re in. You learn the vibe of that genre and hopefully they’re hearing it when you get there. For example, if I got called to play horns on a country gig, more than likely everyone on the gig is from a country background. So it’s not difficult to double-dutch in and adapt to the environment. As a musician, sometimes you end up playing in a bunch of different genres. For example I played with Fish and Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas who has a solo album that I believe is coming out next year. I’m playing horns on that. If someone is looking for you to play music it’s not really categorized by genre. When you get right down to it music is music.
Joey: I used to do a lot of jingles and everybody wanted one for their business. Stylistically they would look for particular vibes such as country, Motown, Latin, etc. It was pretty easy to fill in the gaps and adapt as long as you worked with and involved someone who was familiar with the genre.
WJM: So let’s back up a little bit. Why the trumpet?
Joey: Initially, when we had music in schools we played recorders. It’s a woodwind instrument like a flute only smaller and you blow directly into it. They’re very simple and inexpensive. There was a guy that came in once a week and if you did well on the recorder you could play in the school band. One particular year they said they needed trumpet players and saxophone players and asked which one do you want to try? I was ten years old and I looked at the saxophone and it looked like the most confusing thing in the world. It just looked like a mass of metal. It just didn’t make any sense to me. I looked at the trumpet and to my ten year old eyes it only had three buttons and I knew I could I could grasp my head around three buttons.. I didn’t know at the time that they were valves. I liked the sound of the trumpet and I knew the trumpet played the melody but I had no idea how it worked.
WJM: What are you working on now?
Joey: “Overnight Sensation” was my last album and I’m working on a new project and the “Man Behind the Curtain” is in that direction of my new music. It’s going to be “Papa J” and the next record will be a “Papa J” vibe and composition with more of an acoustic vein and vocals as far as the instrumentation is concerned. I have material with songs written in reverse as far as the development. I’ve got demos that I’m beta testing in a live context. As opposed to making a record and presenting it as what we’re going to play on the recording, I’m playing the song live and working out the arrangements and seeing what works and resonates with people in a real context.
WJM: Obviously with “Papa J” we know what the “J” stand for but where does the “Papa” come from?
Joey: I have a grandson and I’m way too young to be “grandpa.” My son and my daughter-in-law asked me if I wanted to be called grandpa? I said, “um, no!” We called my mother’s father “Papa John” and I told them that I wanted to be “Papa J.” That’s been my name with my grandson and now my granddaughter also. So that’s where the “Papa J” comes from.
WJM: So “Papa J” is your alter-ego?
Joey: Yeah. At this point I’ve lived long enough to have accumulated some semblance of wisdom and a track record. I can distill some of what was given to me and I’ve learned over the years. So that’s what “Papa J Sez” is about. It can be found on my Twitter and Instagram account too.
WJM: Expound a bit on that because you describe it as “new music” where you “speak your mind and stir one to take action.” The message may perhaps be a common albeit rarely practiced sentiment but how is the actual music different from the Joey Sommerville we already know and love?
Joey: It’s definitely a departure for me as an artist. I’ve done particularly jazz records for the past fifteen years. I also wrote and produced for other people before that. I really started doing solo records in 2002. I was not performing for a number of years before that. I was just in the studio writing and producing for indie artists.
WJM: Let’s talk more about “Man Behind The Curtain.” I initially found it simply comical that Donald Trump was actually running for president. I'm petrified now that he has actually won. After watching your video I’m absolutely horrified because I believe some of your historical depictions may actually repeat themselves sooner than later.
WJM: That the video has over 100,000 hits on Facebook and over 600 shares. You were unabashed in putting something out there that is so lyrically and thematically powerful and unapologetically blunt. Outside of social media how has the response been because we know that people tend to hide behind the computer?
Joey: It depends on who you’re talking to. It is a very polarizing proposition and it’s interesting now because before the election Facebook pulled it “mysteriously.” I still haven’t received a response from them as to why this video didn’t conform to their “community standards.” The response on Facebook was interesting because the people who agreed with it would just share it. But the Trump supporters were really vile about it. I was deemed a racist and a bigot. I was called everything other than a child of God. It was very vitriolic and very ugly. Most of the comments were not civil.
Joey: Some people had intelligent and interesting points. Some people thanked me for speaking out and some were afraid for me. Others didn’t want to get involved. Then there were some people who that I knew were Trump supporters who didn’t want to be vocal about it. Their response would be a subtle distancing. Interestingly enough there were a couple of Trump supporters who were really rational supporters. They expressed their disagreement with me but had no problem with me saying what was on my mind. Those were the exceptions versus the rule.
Joey: One of the points I was trying to make is at the end of the song with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King in which he says that “we must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” Trump is demonizing and vilifying Muslims and immigrants, and making fun of disabled people. That’s what I was speaking out against. It wasn’t all about Trump. It was about the whole mentality of otherism and how it leads to the things that you see in the video. We see the historical things that happen when people plug into and run down that path. It becomes us and them rather than we’re all in this together which I truly believe. We have much more in common than our differences. We wanted to get the video out and get it in the collective consciousness but it didn’t work out that way.
WJM: Now I question everyone that I walk by. What type of society do we truly live in that a Donald Trump could become POTUS?
Joey: That’s the scary thing about it. There are a lot of people who voted for Trump who are not racist, homophobic, mysogynist or otherwise. They voted for him in spite of, not because of those traits. If you look up the word demagogue and compare it to Donald Trump’s campaign they might as well put his picture above it.
