I met Jon Lampley through his shows with Sammy Miller and the Congregation, a band I have watched grow since its early days of forming an identity, brotherhood and clarity of mission towards joyful jazz musicianship. All these guys seemed to have the grandest smiles and Jon, with his big ole tuba, which I learned to call a sousaphone, was particularly shiny amongst them. I imagine my first time experiencing Jon’s exuberance with Sammy Miller’s band to be at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, a music venue at Jazz at Lincoln Center where many of the younger jazz musicians in town sharpen their tools late in the night when the club allows fresher ideas to have the stage, framed by a nocturnal Central Park. Or perhaps it was catching them at the Woods in south Williamsburg, a kitschy bar that transformed every Sunday with their generous and experimental approach to jazz performance. There were lots of laughs and camaraderie between the members and their growing fan base.
With more joy, Jon and I became friends. He even partook in a photography project of mine while I was working for a fashion tie designer in the Union Square Holiday Market. One of the images we created together, to the right, shows Jon fronting a sanguine mustache tie blowing in the wind somewhere in the sky above Theater Row. Upon contemplating peers of mine who exhibit a strong sense of wonderment and internal momentum, Jon immediately surfaced in mind. After I summoned the courage to ask him to interview alongside what I foresee to be quite a list of incredible humans, he agreed to take a seat as one of my early Whimsicals.
Story of Gathering (in third person)
Rising from her abode in Crown Heights, likely in a flurry, remembering that she had to meet Jon in the city, Natalie makes her way to the A or 4/5 2/3 to travel to the agreed destination for the interview. I imagine she took the 4/5 2/3 since Natalie is a sucker for her matcha lattes at a cafe called Little Zelda, and no matter how much travel time she has allotted, there is always time to grab this golden green elixir. After a pit stop at Zelda, she traverses the grid underground to Gregory’s on 8th Ave and claims a cozy corner table for a conversation to be. She impressively arrives, although few minutes behind, earlier than Jon, which gives her a moment to compose herself, her bags and her interview persona. Then, computer out for notes and phone ready to record if Jon gives permission, she awaits for Jon to walk in from his morning activities. Boxing? He arrives, grabs his coffee of choice and settles in. With a nod, Natalie presses record (as she’s learning this might be more helpful than just the scribbles of attention that strive for verbatim). She then invites Jon to begin at the beginning of his relationship with music . . . “I know you play the sousaphone and trumpet, but I don’t know why you chose those instruments or when or what your childhood was like.” He colors in his history and then they finish with the discovery that they are neighbors and could have slept in and met closer to home. Next time. Oh next time.
A Portrait of a Musician
What I have gathered is the story of an impeccably positive person on a trajectory towards uplifting music that has been in motion since Jon was a youngster. From learning the piano at the age of four to playing weekly with Jon Batiste on The Late Show, touring and recording with OAR, and maintaining his own band, the Huntertones, as a trumpet and tuba player, Jon has made a life of music and inspiration.
His mother ignited the practice before Jon made it to grade school by enrolling him in classical piano lessons. This was only natural considering her whole family always sang or played instruments, most of whom would share their talents in the gospel every Sunday at the church where Jon would later grow up to play by ear with his trumpet. The habit of playing the trumpet in church would follow him through college. The “soulful, uplifting, powerful music” of the black Pentecostal Church his family attended has stayed with him through the years.
Jon grew up in Tallmadge, a small suburb of Akron, Ohio. One of his earliest passions was traveling with his dad on game weekends to Columbus, Ohio to partake in the football culture and watch the 225 member, all brass and percussion marching band of Ohio State, which for him would become an obsession and aspiration. During these trips, little Jon first witnessed the Buckeye marching band display “Script Ohio,” an iconic formation where the band transforms into an inky pen spelling out “Ohio” in cursive across the entirety of the field. Each game, one of the senior sousaphone players makes a crazy strut to the top of the ‘i’ to complete the formation. Already by this time, as a mere second grader, Jon had his eye on “dotting the i” one day.
In the trajectory towards this first dream, Jon entered band at school when he was ten. “Trumpet sounds good, feels good.” That was the beginning of his journey with brass.
