Check out the INDY’s review and stream of Al Strong’s LoveStrong, Vol. 1
Al Strong is very late.
For the last 90 minutes, while tucked in tight at a corner table at the downtown Durham club and restaurant Beyù Caffè, the trumpet player has talked about the first three decades of his life and how jazz has guided him.
How he started playing trumpet when he was 8. How his grandparents piqued his interest early on with records in their Washington, D.C., home, but how he wanted to be a pathologist. How he used to watch the city’s go-go bands and how he attended D.C.’s fabled Duke Ellington School of the Arts. How that program and its traveling bands introduced him to Wynton Marsalis and other modern gods of his chosen instrument. And how it moved him to pursue a jazz degree at N.C. Central, a master’s at Northern Illinois and onto a cruise ship that routed him and his horn through the Gulf of Mexico for six months.
But then his phone rings, and he realizes just how long he’s been talking about the past. Over in N.C. Central’s jazz studies department, there’s a kid down from Maryland, horn in hand, waiting to audition to enroll in Durham. Less than two decades ago, Strong was in exactly the same position. He understands how pivotal the moment can be for the young player. In Strong’s absence, the kid’s simply been warming up, waiting for one of the names that lured him to Durham. Strong doesn’t want him to wear himself out, so he asks for the check.
“But we’re just getting to the good stuff, the fun parts,” says Strong, his generally stoic face breaking into a smile. He counts his cash, stands up beside the table and sets a time to meet in a few hours. “There’s a lot more to talk about.”
Strong hustles back across town to campus.
In fact, lots of what’s left to talk about stems from Strong’s travels in and between downtown Durham and N.C. Central. During the last decade, he’s worked as a professor at Central, occasionally teaching general courses on music appreciation but largely mentoring and training successive waves of aspiring trumpeters. He has become what department director Ira Wiggins calls “a role model.”
During the same decade, he’s also become one of the Triangle’s busiest musicians, flitting in and out of clubs and sessions as a sideman and support player for most anyone who needs the sound of valved brass. Alongside Cicely Mitchell, his former romantic and current business partner, he co-founded The Art of Cool Project, a nonprofit that’s wedged jazz, soul and R&B into Triangle rock clubs and conversations by presenting a steady stream of shows and, for the last two years, a major spring festival. Mitchell calls Strong “a connector within the music scene.” In fact, he’s become a linchpin of it, an organizational, artistic and educational force with few peers.
And, at last, Strong, now 35, is taking care of his own recording career. Though he’s led occasional ensembles under his own name since those graduate school days in Illinois, he released his debut album, the wonderfully versatile and volatile LoveStrong Vol. 1, only last week. All of those experiences, enthusiasms and associations power its 10 tracks, as he leads a cohort of contemporaries and N.C. Central students and alumni through spirited updates on standards such as “Blue Monk” and originals he’s been hoarding since his undergraduate days in Durham at the start of the millennium. As much as an album, it’s a showcase for the nexus Strong has becomeand the possibilities his position presents.
“In many senses, I feel like I’m a late bloomer, as far as music comes. I didn’t really start studying until I was 15,” Strong says several hours later, just as the late-afternoon shadows start to grow outside of the downtown ice cream shop The Parlour. He strokes his thick black beard, pushing stray gray hairs back toward his chin, and fidgets with the stocking cap keeping his shaved head warm.
“I could have put out something years ago, but it wouldn’t have necessarily been something I felt good about. It would have been for posterity’s sake,” he says. “But this is big. It’s a humble offering, my first.”
Better late, at least, than never.
In 2010, Cicely Mitchell found Strong on match.com.
She’d seen his profile and thought his life as a jazz musician sounded interesting and exotic. He’d grown up in what he calls a tough neighborhood in D.C., while she came from a tiny town in the northwest corner of Tennessee. She loved the rock and pop on the radio and some soul, while he was transcribing solos from half-century-old LPs. She was a biostatistician. He was a professor by day, a player by night.
“Even now, when the gig is over, I’m not really into sticking around and socializing. My brain is still moving, thinking about what I should have played. Meeting people is business,” he says. “She was really sweet, bright. It was such a shock to me, because I had been in Durham for so long and I hadn’t met anyone like hera highly educated woman who was down-to-earth, too, but really passionate and fiery.”
“He came from such a different world than me,” Mitchell remembers. “And it was a nice break from my little statistics bubble.”
