Jean Toussaint, saxophonist

Who or what inspired you to take up the saxophone, and pursue a career in music?

As a young student, I came into high school with a focus on art as I drew and coloured all
through my early and mid-childhood, but I had always had an inner feeling about music and there were amateur musicians in my immediate family: my father, uncle and grandfather were all accomplished instrumentalists and along with some of their first cousins had a family band when I was a toddler. That said, I had no access to music until I started high school and my best friend at the time took a music class and started to play the saxophone. This exposed me to his attempts at learning to play and practicing, which inspired me to want to have a go myself, not realising at the time that, once I did that, there would be no turning back as I had been bitten by the bug and had stumbled upon the thing that would dominate the rest of my life.

Who or what have been the most significant influences on your musical life and career?

I’ve had many mentors along the way but the stage post ones are as follows. In high school my first teacher Charles Cox set me onto the path of pursuing the double embouchure for the saxophone, a highly unusual and unorthodox approach which I later learned was used to magical effects by the great John Coltrane.

Berklee College of Music followed high school and my most important instrumental and career advancement mentor came into my life, in the persona of William “Billy” Pierce, and set me on a path of becoming a creative improvising musician with a mission to tell emotionally heartfelt stories through the art form known as Jazz. Years later Billy advanced my career by pulling me in to replace him in the legendary Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

This brings me to the person who took everything I had accomplished with music thus far, took it into his magical hands and moulded it, along with the history of this great art form, into a message from the elders. What I learned from the great Art Blakey was conveyed solely through the music, with little to no verbal direction. Art Blakey set me on the world’s stage and supported me like a parent to a child.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

My greatest challenge in life is how to balance making a living and being creative. There are things that we have to do within the profession to maintain a certain standard of living that takes away from our ability to maintain a standard of musical preparedness that would allow us to positively exploit every opportunity that we’re fortunate enough to be graced with.

How would you describe your creative process?

I like being in control of my career so spend most of my time practicing, teaching, composing, arranging, rehearsing, recording, performing, producing and releasing my music.

Where have you performed?

With Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers all over the world. The last 25 years UK, EU, Middle East, Africa, USA.

What are your favourite venues?

All the ones with a well maintained professional acoustic piano, clean dressing rooms and a generous rider, who treat musicians with the respect that they expect and deserve in return.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

One of my main takeaways from my tenure with Art Blakey, along with all the music and exposure, was the importance of passing on the information to others. Through the years, I’ve valued the lessons learned by teaching. Teaching for me is learning. By teaching, my goal is to take the student and myself to a deeper level of understanding the subject. My teaching informs my practice and my performance.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Saxophone: Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Don Byas, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Julian Canonball Aderley, Ornette Coleman, Eddie Lockjaw Davis.

Band leaders: Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Art Blakey, Thelonius Monk, Betty Carter.

Singers: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Nancy Wilson, Frank Sinatra

Piano: Herbie Hancock, Thelonius Monk, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Kenny Kirkland, Mulgrew Miller.

Trumpet: Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Freddy Hubbard, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge.

Bass: Ron Carter, Paul Chambers, Oscar Pettiford, Jimmy Blanton, Ray Brown, Jaco Pastorius, Marcus Miller.

Drums: Art Blakey, Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, Philly Joe Jones, Roy Hanes Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Joe Chambers, Jack DeJohnette, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Brian Blade, Ralph Peterson, Marvin “Smitty” Smith.

Guitar: Wes Montgomery, George Benson Jimmi Hendrix, Grant Green, Kevin Eubanks, Bobby Broom.

Composers: Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Thelonius Monk, Wayne Shorter, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Chopin, Beethoven, Bach, Bartok.

If you could change anything about the music industry, what would it be?

It would be to create a fairer system that rewards creators with more shares and control of their creation, especially the shameful streaming situation in existence. We need to control and benefit more from our hard work.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

My definition of success as a musician is to be able to reach an audience effectively and move them emotionally while also taking them on an intellectual journey. Also, being able to sustain yourself purely with your music. The latter is not possible without the former.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and advice to give to aspiring musicians?

Sing/play to your audience with head, heart and soul and never with anger or contempt. Make it a goal to exude love through music and try to learn as much as you can about the art form, including its history, and make it your mission to find a uniquely individual way to express your own identity through the idiom.

As a musician, what have you learnt from the coronavirus pandemic?

  1. The importance of having savings.
  2. Music and the arts in general are not very valued by politicians, so don’t expect any help.
  3. Use the down time as effectively as possible by staying healthy with regular exercise, practicing, composing and planning projects that will see you hit the ground running whenever some semblance of normalcy returns.

What next? Where would you like to be in 10 years?

Alive, healthy and well, performing my music everywhere.

What would you be doing now, if it wasn’t for your music career?

This is such a hard question to answer because it depends solely on the circumstances and random trajectory of your life. I could only say what I would possibly be doing. Before music, I was on a visual arts journey and I love it so, it’s very likely that, I would’ve continued down that path and see where it led.

What is your most treasured possession?

My health, musical career, my love of communicating through music and the sheer joy of playing music, with or without an audience.

What would your idea of perfect happiness be?

Love, peace and compassion for all living beings including the earth we live on and rely so much on for our lives. And the hope that people will no longer be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

What is your present state of mind?

Hopeful. I follow current events and politics closely and can assess that this pandemic has shed some much-needed attention on the inequalities that exist in society and hope that it’s the beginning of the conversations to come which will hopefully make things better for everyone.

Born in the Caribbean, Jean Toussaint grew up in St Thomas USVI and started playing the saxophone at the Charlotte Amalie High School under the musical tutelage of Charles Cox, who took a special interest in the talented youngster, offering guidance and extra tuition. After high school, Toussaint attended the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston along with future jazz stars Branford Marsalis, Greg Osby, Kevin Eubanks, Jeff Watts, Victor Bailey, Cindy Blackman, Donald Harrison and many others. While at Berklee, Toussaint studied with and was mentored by the great saxophonist/educator Billy Pierce. It was Pierce who recommended Toussaint to replace him in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Relocating to New York, he joined in 1982 and toured and recorded with the band for four years alongside pianists Johnny Oneal, Mulgrew Miller and Donald Brown, trumpeters Terence Blanchard and Wallace Roney, alto saxophonists Donald Harrison and Kenny Garrett, trombonist Tim Williams and bassists Charles Fambrough, Lonnie Plaxico and Peter Washington. With Art Blakey, these young men found themselves in a uniquely enviable position as the band travelled the world playing all the major festivals, clubs and concert halls. While residing in New York and when not on the road with the messengers Toussaint, regularly led the jam sessions at the famous Blue Note Jazz club and, would visit other New York clubs sitting in with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Elvin Jones, Bobby Hutcherson, Freddie Hubbard etc.

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