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Marcus Lewis - A JAM Online Interview 

Updated: Aug 23, 2020

by Joe Dimino and David Basse

Kansas City Jazz Trombonist, Bandleader, Arranger & Educator Marcus Lewis on UNESCO, COVID-19 and More...

August 2020

Welcome to an interview with Kansas City jazz trombonist, bandleader, arranger & educator Marcus Lewis. He was recently awarded the 2020 UNESCO Creative City American Music International Innovator Award. This honor is in recognition of his leadership and creativity in musical composition. He is creative director of Brass and Boujee. His original compositions fuse big band jazz with hip hop lyrics from Kemet and Kadesh Flow.

The 2020 UNESCO Creative City American Music International Innovator Award recognizes musicians who have demonstrated a unique combination of American musical genres by fusing these sounds into new contemporary music that sustains the American music heritage and legacy of sound.

He has a BM in jazz performance from Valdosta State University and MM in trombone performance from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. These days, he is busy leading his quintet and Brass and Boujee.

Marcus is the Founder and Artistic Director of Future Jazz, a nonprofit dedicated to jazz education, and Adjunct Jazz Trombone Professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance.

How did you find in early to mid-March 2020 that we were heading towards the end of live jazz and life was going to change forever?

On the news and I have a family member who's a doctor, telling us to watch out for it. I quickly saw that this is a dangerous thing and that there wouldn't be any live music. I've just been trying to deal with it and stay positive, thinking what's next to just stay ahead of this thing.

Did you have quite a few shows cancelled as a result of the pandemic?

Oh yeah. I had all kinds of summer shows. Everything is cancelled well into 2021. In February 2020, this was going to be my best year so far. It's catastrophic to see everything go away. 

Along the lines of 2020 going strong. UNESCO Creative City KC recognized you as winner of the 2020 American Music International Innovator Award for leadership and creativity.

What does this honor mean to you?

It was a huge honor to receive the award. It was great to hear some good news during a hard time. That was an uplifting day, when I found out about it. You know, it lets me know that I'm on the right track.

Also, it means the music to a wider audience, because this is an international award. I have been wanting and was planning to try to perform overseas. When everything's normal and we can travel and be safe, I can start to build an audience and start to do some music abroad. 

You  were really recognized for your work the big band, fusing that, with the best cats from the hip hop world. Talk to me about how you feel about getting this award and the UNESCO designation.

It feels great. I wasn't trying to set out to be innovative. It's just what happens naturally. I think that's why it's a great project. It wasn't forced. All of it happened in a really natural space. That's kind of like my whole philosophy about music. It has to come from a natural place. I think if it does, it will resonate with people.

So, it was really nice to be validated with this award. This just came to be a trend in modern music. Taking all the elements and putting them together. The more I talk to people and musicians about this, it's like one thing leads to the other.

Black American music is never stagnant.

Sometimes we like to listen to music from our childhood and have a certain sense of nostalgia, it makes us feel good. But ultimately, if we look back at the history of jazz and Black American music, it is always constantly evolving and changing. I think that's what keeps it really fresh and innovative, in a natural way.

You have continued this UNESCO trend that began as a city designation. What do you think this designation for you and Kansas City does for the way the rest of the world sees us both musically overall and jazz-wise?

I think it's huge. To be recognized as an international Jazz City. I think Kansas City has always been viewed as a jazz city because of Charlie Parker. We are on an international scope and this is yet another thing that lets people that have not heard of Kansas City and its music, know about it more.

While the world's watching, hopefully we get out of the pandemic and have more eyes on Kansas City. Hopefully the music scene here, will see great changes, with even more talented musicians and innovative people moving here.

As a part of the UNESCO designation, there was a virtual big band performance that has generated a lot of buzz. Talk to me a little bit about this performance and how it's going over.

Thanks Joe, it has been really well received. I wrote that tune and it initially started out as a  quartet tune that I would play on a gig. It was written to promote people working together.

I think it is really important to realize that people are different, and we have a lot of similarities. We should really focus on those things that bring us together. I would play the song, we would improvise over it, and have the crowd constantly with us the whole-time-through.

