How trumpeter Jeremy Pelt became a chronicler of Black jazz history
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How trumpeter Jeremy Pelt became a chronicler of Black jazz history
From left: Cedar Walton (piano), Wynton Marsalis (trumpet), Jimmy Greene (tenor saxophone), Jeremy Pelt (trumpet), Peter Washington (bass) and Steve Nelson (vibraphone) perform during the 92nd Street Y's "Brilliant Corners: The Music of Thelonious Monk,” in New York, July 20, 2006. Inspired by the drummer Arthur Taylor’s “Notes and Tones” collection of interviews with fellow musicians, Pelt started his own book series, “Griot.” (Hiroyuki Ito/The New York Times)

by Hank Shteamer

NEW YORK, NY.- Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt was sitting on his couch, browsing YouTube, when he decided to become an author.

It was 2018, and Pelt, by then a fixture on the New York jazz scene for two decades, came across a 1994 interview with jazz drumming great Arthur Taylor, conducted by a fellow percussionist, Warren Smith. “It could have been ‘Batman,’ or something,” Pelt recalled during a recent conversation in his Harlem apartment. “It was like an hour and 45 minutes, I remember, and I just was transfixed the whole time.”

Pelt was especially taken with a section where Taylor discussed “Notes and Tones,” his landmark book of musician-to-musician interviews, first self-published in 1977 and later reissued more widely. In it, giants such as Miles Davis, Nina Simone and Max Roach spoke with often bracing candor about race, the music business, their feelings about the term “jazz” and more. Pelt had first come across the book more than 20 years earlier at the Berklee College of Music library.

“This is way before internet and all that,” he said. So, listeners had no idea what their musical heroes’ “comportment was, how they sounded, anything,” he continued. “So, what you have is these words that gave you this peek into their personality.”

Pelt often found himself wishing for a sequel. Taylor noted in the 1993 paperback edition that he had recorded more than 200 interviews and intended to publish a follow-up; two years later, he died at 65. Watching the conversation between Taylor and Smith, Pelt made a resolution: “After wondering how come somebody hasn’t done such and such, I said, you know what? I’m going to go ahead and do it.”

He started conducting interviews with elders, peers and younger artists, accelerating during the pandemic, when it was easy to reach musicians via Zoom. In 2021, he self-published the first volume of “Griot,” settling on that title after seeing the term — meaning a West African storyteller-musician who passes down the oral history of a tribe — in an old social-media handle used by bassist Buster Williams. “I looked it up, and that’s when it hit me,” said Pelt, 47. “That’s exactly what this project is, is really passing down the culture. It’s these stories.”

The book features 15 conversations with musicians across generations: Warren Smith, 89, whom Pelt chose as his first subject after watching his interview with Taylor, as well as Wynton Marsalis, Terri Lyne Carrington and Robert Glasper. Since then, Pelt has issued another three books, self-published annually through his Peltjazz imprint in runs of about 200. (Volume IV arrived in February.) Taken together, the “Griot” books, available in the United States only through Pelt’s website and mailed out personally by the author, read like a secret history of the jazz life from bebop to Black Lives Matter.

Jazz literature is filled with artist interviews conducted by journalists and critics, but examples of musicians speaking with their peers on the record are relatively rare. As bassist William Parker said in 2022 — speaking about how “Notes and Tones” had inspired “Conversations,” his own continuing series of books featuring interviews with fellow artists — “when musicians talk to musicians, they speak differently.”

For Pelt, that camaraderie was key. At the outset of the “Griot” project, he said, it was clear “what was needed to really do something like that was a significant level of trust from musician to musician,” something he had built up across his 20 years on the scene, working with esteemed veterans such as Cedar Walton, Louis Hayes and James Moody, and consistently leading his own bands. (His latest album, “Tomorrow’s Another Day,” came out in March.)

When Pelt selects his subjects, he makes a point of reserving space for “older Black musicians that had not had a lot of ink” — he referred to them as “the soldiers of this music” — who appear alongside more well-known names such as Esperanza Spalding, Christian McBride and Wayne Shorter. Some of the books’ most revelatory conversations are with underrecognized mainstays of the scene, including multi-instrumentalist Earl McIntyre, trumpeter Kamau Adilifu (aka Charles Sullivan) and tuba player Bob Stewart.

Stewart, 79, said in a phone interview that he was honored to be included among the “Griot” ranks. “I take it as a badge of courage somebody just handed me,” he said. “Because it’s what I’ve been doing my entire last 60 years, teaching school and playing professionally and then taking my playing and passing it back on to students that are now young players.”

Saxophonist and singer Camille Thurman, 37, featured in the third “Griot” book, said Pelt had captured “a lot of good wisdom.”

“It’s one thing when somebody’s asking questions based off of what they’ve seen from the outside, or what they’ve seen put together nice and neat on a piece of paper,” Thurman added. “When musicians come together and talk, there’s something that’s really deep about it.”

Pelt’s interviews take many paths, but one question is a constant, often eliciting passionate responses: “What is the significance of being a Black jazz musician?” In Volume IV, pianist Eric Reed answered, definitively, “You don’t have jazz music without Black people.” In Volume III, harpist Brandee Younger replied, “I think that in this art form, it’s significant because we as a people created the music. So it’s important that we not be erased from it.”

As in the original “Notes and Tones,” racism is a frequent theme, whether it’s 89-year-old saxophonist George Coleman recalling being turned away from a Maryland diner during the Jim Crow era or 25-year-old saxophonist Isaiah Collier reflecting on what he called the “modern lynchings” of Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor and others.

Pelt said he knew from the outset that his series, like Taylor’s book, would feature exclusively Black musicians. Citing the influence of a mother who assigned him extracurricular Black history homework growing up and grandparents who recorded and preserved their own oral histories, he said this common factor “had to be the glue that holds it all together.”

In Volume I, pianist Bertha Hope, 87, identifies herself as “a proud Black woman in an industry where Black women have had to struggle for a seat at the table.” In a phone interview, she said that sharing her story with Pelt felt validating. “There’s just so many ways we as Black musicians have been overlooked, and we haven’t really been asked what we think about situations or what our lives have been like or what the impact of the industry has been on our career,” she said. “I think it makes a huge difference because he’s part of the music, he’s part of the jazz community, and he also is interviewing people who look like him.”

Pelt realizes the urgency of documenting musicians’ stories while he still can, and regrets that he wasn’t able to include saxophonist Jimmy Heath and trumpeter Roy Hargrove before their deaths. He dedicated the second “Griot” title to pianist Harold Mabern and drummer Ralph Peterson Jr., both of whom died before their interviews appeared in that volume.

Pelt said he has often been asked why he didn’t simply start a podcast or a YouTube series, rather than going through the effort of publishing a physical product. “I’ve always viewed podcasts as being fleeting,” he said. He gestured around to his library of LPs, which dominated his living room, and said he was looking for that kind of permanence, to create something that, hopefully, “you could always come back to.”

For emphasis, he picked up a copy of a recently published jazz hardback from his coffee table. “There’s no batteries in this,” he said. “It’s not going to die.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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