Keyon Harrold: ‘Art is meant to make people uncomfortable with realness’

Every jazz player in the world has studied Miles Davis, transcribing solos, studying arrangements and phrases, in their quest to master their instrument – but how many can claim to have actually got into the Man with the Horn’s shoes (or rather, horn) and try to play like he would? Rising jazz superstar Keyon Harrold did just that, as part of working for Miles Ahead, the controversial biopic directed by and starring Don Cheadle, gaining the nickname ‘Mugician’ (more on that later). Still, there is much more to Keyon Harrold than that – having cut his teeth performing along some of the leading contemporary urban music artists of our time, he has developed a distinct sound and a voice of his own – and he’s coming to Melbourne to showcase it.

What are you going to present at Bird’s Basement?

I am going to present the music of my album, The Mugician; a work born of heart and soul, and of family and love. It is jazz but not only jazz. It is hip hop and rock, but not just that. It is a cacophony of vibes that span soul music. On keys I have Shedrick Mitchell, on bass I have Dominque Sanders, on guitar I have Nir Felder, and on drums I have my Blood Brother, same mother and father, Emanuel Harrold.

What does it mean, being a ‘mugician’?

Being a Mugician is being a magician of music, coined by the amazing actor and also the director of the Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle. He nicknamed me, calling my roll in the film nothing short of magical.

To me, the word ‘Mugician’ has taken on a deeper meaning. I feel like my band and I are shamans of sound; raising the listener’s spirit and vibrations.

You are one of the leading representatives of a new generation of jazz artists, who are incorporating r’n’b and hip-hop elements into their music, along with cinematic soundscapes and other influences; how would you describe your approach to music-making?

I am a musical sponge! I love dense harmonic soundscapes and I love melody no differently. So, I steal elements of what I have listened to; my musical DNA… Dilla, Duke Ellington, Imogen Heap, Steve Aoki, Nas, Mahler, to Miles, Coltrane and Clifford Brown. I stitch new sonic quilts from my musical journey.

How has your experience working with artists like Common been?

Working/ collaborating with artists like Common, Nas, D’Angelo, Cirque Du Soleil, Erykah Badu, PJ Morton, Robert Glasper, Georgia Ann Mouldrow, and Pharoahe Monch is always inspiring because for me it has always been good energy, creative vibes and a seemingly never-ending innovative trek they all are on. It keeps the world vibrating. I have decided to take that train artistically as well!

Your music is what I would describe as ‘jazz for the #blacklivesmatter era’; do you agree?

My music is Jazz for social consciousness, it is music for #blackLivesmatter but not only that. It is music for white, brown, yellow, and purple lives too. I want my music to stir people of all races, creed, age, orientations… to be an empathic elixir to life.

What is your take on the role of art – and jazz in particular – in the current political context?

The role of art is to educate. To cast a light where darkness is. Art is meant to make people uncomfortable with realness at times, and I use my artistry at times in that very way. Through convictions and truth, music can give a voice to [those] marginalized. Jazz/music can just as easily show that our differences are what makes us beautiful and strong.

Music is my voice! And it is powerful in that I can serve as a conduit to denounce and call out hate, racism, bigotry and homophobia; all of which is used as divisive tactics. In the end, despite our differences, we are one people.

You have written one of the – very few – songs to address the refugee crisis; what urged you to do it?

I wrote a song called ‘Running – Refugee Song’ that features the amazing Gregory Porter and Common as a way to shed light on the refugee issue. The content of this song will always be relevant because there is always a situation of refugees in the world. My heart is one that can see how others may be feeling. After seeing images of people washed ashore, I was moved to compose ‘the Refugee Song’.

Who are your heroes?

My heroes are many! The first and foremost or my mother, who now watches over me and my father. They taught me humanity; to love.

Quincy Jones, Basquiat, the Beatles, Nelson Mandela, Mozart and Hugh Masekela, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and Barak Obama, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, the Bee Gees, Albert Einstein, Roy Hargrove, Wynton Marsalis and Fela. Too many to name! I can go on and on about these world changers.

You grew up in a large family; how has this influenced you as an artist?

Growing up in a family of 17 most certainly taught me how to share, even when I didn’t want to. It also showed me how to find my own nook inside of a large group; being able to maintain my own views as an individual while being a part of the whole.

Jazz is like that to me. A family, many people share the name but are very different stylistically. The subtle and not so subtle differences are what distinguishes.

How did you get into jazz?

Jazz was always around me. My grandfather had us listening and performing music from Count Basie and Tito Puente from before I could walk and talk. He let me know that a cousin of his, Edie Randall, had a big band in St. Louis, Missouri. Miles Davis got his start in that band, as one of the Blue Devils. In short, jazz and music in general was always in the house.

I fell in love with the music as I started playing the trumpet. Listening to the jazz station, then buying as many albums as I could. By 12 years old I was transcribing Maynard Ferguson, Cat Anderson, Clark Terry, Miles, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, and Clifford Brown. I didn’t have a teacher show me that Jazz is/was a language. I taught myself by listening and emulating the masters. And the rest is history.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

The tune from my album that best describes my state of mine is Voicemail. It features my Mother. A message of hope that invokes inspiration every time I hear it. Keep pushing forward, no matter what!

Keyon Harrold is playing at Bird’s Basement from Wednesday 6 to Sunday 10 November