Fifth grade through middle school, Jon played the trumpet in band without outside private instruction. “My musical existence was church by ear and school band.” In seventh grade he learned how to play concert tuba, which put him one step closer to dotting that “i”. He then carried the tuba into high school marching band, reserving the trumpet for jazz band and church. By eighth grade, he stopped taking formal piano lessons and mostly played when he found a song he liked, whether from church or some Ben Folds record. His serious training was put into the trumpet and tuba.
When it came time for college, he felt this unconscious pressure to go to school to be a lawyer or doctor. He had good grades and could make any life for himself he chose. “The only person to encourage a musical life was my high school band director, the only one.” Jon’s singular application was sent out to Ohio State where he spent his first year studying Psychology and Pre-Med while marching in the band he had set his eyes on since he was six or seven. “The first year was incredible. We marched in President Obama’s first inaugural parade in DC.” That initial year, he lived in arts housing, which drew him closer to the question of what he really wanted to do in life. “I feel like i’m not studying what my ultimate purpose is,” Jon found himself saying. He knew deep down that he wanted to make music his life. “It is hard when your family is trying to talk you out of it,” he tells me, but he had faith enough in what he loved to apply for the music program, which was an entirely separate endeavor from the marching band.
Behind in music theory, Jon’s second year at Ohio State was spent playing catch up as Music Major. His trumpet had only come out for church once a week and the tuba was strictly played in marching band. And until this time, “65 to 70 percent” of his playing was by ear. While playing catch up, Jon found his second wind of inspiration. Two musicians on campus caught his attention: Dan White, an RA in his building whom he met in first year, and a fellow musician named Chris Ott. “They were amazing musicians trying to do stuff . . . write things and do stuff other than just just get a degree.”
Jon’s first chance to play with Dan and Chris came when he was placed in the Art Blankey Combo group, a music group in the School of Music. Soon enough, Jon entered their friend circle and the three of them started playing music together. The band was the Dan White Sextet. Dan wrote the music in the first year. Chris and Jon began contributing tunes in the second year. As the group began to grow a following, they recorded three projects together as a band.
Jon continued marching band while pursuing his Music Degree. When he made it to his senior year as a Buckeye, he finally got his chance to dot the ‘i’ at halftime . . . twice. That’s a satisfying dream come true.
Returning to the dynamic trio behind the Dan White Sextet . . . Chris graduated from Ohio State first, attending grad school. Dan graduated the following year, becoming a middle school band teacher while performing and composing for Ohio shows. When Jon graduated, the three of them moved in together for six or seven months into a house in Columbus. Eventually, each came to the separate conclusion that there was necessity to leave Ohio in order to make a grander life of music. “New York was the move we all wanted to make.” Upon moving to the Big Apple, the band realized they could use a name change, an accessible brand reflecting the dynamics of what had become the shared responsibilities of composing, booking, promoting, and logistics. Hunter Avenue sparked inspiration, the location of the house each lived in during their college days. “This is where the band cut its teeth, grew its following. That house has a lot of meaning.” And thus they became the Huntertones, recording two albums under the new name, touring internationally through the US State Department and maintaining a New York City presence.
Going back in time, as a Junior in college, Jon’s name was getting out as a young trumpet player through his gigs with Dan White. That’s when the call came from an OAR saxophonist. OAR wanted to add a horn section. Would Jon like to play some shows for them? “A call from a band that has sold out Madison Square Garden numerous times . . . totally!” The first stint with OAR was a month and a half summer tour. “It was fun and amazing, but I didn’t know if it was going to lead to staying with them.” Fast forward to now, Jon has played with OAR for six years and has recorded on two or three of their albums. “They are like family to me now.”
Playing with OAR opened career doors for Jon that allowed him a little grease during his early days gigging in New York. Since then, Jon has toured with Red Boraat, a party brass band with Indian, hiphop and go-go music reflections. Two years were spent touring with Allen Stone, who Jon says has a “soulful voice of an angel.” A year into moving into New York City, Jon began playing with jazz percussionist Sammy Miller. Through Sammy and the Juilliard scene, he was introduced to Jon Baptiste of Stay Human. That his how he began playing with the housebound of the Late Show.
If we slow the picture down, one sees Jon saying “yes” to every gig upon moving to New York City. He played with OAR only two months of the year. The Huntertones were just trying to make their way, pay rent and make connections. Then, the Huntertones became busier and more lucrative. His responsibilities with OAR grew. He began singing with the band and contributing parts. His time was becoming an entity to balance and manage among the influx of desirable music invitations. When Jon Batiste asked him to play on The Late Show, he felt he had to take advantage of the the opportunity, especially as a New York musician.