It was all about the composition. I believe that compositions are never finished. They are always evolving. So, this composition evolved.

Now it’s a big band arrangement, and of course I've been working with the rapper, Kemet. I asked him to put a couple of verses on it and people really, really dug the message. We're one of the first bands here in Kansas City to do the virtual big band thing. It was quite the process and the journey has been very rewarding.

Kansas City prior to this shutdown was obviously going through quite a renaissance with gigs going on all over and musicians moving here from other big cities. What do you see the COVID-19 recovery for Kansas City being like?

I think it's gonna be great. This pandemic may give us a newfound energy. When people start going back and playing for live audiences again, we can hopefully get back to a normal setting. A renewed energy will help us all grow and bring more awareness. More people are going to come out and support the music because they haven't had it for so long.

People can get used to seeing you. They might not come out, because they're like 'Oh I can see the band you know every Thursday at The Blue Room, or whatever.' That's not happening anymore. I think people are gonna be hungry for the music. I think the musicians are gonna be 100 percent ready to go and that there's gonna be a new energy that's gonna really push us forward in a great way.

When we do return to live music. When both musicians, and the audience returns these great KC venues, what do you hope we will realize about this time? Are there any revelations we have gained?

That's a great question. For me what we have to realize is that nothing is a given. Anything can always happen, so we have to live each day to the fullest. In particular musicians. We should like never phone it in. We should always play like it could be our last gig. If we approach it with that type of energy, it’s really going to resonate with people. We can get into the part of music that deals with emotion. 

The number of gigs that have been given up is staggering. For just one musician. If we take the collective of say, Kansas City and then multiply that number, to include cities like New York, or New Orleans. It's true that Kansas City jazz has been very healthy. What do you will happen next?

It's amazing, for you what you just said, and staggering to think how many gigs have been cancelled.  A lot of us took for that success for granted. The scene was really driving and when those jobs are taken away, you really notice. I think jazz is alive and well as long as people respect the tradition of it. 

During this time of no live music, all musicians have memories that they can go back to while performing on stage. Are there any special ones that resonate with you during this pandemic?

Just performing. I have a pretty lengthy career, as you know. Already 24 years as a professional musician. I can look back on different time periods; first starting out, playing bar gigs for tips and free beer, then touring for eight years, playing for the President of the United States, touring Brazil and performing at the Sydney Opera House in Sydney, Australia.

Then I released my first small group CD. That CD’s release party was a really great moment for me! And then, touring and playing with Janelle Monae.

I can look back at it and how I then came to Kansas City. How music can touch people's lives and thinking about, how all the people that I talk to, interact with during our shows. Just . . . how happy music makes me. That's what I'm reflecting on at this time, to stay positive.

Kansas City has always had its own special sort of magic. Will that spark we have here come back to life?

What's going to be key is the energy and passion. That's key moving forward. Musicians can get comfortable with the idea that things will always be there. For all we know, things may never get back to exactly where they were.

We can be hopeful, but I think that we have to be forward thinking and stay ahead of the curve as opposed to being reactionary. It was enlightening to a lot of musicians that they weren't thinking of staying ahead of the curve. They were just staying in their comfortable zone, and then when COVID-19 hit, it was like, 'Oh man what am I gonna do now?' So, it's really all about being able to diversify your talent and the different ways of thinking.

In light of your recent UNESCO honor, how  are you going to continue your tradition of  innovation?

You know that the term innovation is kind of tricky. I don't think anyone sets out to be an innovator. The people who are innovative people, those that we look up, really don't force anything.

I just try to live in the moment, to make music that is relevant now, and relevant to my existence. That is what is important. Hopefully, if you study your craft long enough, and are honest with yourself, you can make music that's relevant to now.

I don't think I want to focus on innovating. I just want to focus on getting better as a musician and a person. That will translate into the music. If it happens to be called innovative, that's cool, but if it's not thought to be innovative, that's cool too.

I just want to make good music and bring people together, make ‘em happy. Hopefully, with the UNESCO award, I can reach a broader spectrum of people abroad. That's what I'm really looking forward to.

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