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All That Jazz
TIM HUGHES talks to one of the stars of the Oxford Jazz Festival, New Orleans-raised trumpet player Abram Wilson.
AS a classically trained musician, steeped in the musical traditions of New Orleans, Abram Wilson knows how important it is to stay true to the roots of jazz.
So it’s perhaps not surprising that, for his latest project, the virtuoso trumpeter, vocalist and composer is delving into the past – with a body of work that tells the story of an incredible life, while highlighting the best and worst of humanity.
The project is based on the life of Harlem-born mixed-race piano prodigy Philippa Schuyle, inset. And it makes for quite a tale.
Impossibly talented, Philippa was raised as a social experiment – an effort by her liberal, eccentric parents to raise an artistic superchild to help defeat racism.
As an Afro-American artist, born in Arkansas and raised in the Big Easy, it’s a subject close to Abram’s heart, and one he is keen to share.
“Hers is an amazing story,” he says enthusiastically, while taking a break from rehearsing at home in Stockwell, in his adopted South London.
“I definitely admire her, and this is an opportunity for people to understand her life.
“Philippa was born in Harlem in 1931. She was a classical pianist who had played since the age of four and performed since six.
“She travelled the world and played music for kings and queens. But every time she came back to the States there was always the issue of racism. While she was embraced by black audiences she was not accepted by whites at all.
“Eventually she left music and got into journalism. But while reporting from the Vietnam War in 1967, she died in a helicopter crash.”
Abram’s set features specially composed music, which takes the audience through this remarkable, if tragic, tale. He will perform it live at the Oxford Jazz Festival – a week-long celebration of jazz, which is supported by the Oxford Mail.
It’s just the latest departure for an artist determined to push the boundaries of music.
“Music relates to so many things in life,” he says. “And it should tell stories and help us understand and share people’s lives better.”
Something of a gifted child himself, Abram was playing the trumpet by nine and went on to study at the New Orleans Centre for Creative Arts.
At the age of 17 he won a music scholarship to a university in Ohio, where he studied classical trumpet, before earning a Master’s in New York. It was there he started his own band, the Abram Wilson Quintet.
Coming to London 10 years ago, he was signed to the Dune record label, and taught music at a secondary school in Walthamstow.
His trumpet style has earned comparisons to Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis, while his vocals are reminiscent of Sammy Davis Jr and Chet Baker – qualities which have earned him two BBC Jazz Awards.
So what does jazz mean to him?
“Jazz has blues, swing and improvisation,” he says. That’s been the foundation for everyone from Count Basie to Dexter Gordon, Ella Fitzgerald to Sarah Vaughan and Bessie Smith.
“It encompasses a lot of things, from rock to funk and hip-hop, but the essence is all about those same three things. It can be a powerful thing which promotes so many positive aspects and happiness.”
* Abram Wilson plays the Randolph Hotel on April 6.
Tickets are £18.50 (£16.50 concs). Oxford Jazz Festival runs from April 1-7 at venues across the city. For details and tickets go to OxfordJazzFestival.com
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