Zooming to the current moment, Jon is now balancing his time between the Huntertones, OAR and The Late Show. “Everything else is if I have time or if I have the mental capacity to do it.” If he’s randomly available between gigs with his three main squeezes, he likes to join in with Sammy and other beloved bands. “Part of me is bummed about that, because I love playing in those settings.” However, he finds himself happy with the musicianship, responsibilities and bands that compose his sphere of musical existence.
The essence of family and levitation is a pervasive theme amongst Jon’s bands. The Huntertones, a band brought together by a shared Jazz tradition, takes the lens of their personal or communal narratives to digest gospel, country, 80’s rock and so on. “It’s the story of a bunch of guys that have been friends for a long time. It’s about relationship. It’s not just about showing up and playing music. That vibe is conveyed.” The warm reception audiences in Africa, South America, and Eastern Europe have given the Huntertones encourages Jon to write more in the coming years and maintain his dedication to a band that he has been with since its early days.
With Stay Human on The Late Show, Jon plays to a theater of 300 to 400 people and a televised audience of three million people a night. “The vibe of that band is so energetic. Incredible musicianship. Jon Lampley on Jon Batiste says that, “Jon is the most interesting person you’ve ever met! Jon’s whole thing is uplifting people with music. The core of Stay Human is similar. They have been playing together for almost ten years. I was absorbed into that family. To feel that chemistry is a really special thing.” Watching all the guests Steven Colbert interviews on the show while playing in the house band is a pleasure, he tells me, but the real joy is playing with all the musical guests. Having the chance to jam with extraordinaries like Stevie Wonder, Punch Brothers, Chris Thealy, Yo-Yo Ma and Furgie makes his job that much more incredible.
When referring to OAR, Jon talks about a family that has been around for a long time. The twentieth anniversary is approaching of what started as eight graders in a basement. Jon is thankful to be a member for six of those years. “To get to go on tour and play in front of thousands of fans each night and to do it with good people, I feel fortunate to feel like my commitments are not to just go out and make money. What I’m paid to do is awesome. But, I enjoy playing with good people. The crowds reflect the honesty of the guys putting out the music.”
The personal ambition and the group mission aligns for each band Jon has taken root. “My goal is to move people. The goal of the band is to move people. All the music that is being played comes from an honest place. The music is never just about technical virtuosity. If you put good stuff out there. If you put time into your craft. Once you put it out there. People will listen. I feel fortunate to be a part of that kind of situation.”
And the situation is one to navigate. “My brain is always in a different place.” Though, he recognizes the beautiful affordance he has to play with the musicians and bands he wants whenever he is in town, as well as the flexibility to fluidly tour without losing connections. Sacrifice may be more of mind than music, and more of personal relations than personal exploration. “My life is essentially not conducive to being unselfish.” It isn’t easy to be the partner one would like while maintaining the heavy schedule of a sought after musician. “I was in a really long relationship with a lady from college. It was amazing.” Like many ladies fated to fall for musicians, I have compassion to those dating someone with music in their heart and the talent and drive to see it through. I also have compassion for the the necessity of an artist to continue one’s trajectory while maintaining positivity, something Jon does well despite the confrontation of a heavy work load and lifestyle choices.
Whether you define yourself as artist or not, balancing professional and personal endeavors can be difficult. It can and most of the time just plainly is. Life is an accumulation of choices. Forks in the roads are part of the package. Yet, each choice gives way to the possibility of a grander fulfillment of authenticity. Grand or subtle in nature, the dedication to one’s work has its own return, giving heartfelt perspective to each hardship and transformative milestone.
Jon approaches hardship and celebration alike with a carriage of optimism, a buoyancy he credits to his parents. “I’ve been a positive person since childhood. My Mom was always positive. My parents lead by example. I naturally wanted to be that.” His story is one of “hard work meeting opportunity,” Jon says, having spent hours practicing and putting in the time to be where he is at this stage in his life. Between the hard work and good fortune is an incredibly considerate mindset fueling his momentum. “The whole point of being here is to make other people’s situation better. Pursue! Live your dream, but for the sake of uplifting the lives of people around you. Your longest impact is on the people and generations after you, the people around you.” With an attitude like this, he sounds of such heart. Plus, he has surrounded himself with other positive and producing individuals in the process.
