Monday, June 3, 2013

Trumpet Master Ernie Hammes Talks About His Music and Coming New York Appearance

Trumpet virtuoso Ernie Hammes has been playing in a formidable variety of contexts for a number of years now. Classical trumpet music, lead trumpet in some heavy big bands like those of Maynard Ferguson and Carla Bley, Latin jazz and small jazz groups of all sorts. He'll be playing with his quartet on Friday, June 7th (10 PM) as part of the Rhythm in the Kitchen Music Festival in New York. His performance is sponsored by Ruby Flower Productions and le Ministere de la Culture Luxembourg. For more info go to and

I talked with Ernie recently about his music and the upcoming appearance. He had much to say:

Grego: What brought you to the trumpet?

Ernie: I started playing the trumpet at the age of eight in a local music school. Back then, in the late '70s, one could see the trumpet constantly on TV shows and so I guess I fell in love with that instrument.

Grego: Was there an experience when you were young that made you decide on music for a life-career?

Ernie: Actually, not really. During my studies which included trumpet lessons, solf├Ęge, harmony, ear-training, transposition and chamber music, I kind of got deeper into the music and that lead me to audition for the chair of principal trumpet back in 1987 with the Luxembourg Army Concert Band, a position that I am still holding today. The spot actually opened right after I completed my classical trumpet studies in Luxembourg and in France, so I just took my chance. And that allowed me to continue my studies in Europe as well as in the U.S., while already playing in the orchestra, and to do my own projects and bands.

Grego: Please give us a brief look at the leadership style of Maynard Ferguson. Did you find yourself applying any of that with your own bands? What else do you bring to the table yourself?

Ernie: I will always keep in mind how the great Maynard Ferguson treated his musicians and people in general. He was such a nice and gentle bandleader, a human being of the kind you rarely meet! He featured me all the time when I played in his band, along with some of the other guys too of course, but especially as a trumpet player in Maynard's band, I thought this was quite amazing. He even told me to bring my own CD's to his merch table. So, there I was, selling Maynard's as well as my CD's after our concerts! I was leading a number of projects with a couple of "big" names, together with the Luxembourg Jazz Orchestra which I was now conducting as well as playing lead. And I think if you come up with a concept in your head, about the whole project you're doing, if you let your fellow musicians know what you have in mind, it is easy to work together and get along well. It's a matter of give and take, always. Of course after a while, especially working with my regular bands, you don't have to say much. It comes naturally.

Grego: You have had some incredibly rich and diverse experiences in music--playing baroque trumpet, as lead trumpet in a big band, as an improviser in a smaller, more open context. When you play these days, compared to where you started, what can you tell us about developing as a player, what led to growth? And what situations do you feel most contributed to your playing as it is now?

Ernie: After all these years of playing so many different styles, you adapt faster and faster to what ever comes up. When I was young, I played too loud, always tried to hit high notes, even if not at all necessary, in one word not effective at all--for anybody, not for me and not for the ones I played for! That has changed drastically today!

Grego: How has the Luxembourg Army experience shaped your music and who you are musically?

Ernie: I must say that playing in the Army Band helped me a lot to be the musician I am today! If you constantly have to read new music, transposing in some cases, playing all these different styles, from baroque, classical, jazz, funk, etc., you gain a lot of experience and you become able to adapt pretty fast to almost every situation, different conductors, soloists, composers, etc...

Grego: You’ve worked with younger and up-and-coming players over the years. Have they changed at all in what they come to you with in terms of knowledge and feel for the music?

Ernie: I can only tell you about the situation here in Europe or Luxembourg. When I started, there was no school for jazz around, or very few at least. That has changed completely now. They are all over the place and most of them offer exchange programs with the U.S. or elsewhere, which I think is a great opportunity! So in that matter, yes, the students I work with are much better, more experienced already than 20 years ago.

Grego: You've studied with Claudio Roditi, Lew Soloff and classical players, too. What has each given you as a musical creator, as a player?? Do you recommend that young people get exposed to jazz and classical equally these days? How has that shaped the way you approach music?

Ernie: I was choosing Lew when I went to Manhattan School of Music because I knew that he was one of these trumpet players that could do it all, playing lead, solos, orchestral etc. So we talked a lot about everything important about the trumpet, phrasing, improvising, etc. He took me to his gigs and I was even subbing for him after a while when he could not do the gig. But the guy who brought me to really work on my jazz chops, and, of course Latin music, was Claudio Roditi. That was years before I met Lew. I just called him up during one of my numerous weekends as a tourist in NY and he agreed promptly and that was the beginning of a friendship that still lasts until today. Claudio and myself played on many projects together, concerts, clinics, he joined me for my latest recording Sanfrancha, and he asked me to sub with the "Dizzy Gillespie Allstars" for Roy Hargrove. I highly recommend young players to do both classical and jazz studies. Why? First, I always was able to help myself through "trumpet" problems (embouchure, technique, fingering...) due to my classical education! Then, as I mentioned before, you are able to play more, it never gets boring, you are able to choose the job offers, etc. A big influence on me in that matter is Wynton Marsalis, who I think is one of the best examples! Back in my studies, it was not yet accepted that you play jazz as a classical student, but luckily times have changed!!

Grego: You are coming to New York soon for the Rhythm in the Kitchen Music Festival (June 5-8) with a quartet. Talk a little about the band and what you'll be doing.

Ernie: These are musicians I've worked with a lot over the past years, especially with my (French) piano player Pierre-Alain Goualch. I've worked with him for the last 20+ years and one could say that we really are a team, playing- and composition-wise. With Paul Wiltgen (Luxembourg) it is a little different. I first met him when I was leading a big band in a conservatory in Luxembourg when he was still very young, but then, not long after we met, he went straight to NY to finish his studies. So it took a while before we played together again. For our concert at the festival we will perform mostly originals by myself and Pierre-Alain as well as some arrangements of standard tunes.

Grego: Has it become any harder playing improvised and serious music for a living than it was, say, 20 years ago? Or was it always a challenge from a business/living standpoint? How has the European situation been compared to what it's like in the United States??

Ernie: First of all I must say that I could not survive playing only jazz or light music. I am happy that I still can play classical jobs and especially that I have the chair in the orchestra, otherwise it would be tough. So far, I am not obliged to teach, (although I do some teaching,) or to play a show seven nights a week, which could be fun but just is not my thing. I have the privilege to choose the gigs I want to play! I really cannot see a big difference from playing in the U.S or in Europe. It's always a struggle with money. It also depends on the name you have...or don't. But for the rest there are great venues, festivals and crowds in the U.S as well as here in Europe.

Grego: Any recordings/projects in the works right now?

Ernie: There is no new recording planned right now...I had to break up with my former label, so right now I'm looking for a new label/agent/manager that will support me, hopefully better than the previous one!?

Grego: Thanks and we look forward to hearing you soon here in New York!

Ernie: My pleasure!

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