Trumpeter Mario Abney explodes off the screen in the HBO series “Treme” about post-Katrina New Orleans (his adopted hometown) — all 5-foot-2 of him, fiery riffs flying from his horn.
And he has two chances to do the same on Saturday at the Freihofer’s Jazz Festival at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, playing both in the gazebo and on the main stage.
Touted in the festival’s New Artist Spotlight, and with his debut album “Spiritual Perception” due for release soon, Abney seems poised for stardom he’s worked since childhood to achieve. But he got his part in “Treme” literally from playing on the streets of New Orleans because he had no gigs.
Before he became briefly homeless there, he was unhappily divorced, and his mother and staunchest supporter had died. Before his car was repossessed and his quintet disbanded for a time, he backed it over his trumpet and flugelhorn, going to a gig.
“Crunch, crunch — my horns were DONE!” he exclaimed over the phone two Saturdays ago, his voice raspy as he awoke midmorning after playing way late, leading the Abney Effect at the Maison Bourbon (formerly Ray’s Boom Boom Room) in New Orleans.
Abney may have been born to play there, but he grew up in the Chicago suburbs and studied music in Ohio on a marching-band scholarship.
The Abney effect
“It’s a jazz, blues, hip-hop, neo-soul, house, fusion crossover band,” he said of the Abney Effect — one of three bands he leads — and he played a new trumpet with them. “Wynton Marsalis helped me get this trumpet that I got, this Zeus Olympus,” said Abney, adding that his mother gave him his first professional trumpet (a Courtois, which he had repaired and still plays) for Christmas, 1999.
His mother played violin at home in Harvey, Ill.; his uncle Arthur played piano, sax and trumpet and showed Abney jazz chords; and his grandmother played blues records and financed his piano lessons, starting at age 7. But growing up in the church and school band programs really launched Abney’s musical education. “I’d be in a row of about six little boys, sitting in the front row, in front of the drums,” he said. “We’d tear up the fans that the funeral homes would give to the church and make drumsticks to play air drums.”
When he heard his middle school jazz band playing “That Old Black Magic,” he joined the band, first on French horn but switching to trumpet in high school, inspired by band director Phil Cruise. “He put a fire under all the musicians who came up under him, because of the passion he put into the teaching of music,” said Abney, citing grads who play with Mulgrew Miller and Wynton Marsalis.
Abney also took his trumpet to church. “The pastor let me play before I could really get control of the horn,” he said. “People would say, ‘Pastor, you sure you want him to play all over the service?’ But Pastor White always believed in me and let me play. Gospel music is so close to the blues and so close to jazz.” Having to play by ear sharpened his sense of melody. “It helped me create my own way of phrasing and my own way of hearing things to lock in with what was going on.”
Abney started playing in high school band competitions where “Cats came in ready for battle — imagine all these 16-year-olds, all finding their identity at one time with music!” — and in jazz clubs. “My mother would drive me and my best friend down to the Velvet Lounge in Chicago because I was too young to get in,” he said. Run by saxophonist Fred Anderson, a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the Velvet Lounge hosted jam sessions in an atmosphere Abney affectionately described: a large black-velvet nude portrait of a black woman, a long bar, a chandelier.
He began to connect the dots among different styles of music and learn from the masters, Wynton Marsalis and Louis Armstrong, Freddie Hubbard and Miles Davis.
Playing in Orville Davis’ Serious Young Musicians taught Abney professionalism — the band of young players wore suits and ties, but practiced in a barn.
And at Central State College, a historic black college in Ohio famed for its marching band, he learned dedication and the groove. “This is where I found the real test of music for me,” he said, “whether I was really going to be serious.” He’d come from a strict and challenging program where the “music came first,” but found himself in a flashy, high-stepping marching band “where it was all about the show.”
“It locked the rhythm into my soul that much more,” he said.
Abney began leading his own bands after graduation, moving his quintet to New Orleans and becoming responsible for both his band and his young family: wife, son and daughter.
But the marriage soon broke up over disputes about his career. “My wife left with the kids: ‘Am I going to go for it?’ ” Abney asked himself, realizing, “This was my chance.”
He turned down a teaching job and fell behind with child support, struggling with his career and life direction and troubled by his wife’s rejection of his musical dreams. “When her people saw us struggling, they said I was not doing God’s will,” Abney lamented, though he affirmed, “God put music in my heart and told me to make music, so I’m leading a faith-based life.”
This concept took on new power when Abney met his father, just 10 years ago, and siblings he’d never known. His newfound brother Reuben told him, “When God created mankind, God thought to express himself, so mankind is an expression of God’s thought.”
This inspired Abney. “My music is an expression of God’s thought, and when I can remove self and I’m just thinking about the music, the music is so much beyond us that God comes through the music regardless of us trying to manifest Him to come through or not, because the talent is so much beyond us.”
This realization, and a Biblical passage from “Corinthians,” shaped Abney’s album “Spiritual Perception.” Abney explained: “Paul was talking about how each man must work out his own soul salvation.”
Just as his brother Reuben’s words inspired his vision, Abney’s mother, Ora, inspired his dedication with some of her last words to him — in a rare call at a troubled time when either or both of them was likely to have phone service cut off for failing to pay the bills. “A few days before my mother died, I was getting frustrated down here,” he said.
“I had had some success, but it got hard,” he said, citing his divorce, homelessness, the repossession of his car and the breakup of his band.
Just as she persuaded him not to quit band in middle school over disputes with his director, and later advised him to enroll in Central State in Ohio while all his friends went to Illinois schools, Ora appealed to both his pride and sense of responsibility to encourage him to continue.
“I just started seeing it as beautiful, regardless if this [career move] happens or that happens,” Abney said. “Music is something that heals people and helps people. . . . Now I’m on fire and trying as hard as I can.”
Abney explained how thankful he was to his mother, for piano lessons, paying for his private elementary school, driving him home from school and to Chicago jam sessions. He spoke of her crying as he boarded the train back to New Orleans from Chicago after what neither knew would be their last visit. “I’m just crying because I’m so proud of you,” she said, after seeing him shine in a Velvet Lounge jam session.
“I wrote a song for her, ‘Ora, Sweet Ora,’ and we’re going to play it at the [Freihofer’s Jazz] festival,” Abney said.
Abney seems to honor her spirit whenever or wherever he plays. “I feel I was being obedient to playing music,” he said, “and playing on the street when I didn’t have a gig.”
Leading to other things
Playing on the street in Chicago, he noted, led to an interview on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and that playing on the street in New Orleans with clarinetist Doreen Kitchen led to his playing on the HBO series “Treme.”
“The more humble you are about whatever situation you get, if your heart is in it, that’s all that matters; because God makes the rest of it happen, even if it is not what you expect,” he said.
The Mario Abney Quintet, plus one — Abney, trumpet; clarinetist Kaliq Woods, alto saxophonist Josh Atkin, bassist Jessy Morrow, pianist Jason Butler and drummer Julian Addison — performs on Saturday on both the gazebo stage and the main stage at the Freihofer’s Jazz Festival on Saturday.
Click here to see Tim Coakley’s comprehensive preview and details on the other performers and on tickets.
Reach Gazette Columnist Michael Hochanadel at [email protected]
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Categories: Life and Arts