Jon admits, too, that his life can be distressing. “It is overwhelming. I’m going to move where I don’t know anybody and make it as a musician. Woah! If you can approach everything with a positive outlook, it helps the actual situation immediately. I’m of the mindset, ‘How can this turn out to be the best possible thing?’” The stamina of a beaming perspective is something to glean from Jon when the road holds such uncertainty or difficulty. When one goes from saying “yes” to any and every gig to becoming a regular on The Late Show, surely there is something to it.
“If one hundred percent of the time you have a positive outlook on the situation, good or bad, it is going to get better and turn into something that helps you grow instead of just something that is going to make you jaded.” It’s a pitfall, especially for artists, to let disappointment or limited vision for the future steal away one’s heart and thunder. Watching individuals like Jon, so strong in their joyful persistence, shining through and through, is a vibrant reminder that positivity and a great commitment goes a long way. “There will be amazing moments and not so amazing moments. The only thing you control is your spin on those things.”
To be in the audience of a Jon Lampley performance is to witness a zeal and certitude for all of life. He takes on the waves of every situation and creates encompassing presence. This is just a fraction of what makes him so whimsical and joyful to be around.
And now . . . on to smaller bites and themes with Jon Lampley.
POLITICS not so usual
Most the music Jon has written to date for the Huntertones has been instrumental. The music is charged with life experience rather than political agenda. The political climate, however, does give one a lot to think about. “Almost now, more than ever, people feel like they need to make a statement, bring to light what is happening, what people need to know, make a stance. Lots of artists pursue that route. What I feel now more than ever is a sense of putting uplifting music into the world.” Jon uses his music to elevate the spirits of the audience and his band mates. “People are in a dark place,” he says.“It is not my job to write songs that call out how bad he is,” referring to our new president, “or trying to make people angry. And it’s not just Trump. We are in a world where people are divided. There is tax, religion, animosity, groups of people against other groups of people.” He finds it is more important now, than before the election, to put his audience into a state of positivity. Which, brings us to his most recent composition.
Jon may not have the intention of infusing his work with specific political undertones, but his recent score for the Huntertones is an act for social betterment. “Hope,” a song that played for the first time the night of this interview, is a work confronting the darkness of the world today with lightness of approach. It’s his sense of positivity again. “We have the ability to continue to make our own lives better and other lives better. It’ll be okay. We can still be decent human beings. As an artist, my responsibility is to continue to do and not let the darkness discourage, to put on my best performance for people in any setting.”
KISS COULD MAKE A DIFFERENCE
People kiss. Obviously romantically. That is how we express that towards each other. Sometimes a kiss on the cheek makes your day.
Jon’s reflection on affection is deeply influenced by his travels over seas.
“In South America people hug all the time. It isn’t weird to give a really deep hug. People look at your face. It’s the same in Africa.” He shares his observations of friends expressing their happiness to see one another again. “The sentiment ‘I love you as a friend’ invites a feeling of welcomeness.” Here at home, he finds that such intimacy is not so warmly embraced. “There is a sense of it not being cool. I wish we would drop it.” There is an essence of familial ties among friendships that has inspired Jon and leaves me further wishing for a more intimate America.
Jon didn’t experience a lot of vocal expression of love with his father. “I love you Dad.” “I love you Son.” The sense of love between them was an unspoken form of affection. He noticed that some of his friends had more expressive relationships with their fathers. Jon never found himself jealous of his peers, though, figuring that their way of loving one another was different.
We live in a culture where it isn’t so overtly normal for father’s to kiss their sons, Jon tells me. “It shouldn’t be taboo to display that form of affection.” There is the hope that it would grow to be more widely accepted. Although, he muses, it may just be an individual preference.
We both agree that social media is an outlet for nearly everything, even expressing feelings towards friends. Jon appreciations the shout outs friends give on Facebook or other social sites these days. However, striving to connect with people in real life situations is important. Social media should not be the sole staple of communication.
FEMALE ROLE MODEL
I asked Jon about strong women in his life. This is a transcription of thoughts on his mother.