Jazz became a key component of their relationship almost immediately. Mitchell remembers that, when they first began to hold hands, Strong would unconsciously move his fingers as though they were dancing along the trumpet’s valves.
“He is always thinking about music, I realized. He is just that connected to it,” she says. “When he wakes up, he is listening and then practicing. He is always rehearsing, transcribing. All his friends are jazz musicians. You get around someone like that, and you become inspired to tell people about what they like. It’s infectious.”
Mitchell, though, was disappointed with Strong’s results, in terms of both pay and pull. His schedule was full, but many of the gigs relegated the musicians to a background hum or low takeaways. When she learned that Strong barely promoted his shows, she commandeered that aspect of his career, using social media to spread news of his sets weeks in advance. He confided in her that he wanted to play more bona fide concerts, too, where the music was the night’s centerpiece.
“When I began studying jazz in college, my overarching goal was to see if I could make it as a musician, whether that was playing or teaching as a musician,” says Strong. “Once I found that avenue shortly after, whether living in Chicago or moving here, I said, ‘There’s got to be more than this. This is fine and this is cool, but I don’t feel like I’m creating musically on the level that the Creator gave to us.’”
So again, Mitchell stepped in to help, arranging for a pop-up Friday night concert with a cover charge at a local art gallery in the summer of 2011. It was a success that turned into a series. Soon enough, it turned into a money-winning pitch at a start-up summit to launch a nonprofit and music festival. Less than three years after that first concert, the pair and a team of volunteers launched the inaugural Art of Cool Music Festival, which returns in May for its third iteration.
Though Strong had played nearly every stage, open mic and jam session in the Triangle at that point, both as a student and a teacher, it was his performance at the first Art of Cool that convinced him it was time to put his own music to tape, to make a proper album. He saw there was a substantive local audience for the kind of historically anchored but fashionably updated jazz he loved and made.
“I felt there wasn’t a rush initially, because I was on a lot of other people’s records. But I really wanted Art of Cool to be legit as possible, so the co-founder should be recording, right?” he says, suddenly jolted by laughter. “I enjoyed being a facilitator for other artists, working as a sideman, but I felt that this was the next step if I wanted to work outside of rooms where I was just background music.”
A year before the first Art of Cool, Strong actually raced into a studio to record his tunesfor posterity, as he put it. He’d been diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, and the surgery required would interrupt his playing for months, possibly forever. He worried that his lung capacity would never be the same, so he needed to get his tunes on tape. After recovery, and after the first Art of Cool, he temporarily stepped back from his role as the festival’s co-organizer to focus, finally, on himself and finishing LoveStrong. (Strong has since returned to Art of Cool.) For someone so invested in other people’s performances for a decade, it may have seemed a selfish turn. But it was already late enough.
“I realized suddenly, with Art of Cool, I was drawing a lot of attention to myself, and in a minute people will be asking me where’s my album,” he says. “And now that’s OK.”
Three songs into the first of three sets at Beyù Caffè on a Friday night, Al Strong leaps off the stage several minutes into the piece. The band plays on, but he crouches down and races to the hallway at the side of the stage.
He finds a black towel, dabs his already sweaty face and leans against the wall, taking in the sound with his head cocked back. He glances at the crowd of 75, all seated around dinner tables in small groups as they eat and fix their eyes on the band. Heads nod. Feet tap. The occasional hand claps on beat. When the time is right, Strong crouches again, shuffles to the front of the stage and climbs onto it for the finale, towel still in hand.
LoveStrong finally arrived by post this morning, and at last, it’s available at Beyù tonight, a fact Strong repeats after every song or so. For the first time in venue history, the club added a third show at 11:30 p.m., which sold out well before the first 8 p.m. gig”the warm-up,” someone at the show calls iteven starts. Beyù even upped its seating capacity by 25 percent for the night, and people still want in. Indeed, Strong has drawn a lot of attention to himself.
Onstage, though, he talks mostly about the ensemble around him, providing dossier-length introductions for his players early in the set, or the origin of each song, which he explains dutifully, like a teacher would. And when his players take solos, which is often, he shuffles to the side, closing his eyes and smiling. He occasionally clenches his fist, looking up briefly with delight.
Toward the end of the set, Strong tells the crowd that, somehow, the show has stayed on schedule and the band will be able to play two more songs before the 9 p.m. stopping time. It’s hard not to laugh a little at Strong’s sudden punctuality, arriving, like his album, right on time.
Grayson Haver Currin is the managing+music editor of the Indy.