WJM: You’re quoted as saying that “I believe silence is complicity” regarding “The Man Behind The Curtain.” One definition of complicity is the state of being an accomplice in wrongdoing. Why do you think so many people in power who can take a stand, fight back and be so much more effectual in a non-violent way do not? We have a light sprinkling of people along the way but so few. Why?
Joey: I'm not sure but perhaps that it affects their money. I can only speculate that it would be economic fear. We’ve gotten away from an era when people took a stand when it was the right thing to do. There’s been a shift from that of integrity to a celebration of wealth. Money is literally worshipped. There were a fair number of people who did lip service to it but I don’t think that there were that many people that did it from an artistic perspective and used the power of music to say it. That is why I thought it was important to get that music out there. I really don’t know. That’s just my speculation.
Joey: I’ve always made music that was uplifting and positive but this song came to me. I didn’t sit down and say “I’m going to write a political song. “ But since it was given to me I felt compelled to say it. I couldn’t not say it. I would have felt like a coward.
WJM: You also wanted the video to “provoke one’s impulse to question and push back.” There are a lot of prognostications about what’s to come over the next four years now that Donald Trump is our president. Do you think people will ever push back?
Joey: I think we will see much more of that. How do you make lemonade out of lemons? Clearly if you’re a conscious progressive person you see that we’ve been given a truck load of lemons dumped in our driveway. This can become a galvanizing event for progressive people to sound the alarm that they will get involved and do something.
WJM: On your 2011 album “The Get Down Club,” you refer to singers as having the “Get Down Card,” meaning they have the ability to touch people on a very visceral level with their music. “If you aren’t touching the listener’s soul then you aren’t really playing music.” You touch so many souls. Outside of music what touches your soul?
Joey: The one thing that I enjoy outside of music is cars. I like sports cars, auto racing and road racing. I like what I call “motoring” which would be just getting in your car and going up the Pacific Coast Highway to Santa Barbara. I’m not going to do anything. I’m going just for the drive. When I was two years old our house was on the corner of a busy street and I would stand in the front window and name the cars as they drove by. I used to draw cars on the cardboard of the packaging from my dad’s shirts. I also had car magazine subscriptions. I’m not a great golfer but I also play golf.
WJM: You also host and perform at your “Get Down Club” on the Capital Jazz Supercruise. How do you decide who gets a “Get Down Card” to perform on that Supercruise?
Joey: There are a lot of people who are eligible and we curate that very carefully to try to get a balanced line up so we’re not seeing the same artists. We like to spread the love. This year we brought in more established artists. We have two shows a night for three nights. For example we had Vincent Ingala on saxophone and James Lloyd from Pieces of a Dream on keyboard so their styles complement each other. That’s what we look for. There’s a place here in Atlanta called Sambuca and I did a series with a radio station here where we brought in guest artists from all over. That’s how the “Get Down Club” came about because the promoter from the Capital Jazz Festival heard us and really enjoyed it. Now it’s in our fourth year.
WJM: Name something non-material that your music career has afforded you that money can’t buy.
WJM: You might still have joy without your music career.
Joey: Yeah, but not the same kind. I get to have church all of the time and all over the world. I’m playing for and with people from all over the place. For example, I got to play in this place called The Unfinished Church in an old village called San Servera in Majorca. It’s an unfinished cathedral. They have the back wall and the two side walls. It’s an open-ended cathedral with no roof on it. So I got to play there and it was such a transcendental experience. Might I have gotten the chance to go there without music? Maybe. Who knows? But I was able to go and really be immersed in the place and meet wonderful people. I have no complaints about the life I’ve been given.
WJM: You’ve accomplished so much during your career and you also give back through your “How Big is Your Dream Foundation” that provides music education programs to underserved communities. You’re also an active member of The Recording Academy.
Joey: Yes, I’m a support person. I’m on the Board of Directors for that foundation founded by Jorel ’J Fly’ Flynn from Waycross, Georgia. He had it in his heart to be a catalyst for music education for underprivledged kids. He came from a rough and tough background and he wanted kids to have what he didn’t. I signed on early to lend support to a passionate mission that was already underway. One day I was driving down to a radio station and there just happened to be a kid that had come through the HBIYD program. It was so great to see someone that you encouraged and mentored. Now he’s a producer. It was so gratifying to see the back end of it. That makes the grunt work of going here and there and all the intangible worth it. He’s getting paid for his artistic output.
WJM: What would you like to achieve or accomplish that you haven’t?
Joey: The whole Papa J Sez project. I’m very much into that now because it’s a whole new direction for me musically. It's having something in your head , having it come to fruition and have our visions become reality. “The Man Behind The Curtain” was just a thought and then it became an actual song. We worked out the arrangement and all of a sudden we have thousands of people that can actually listen to it and see it. So now I’m looking forward to the rest of the “Papa J Vibe” and taking that whole concept and developing it.
WJM: Will there be a part two to “The Man Behind The Curtain?”
Joey: You know, I thought about that. I wish that he hadn’t won and I could say that the music worked and now it’s not relevant anymore. Unfortunately it is. I’m not trying to be a “political artist." That’s not going to happen. This is the first political song I’ve ever done in my life. It was so obvious and egregious to me that I was compelled to say something. I hope it will provoke other people to speak their artistic minds and use the power of music to get their point across.
WJM: Tell us anything at all that you would like your fans to know that we might not.
Joey: I’m a pretty decent cook when it comes right.down to it. I have a “Get Down Card” when it comes to the grilling. I have a PhD in grilling. Nobody ever leaves my house hungry!
WJM: Thank you for taking time out for the fun conversation!
Joey: This was fun! Take care.
written by Bridgid Brousseau
* pause to watch video*
Woodshed Jazz Magazine
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