"My mom is the strongest woman I know in every aspect of her life. She couldn’t have a kid. She adopted. She was the best mom to me that any mom could be to anyone. She set an example. She taught for 38 years. Passionate about all she did. She taught every one of her students to be the most successful kid in the world. Every class was like that. She’s a breast cancer survivor. Diagnosed in high school. She continued to teach. Went to basketball games. When dad got sick, for three years she was essentially taking care of him before he passed away. To watch her deal with that and keep her sanity and faith. To continue to be a positive person. Even now, even life after dad, she remains positive and busy. She is retired. She treats people with so much love. She is the ultimate example of a human being. She’s the best woman."
Jon’s examples of how to be a man in relation to women came from observing his father and Mother’s brothers. His dad, he mentions, didn’t have a lot of people skills and could be rough at times, but was always very respectful. “We never had to worry about anything.” Jon then goes on to express his great appreciation for his past girlfriend of five years, a strong individual with feminist beliefs. She introduced him to a deeper understanding of sexism. “It opened my eyes. I was always respectful in a basic sense, but the sexist situation is similar to racism. It’s basic respect that everyone should be cognizant of.”
I don’t think I do. I was at Prospect Park the other day. There were swans on the water. That was cool. I love hiking, but honestly that is only a development in the last two or three of years. I didn’t really grow up into discovering or appreciating nature. I’m getting more into that now, which I think is really nice. But because of that, I don’t think I have a favorite.
Probably the Buckeye tree, only because it is representative of Ohio State, The Buckeyes, where I went to school. The mascot is the Buckeye Nut. It’s a poisonous nut, but it is a tree that grows in Ohio. That or my mom has this tree, a cherry blossom tree, in our front yard. Every spring it explodes. It’s beautiful. Whenever I go home to Tawnage, that’s the first thing you can see from the front yard, this big beautiful tree.
DO YOU HAVE A POSTAGE PRACTICE?
Man! No! But I want to get into it because when you get a handwritten note its the best thing ever. This past year on some of my trips I wrote a couple postcards to people and it was cool. I want to get into a habit of doing that because it’s a token people really appreciate . . . just for Christmas or just randomly to send people cards to say “Hey man, I’m thinking of you.” When I’ve gotten a card like that, it is way more impactful than an email or “thank you” text.
I love fiction. It’s my favorite. Right now I’m reading Mericami’s “Kafka On The Shore.” I’m into compelling stories, biographies. They are powerful. I enjoy reading really engaging stories that are relatable, realistic. I love Harry Potter, all that kind of stuff, it’s awesome, but to read something where the author is creating a realistic situation that is relatable makes you think about the human situation. Historical fiction, too. I read “All the Light We Cannot See,” a WW2 story. It’s beautiful.
AWAY FROM MUSIC
I’m really into fitness. Running, Boxing, circuit weight training. Not necessarily just going to gym and lifting, but mixing it up. Always having a workout be something that is keeping me in shape that is engaging and competitive for myself as well. That is one of the biggest things to counter balance music life is staying in shape, having something i’m focused and passionated about, but also betters my physical state that’s not music. Keeps you from going crazy.
Random musical things like valve oil for a trumpet that I always need never have.
Some sort of meal because I’m always on the go. I find here in New York I end up just stopping places and buying food. If I had a tote, I could make food and carry it around. Headphones, a book, and workout shoes and clothes.
MUSIC BEYOND YOUR OWN
When Jon isn’t rehearsing, performing or touring for his bands, he listens to music like Snarky Puppy, which he says he’s been a fan of since college, long before their rise to international acclaim. His pop culture guilty pleasure of the moment is the new Bruno Mars album. As far as New York City is concerned, he loves Pitch Black Brass Band. One of his favorite concerts he ever attended featured Roots, Jon Mayer, and Deangelo. Jon Mayer and Deangelo are two of his musical influences. Voodoo is the album he has listened to most out of everything. When he has time to see shows in New York, he finds himself at Rockwood Music hall. There are shows everyday of the week, featuring different bands. “I’ll show up every once in awhile and get surprised.” Of late, though, he has been listening a lot to Emily King, a singer song writer. But most of the time, when he has a moment to decompress, he finds repose outside of music with friends or something physical.
And that concludes this portrait of Jon Lampley. Cue in to The Late Show or catch his tour schedule to witness the gusto and candor of this musical man.