At 30 years old, trumpeter and vocalist Jumaane Smith has already done what most musicians spend their lives dreaming about. He’s traveled the world, played stages in historic clubs, in massive stadiums and at cultural landmarks, recorded a solo album, appeared on national television and performed for two sitting U.S. presidents.
His collaborations range from pop idols to jazz legends, and the list reads like a lineup for the best New Orleans Jazz Fest ever. He’s worked with Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, Alicia Keys, The Jonas Brothers, Wyclef Jean, Justin Bieber, Diddy, Natalie Cole, James Ingram, Wynton Marsalis, Ravi Coltrane, Chris Botti along with many, many more. (See Artists.) And to think… so little of that might have been possible if he’d gotten his wish 21 years ago.
When the music teacher at Seattle’s Sacajawea Elementary School led a musical instrument presentation for 4th graders in the school library, young Jumaane, then 9 years old, was immediately drawn to the French Horn and asked to play the instrument. “Why don’t you take this instead,” she replied, explaining that the school had no French Horns. Jumaane “settled” for the trumpet and his life was never the same.
It took some time to build a foundation. “For the first few years I was horrible,” he admits, “and when I would practice, my mom would make me go outside in the yard because she didn’t want to hear it.” But Jumaane was a quick learner and a voracious student. From his earliest experiences, he established a career-long aptitude toward absorbing anything that would make him a better musician and person.
By 16, while most kids are content with getting a driver’s license, Jumaane was on a plane for the first time headed to Europe. As a member of the Roosevelt High School Jazz Band under the direction of Scott Brown, he spent three weeks performing at such events as the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and the North Sea Jazz Festival in Den Hague. He was also able to see many jazz greats in concert. The tour was a defining experience. After that, Jumaane recalls, “I was hooked on music and becoming a great musician myself.” Back in the States, thirsty for more knowledge (and the rush of adventure), he started sneaking backstage at shows to talk to musicians, soaking in an extracurricular education of his own design.
Only a few years later, Jumaane was living in New York, attending New School University on scholarship. Classrooms were his secondary education as New York’s many Jazz clubs offered a live and lively education. He made connections in the jazz scene by catching shows and performing at jam sessions.
While Jumaane was headlining his first gig in New York City he met legendary jazz drummer Rashied Ali, who happened to live a few blocks from the club. Mentored by the great John Coltrane, Rashied in turn became Jumaane’s mentor and a true father figure to the young musician and man. Ali kept him grounded, but taught him to accept the boundless potential of music. He coached him to acquire as much knowledge as he could, but to research and come to his own conclusions rather than take anything at face value. They were great lessons from a great man.
And it wasn’t long before another legendary jazz musician would mentor this budding talent. Jumaane was still living in Seattle when he first met Wynton Marsalis. In fact, it was Marsalis who first recommended that he make the big move to the Big Apple. Now, a year into living in New York City, Jumaane was one of 17 musicians (including only 4 trumpeters) invited to join the inaugural class of Jazz Studies at Julliard – a program developed by Marsalis.
Suddenly the classroom was the place to be. Jumaane immersed himself in trumpet technique, classical repertoire, jazz technique and jazz repertoire, orchestration and arranging from both classical and jazz perspectives, music production, music preparation and even music software notation. Meanwhile, Marsalis took him (and only one other student) on for one-on-one private trumpet instruction through Jazz Studies at Juilliard, a practice he hasn’t engaged in since. That relationship had a profound effect on Jumaane. “Wynton is probably the most disciplined person I’ve ever gotten the chance to be around and learn from,” he says. “I feel very fortunate to have him as a mentor to this day.”
Good fortune is only a small part of it, however. Jumaane, by nature recognizes and seeks opportunity. More than that, he strives constantly to earn it. Even before he graduated from Julliard’s four-year curriculum, his hard work paid off with some great professional opportunities.
In 2002, Marsalis awarded him a scholarship to attend the Academy of Achievement Summit in Dublin, Ireland. The attendees were some of the greatest thinkers alive: world leaders such as Gorbachev and Bill Clinton, Hollywood giants such as James Earl Jones, Nobel Prize winners. Asked the night before the event’s gala finale, Jumaane and a fellow student performed a duet for the event under pressure with no repertoire prepared, “opening” for Chuck Berry. One year later, as February was being declared African-American Music Month, Jumaane and the Jazz Museum in Harlem All-Stars performed for George W. Bush in the East Room of the White House.
In 2005, thanks to the recommendation of a Julliard classmate, Jumaane was invited to audition for Michael Bublé’s band. Almost seven years later, Jumaane continues to perform, record, travel and learn as a part of the Bublé family. “The experience has been what I imagine post-graduate school to be like,” he says. “Michael Bublé is a wonderfully humble, down to earth and extremely generous person who thrives off of his family and friends realizing their own hopes, dreams and goals. It has been truly inspirational working with him.”
From touring the world with Bublé to playing the Grammy Awards show with Stevie Wonder and the Jonas Brothers to recording “As I Am” with Alicia Keys to appearing on the “American Idol” soundtrack to scoring and performing music for the film “Handsome Harry,” Jumaane’s accomplishments go on and on. The recordings he’s appeared on have sold more than 25 million copies worldwide, garnered four Grammy nominations and earned three Grammy wins. The TV shows he’s appeared on total an audience of around 100 million viewers.
Jumaane has relished, with gratitude, every experience he’s had as a musician, and intends to embrace new opportunities to work with amazing talents. But finally, after years of conceptualizing, the time has come to take a big step forward into the spotlight, to turn his own ideas into reality. In 2010, he entered the studio to begin work on his debut album, “I Only Have Eyes For You.” A celebration of the Great American Songbook with the theme of love and romance, the album includes interpretations of classic tunes full of personal emotion and meaning for Jumaane.
“I imagine that it is very rewarding to see your own project become successful,” he says. “As the leader, you get back what you put into it.” Now only time will tell how a lifetime of learning and all-star mentorship will pay off.