Keyon Harrold, Trumpet Player from Ferguson, Returns to St. Louis for LouFest

 In Culture, Interviews

You may recognize internationally acclaimed trumpeter, songwriter, producer and vocalist Keyon Harrold—born and raised in Ferguson, Missouri—from his collaborations with some of the most-powerful players in contemporary music, including Beyonce, Jay-Z, Common, 50 Cent, Mary J. Blige, Mac Miller, Rihanna, Eminem and more. You may also have seen him as part of Common’s Tiny Desk Concert at the White House, where Harrold played alongside an equally esteemed lineup of musicians at the nation’s capital. And yet another massive addition to Harrold’s resumé came when he was tapped for involvement in Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis biopic, Miles Ahead, in which Harrold played Davis’ trumpet parts, one of his real-life icons.

Growing up in Ferguson as one of 16 children, Harrold originally picked up music at the behest of his grandfather, who implored all of his grandchildren to play. Harrold, who was six years old at the time, remembers the magic of playing as something came over him. Around age 10, he started playing the trumpet, maniacally practicing 10-11 hours a day. When asked how and why he became so committed so quickly, Harrold says, “It’s hard to say. There was a yearning, an inner calling that said, ‘You need to do this.’” Largely self-taught, Harrold remembers listening to records and trying to transcribe the notes he heard. “It was like a manifest-destiny kind of thing,” he says, pay reverence to St. Louis’ strong history of jazz and the many great trumpet players who developed here: Clark Terry, Shorty Baker, Miles Davis, Russell Gunn, Lester Bowie.

Keep reading for our conversation with Harrold, and see him play live at this year’s LouFest Music Festival in Forest Park.

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What was it like to play at the White House, and how did you originally get connected to Common?
It was amazing. It was the only time I’d ever set foot in the White House, and Obama was president at that time. And Common and I actually go way back—almost 20 years now. After high school, I moved to New York right away when I was 18 to attend the Mannes School of Music, the conservatory at The New School. My class had some amazing musicians, and we were all friends. Common had just put out an album at that point and was auditioning trumpet players. I auditioned, and we’ve been playing together off and on ever since.

You’ve developed such an incredible career as a musician. Coming from Ferguson, what was it like to pursue a music career in New York?
The whole thing has been a slow, steady process of never settling and always wanting to grow as an artist. And the irony is that when I first moved to New York City—from Ferguson to the Upper West Side—I was like a fish out of water. But I also wasn’t getting profiled or carded by the police. I could walk down the street all day long, and nobody would ask what I was doing or where I was going. I didn’t even realize that what I was living in back home is not the way the world was supposed to work; that police weren’t supposed to treat me that way. It was completely different. That was a really eye-opening experience; the world is so big.

Do you still go back to Ferguson?
I do. I try to make it to St. Louis as often as I can. My dad still lives in Ferguson, and my mom is in North County. My siblings have ended up all over the map. I have a few on the east coast and Nashville.

Who were some of the artists and musicians who inspired you early in your career?
There are many. One is Richard Henderson, who founded Crusaders For Jazz in St. Louis. Josephine Lockhart, and Barbara Rose, who co-ran Jazz at the Bistro. All of those people, and many more, were instrumental in my growth coming up as a jazz musician, allowing me to perform, getting gigs or seeing the legends play. Richard gave me records I couldn’t afford at the time. I also always looked up to Winston Marsalis, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown.

Your latest solo album, “The Mugician,” dropped last year in September. It has such depth and variety, with longer stream-of-consciousness tracks like “Wayfaring Traveler” and hard-hitting, socially conscious songs like “When Will It Stop?” Tell me about the album and your inspiration.
The whole thing is really a personal statement for me, from beginning to end. The first track begins with my mother talking; she’s my heroine. She leaves everyone voicemails, and I had to put music to this particular one she left me. And when I hear her voice as I go out on stage, it takes me to another level. She raised us so well, as strong people who love others. She’s a very special person.

The death of Michael Brown was so polarizing all over the world, and no one really had any idea about Ferguson before it happened. But now people all over the world know. Whenever I say where I’m from, they know exactly what that means. The whole thing had to be spoken about. I could imagine one of my loved ones being shot and killed by the police.

I also wrote the song “Circus Show” with Andrea Pizziconi about the current political environment in the U.S. It’s so unbelievable and rocky, you never know what’s going on. It’s somersaulting, and the whole spectacle of it reminded us of a circus show. We wrote the song pre-election, and what’s going on now is even more unpredictable and unrealistic. The politics of a nation.

There are also uplifting songs, like “Stay This Way,” which is about having a perfect memory of someone that can never get better or worse. It’s that moment you encapsulate in your mind of a soul mate. We all go through relationships, and there are ups and downs, but sometimes there’s that moment where you think, ‘If you just stay this way, it’ll be ok.’ And the last song on the album is dedicated to my son, and his journey in life. He’s the most amazing, happy-go-lucky guy.

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Photo credit: Jarek Wierzbicki

You’ve toured with and collaborated with some of the biggest names in music, which to most of us is the incredibly elite, protected space. What is that experience like?
It is very protected. But they’re still regular people—they just happen to be famous. But all of them I’ve worked with, from Jay-Z to Common to Mac Miller, they’re all regular, good, hard-working people. And they work even harder now that they’re successful.

We also have to talk about working with Don Cheadle on the biopic about one of your real-life inspirations, Miles Davis, and your involvement. The soundtrack won a Grammy Award for Best Compilation Soundtrack last year. What was it like to work on that project?
It was a fantastic experience. I have to give a shout out to Robert Glasper, the film’s composer. Both Robert and Don Cheadle felt strongly that I was the person who could deliver the performance they needed, and entrusted me with that. It was a pretty complicated endeavor; I was looking at the screen while Don Cheadle played and had to match my trumpet notes to his fingers. It had to be 100% correct in order to look real. I took great pride in making sure it was perfect. It definitely took a lot of trial and error.

The title for my album, “The Mugician,” actually came about when Don Cheadle and I were at the South by Southwest for the film, and we were talking about the process of bringing the music to life, about how magical the experience was. It became a mix of magician and musician: mugician. It was perfect.

You’ll be playing at LouFest early next month. How are you feeling about coming home for this festival?
I’m so, so looking forward to playing. I’m from The Lou, and I’m proud. Almost everyone in my band is from St. Louis, and we’re really going to rock it out. People will feel the music, the love, the inspiration. We’re so excited to show the city the export that it has, and to bring it home. I’m super excited.

All images courtesy of Keyon Harrold.

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