By Corbie Hill
The last few years have been pretty heavy, but Al Strong is finally ready to record his second album.
The jazz trumpeter’s debut LP LoveStrong Vol. 1 was released in early 2016. That same year, however, his mother died, and Strong has spent the years since putting her affairs in order. Several things finally came to a close this September, though, which is a huge weight off Strong’s shoulders. Finally he’s seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Finally he’s regaining focus and clarity of thought. And though this busy musician gigs constantly, he’s spent precious little time in the studio since 2016. But now it’s time to get back to it. The songs are written. The recording dates are blocked out. The band is ready.
“I think just as a safety measure I’ll go ahead and record two records,” Strong says with a laugh.
Every joke contains at least a kernel of truth. In this case, the truth is that Strong could record two LPs in one session if he put his mind to it. Strong’s influence in Triangle-area jazz is felt in the Art of Cool Festival, which he co-founded (it has since been sold) and the Art of Cool Project, which he remains active in. He’s an adjunct trumpet professor at North Carolina Central University and a performing artist with a busy schedule. On the day of our interview, Strong had been up since 5 a.m. and was making a pot of coffee at 6:15 in the evening. By all evidence, Strong doesn’t slow down.
On October 17, Strong plays Steele Street for 2019’s final Downtown Alive! concert, where he’ll play jazz versions of mainstream tunes by the likes of John Lennon and Coldplay, but also renditions of old standards like “Fly me to the Moon.” The concert is free, with music beginning at 7 p.m. If Strong were to play a traditional jazz gig instead of an outdoor street concert, however, the set would be wildly different, featuring instead numbers that appeal more directly to dedicated jazz heads. For Strong, who sees no alternative to being a career musician, versatility is key.
“I see myself as sort of a chameleon in a sense,” Strong says.
“I’ve always wanted to be a more versatile musician than my peers in a way, primarily because of my upbringing, having bounced around from shelter to shelter as a kid, things of that nature,” he continues. “Once I chose music as a career, it had to work because that family structure wasn’t always there. I take everything, all of this stuff really seriously.”
Strong was raised in Washington, DC, where he started trumpet at age 8. Early on, he was immersed in soul, spirituals and global music. Jazz came later, but it wasn’t a tough transition for Strong. So many of these musical forms have one thing in common, Strong says: the blues. Even today, he leans on blues elements to keep his music appealing to listeners who may not have a strong jazz background.
Among the many hats Strong wears, one is that of the jazz educator. He’s taught at NCCU for a decade, for one. For another, he’s active in the Start of Cool program, which teaches jazz elements to Durham schoolchildren. Start of Cool covers a lot of ground, with children learning different song forms and how to improvise.
Through Start of Cool, Strong sees today’s children experience what he did three decades ago. Kids don’t already have the preconceptions about jazz that many adults do, he points out, so he sees the music connect with them the same way it did with him at that age. “I remember being in similar community-based programs when I was a kid,” Strong says. “If I hadn’t chosen music as a career I would still be an avid fan and supporter of the music.”
Start of Cool and the Art of Cool Project are now separate entities from the larger Art of Cool Festival, though each has led to new opportunities for jazz players like Strong. He’s been featured on PBS shows, he notes, and he’s happily seen the North Carolina scene expand. When once there were only two or three jazz clubs in the Triangle, now he has a wealth of options — including, yes, his October show in downtown Sanford. And while he’s pleased to see this expansion, he’s especially happy that his students can play different rooms for different audiences.
As for Strong, whose life has not always been easy and who is finally, finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel after the death of his mother, there’s an especially important reason this chameleon values welcoming stages and an increasingly vibrant jazz scene.
“[Music] is been what it’s always been for me, and that’s my sanctuary, my escape from all the ills of the world,” he says. “If I’m not playing or not practicing or not dealing with music, I’m not a happy camper most times. I lean on it as much as anyone would.”