Trumpeter Hermon Mehari fell in love with jazz when accidentally picking up Miles Davis' record Kind of Blue, also known as one of the greatest jazz records of all times. Today, he has relocated from Kansas City to Paris, and travels the world with his music. We met up with him in his new hometown to discuss his fascination with jazz, living as a jazz musician and the beauty of Parisian life.
Jonathan Soriano: Listen, let's get into the mix. Jazz musician?
Hermon Mehari: I can talk about how it started?
J: Yes, please.
H: I started playing the trumpet in seventh grade in the school program. Because in all the public schools, we have an opportunity to play musical instruments. So, I was playing for about a year and then I got introduced to an improvisation class. And I just found it fascinating the idea of improvising, creating music in the moment. It is so cool. It's such a personal thing to be able to make music in the moment. So, I thought, if I am going to do this, I need to get into jazz and figure out what it’s about. I then went to record store, or a CD store rather back in the day. And, I said, Okay, I know this name Miles Davis. I know he is a trumpeter, I know his name, so I bought a record by Miles Davis. I kind of picked it out of the blue, and it is like the number one jazz record of all time. I took it home, listened to it and thought Oh, my God, this is amazing. I love it. And I fell in love with the music. Just like that.
J: Miles Davis was actually the gatekeeper?
H: Yeah. And then, this is me in the middle of Missouri. That's when I went to Kansas City for Conservatory, and I stayed for 10 years. I feel like I grew up musically in that scene. Which is a big, big scene for jazz. Historically. Super important for jazz.
J: I did not know that.
H: Yeah. It's like one of the major cities, alongside New Orleans, Chicago, New York. And the reason is because during prohibition in the 30s, the mayor of Kansas City, Tom Pendergast, was also a mob boss. So that’s where you get all these speakeasies and he's funneling alcohol in the city. Also Kansas City is on the edge of what you would call a frontier at the time, everything after that was still a bit less developed until you got to California. So, Kansas City was really this crossroads. Everybody went to Kansas City to party and there’s so much music happening at the same time, too. So that's why it's important. And so that's why it still has a tradition of jazz which is really strong.
J: That’s the jazz part and how you got into jazz. So, the next thing, I want to skip all the way to how you end up in Europe. I know Paris has a legendary jazz scene, especially for Americans coming over. How did that kind of pick up?
H: I was doing a lot of tours in Europe. And I always found myself in Paris, so I got to know Paris pretty well. At a certain point, I was working more in Europe than I was in the States. Paris has a very vibrant scene. Also, from a lifestyle perspective, it was really appealing to me. It being very centrally located, it is easy to get around Europe. So, it was kind of combination of things that really made it appealing for me. One day, I just decided to do it, life is too short not to. Why stay in one place your whole life? I didn't have any attachments at the time, so I could do it. I made the leap, and I came here six years ago.
J: Did the romantic vision of being a jazz musician in Paris have anything to say?
H: Honestly, only to the aspect of the fact that there's an appreciation for the music here. Not so much what others have done in the past. But there is this appreciation for jazz music here in Paris. It's very particular.
J: You plan on staying?
H: I love it. I knew within the first week of moving here that I had made the right decision. I'm walking out of my apartment to go buy some produce, and I could feel that this was for me: the vibe, the energy, the people. It’s the way of life for me. Even if you take away the whole music thing that I do, the way of life for me is enough.
J: The joie de vivre!
H: You don't get this sensation, this vibe in the States really. There’s this culture about taking your time and enjoying the company around good food and good wine. It’s about love for life. I love the states and I amAmerican, and there’s this American aspect of me, but it’s so focused on the rush and money. Certain things get neglected as a result of that. These things that we're talking about get neglected.
J: And you mentioned, the people?
H: One of the things that I've found since living here is that there's a rich community of people. And that, to me is a big part of it. It is a very diverse community. Not just, French people, people from all over the place, doing all kinds of things. And that's something that's interesting to me.
"Improvisation is very difficult in the sense that even with the most basic songs, to improvise over a song, you have to have a very, very strong command of your instrument, and a very personal connection to your instrument to be able to create music in the moment.
J: One thing, I would like to hear is, can you make a living as a jazz musician? I'm not talking about getting your numbers out there. But do you feel comfortable? Is there a market for it? If you're willing to talk about that.
H: I can make a living and I make a good living, doing what I do. It’s like, jazz is a niche thing, right? But there's a market for it. It’s like anything else; if you're in a niche thing and you really work hard to be really good at what you do, then there's a good potential for success. I'm on the road about 60-70% of the time. I’ve been touring a lot all over the world, in Europe, in the States, I was just in Iraq, I go to Turkey often, I've been to Asia a few times, I'm mostly on the road, and I'm playing with my band and other people's bands as well. I also make money from selling records and being hired for recording sessions sometimes.
J: And what is it about jazz? We talked about Miles Davis, but what is jazz for you?
H: We talked about improvisation, and a big part of jazz is about improvisation. I find it's a beautiful way of self-expression, because improvisation is being in the moment. You're in the moment, you're wearing your heart on your sleeve, it’s real.
J: So, this is why jazz lovers always talk about being at a specific live show back in time? Anything can happen. And if you're lucky, somebody may have taped it, or else you're not going to get that experience again.
H: Exactly. And, I have to say, some people then get the impression that we are making everything up. That it's all random. And it's not. It’s really not.
J: Is it a moment, a feeling?
H: Let me put in more concrete terms, a song will always have a melody that it is based on, and a given chord structure that it follows repetitively, it loops like on repeat. The general format of a jazz song is you hear the melody, then all of the soloists take turns improvising over the chord structure. And then you hear the melody again, like 90% of jazz songs are going to follow this structure. This melody can be sung or played by the instruments, right? All the instruments have their roles, the drummer has the role of playing a certain type of beats. The bass player is actually playing rhythm. So, you have the rhythm section, you have the soloists, and then the improviser. If it was random, them playing whatever, it would sound terrible. If you think about it, right now, I'm improvising. I'm answering your questions, right? I didn't come with like a pre-plan scripted to know how to respond. I have a command of the English language. I have a command of the concepts that you guys are talking about. And I know how to respond to that. You guys can be like, “yeah, but what about this?” And then I can immediately respond to that.
J: It's the same way?
H: What I am saying is that the things I say are not random. You know, there's a coherence to it. It's the same thing with music. The musician has to learn how to navigate the rhythms and the harmonies. Improvisation is very difficult in the sense that even with the most basic songs, to improvise over a song, you have to have a very, very strong command of your instrument, and a very personal connection to your instrument to be able to create music in the moment. And that's the beauty of it. That's the individualism you get in jazz that you can't really find in any other music.
J: And when you're in a band, when you surprise your comrades, could there also be created some tension there?
H: It could, but you're not going to do that. Sometimes it's a bit of fun competition. But, in general, when people work together, they know each other, they're going to respect each other.