Jesse Selengut is a New York City-based trumpeter, composer, percussionist and singer. A noted performer of American Roots music, Selengut sings, composes, & plays trumpet in Tin Pan, a band that has once included such notables as Clifton Hyde (composition, arrangement, production, guitars, & vocals), Stefan Zeniuk (reeds), and Pete “Baby Hands” Maness (double bass & vocals). Jesse Selengut founded, directed and produced the Williamsburg Jazz Festival from its inception in 2003 to its final 2007. In the free jazz and avant-garde idiom, Jesse Selengut has performed with Dave Douglas, Butch Morris, Kenny Wollesen, Sabir Matteen and Daniel Carter among others.
Selengut led the contemporary jazz group NOIR[which performed in the World Harmony tour in Kenya in 2007 to raise money and awareness for the Shangilia Orphanage in Nairobi.
Wow. It was great. The best of it was actually the day at Shangilia Orphanage. Each of the musicians did a little mini-workshop. There were three young brass players there but when I gave my lesson to them, about a hundred kids swarmed all around us and were completely silent in an effort to watch, and listen and learn. It was an honour for me. Another highlight was getting to share the stage with Eric Wainaina at the Carnivore. We did a number or two together, him sitting in with my band. Really, I am very thankful to my local friends and to Samite of Uganda for making that tour happen –
How would you describe your music to somebody who has never heard it before?
I describe our music as “American Roots Music.” It’s the sound of Ray Charles and Tom Waits hanging out in New Orleans. It’s the sound of Louis Armstrong but delivered with a rock-n-roll high-energy presentation.
Your music has a way of transporting people to different time periods like old Swing. What makes you guys make such timeless music that is loved by different generations?
Great question. In my lifetime I have been a part of many different genres of music. My tastes are pretty eclectic and I’m willing to try anything that sounds good to me. So… back around 2005 I ran into some New Orleans musicians in the subway in New York City and heard them playing this kind of music and I was transfixed. When I started playing it myself (with those very same guys as it turns out) I realized immediately that because the music was a lot simpler (harmonically) than modern jazz you needed to be very honest and passionate to make it not sound silly or antiquated. You had to FEEL it and MEAN EVERY SECOND of it!
I loved this genre from my very first experience. And then… I realized that if you simplify things more people are attracted to it. If you keep the horn solos a bit shorter even more people will be interested in it and appreciate it. If you start to sing then even more people get captivated. If you move around on stage and have an energetic, dramatic presence then most people are going to be engaged. It was like a way of moving jazz music out of the tiny jazz ghetto and reintroducing it to the world at large. It has been quite successful for us and has taken me all over the world!
Who are your musical influences?
In this American Roots Music style, my influences are Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima, Slim Gaillard, Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Willie Dixon. In jazz, in general, I also grew up on Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Art Blakey and Lee Morgan among others. In music, in general, I have always been a huge fan of acts as diverse as Bob Marley, Thomas Mapfumo, Public Enemy, The Talking Heads, Led Zeppelin etc… In life in general, my music influences are certain women’s voices, traffic sounds, large bodies of water, wolf spirits, and the search for what is in between and connect all that we see and feel.
You will be recording a live album here in Kenya. Are you featuring any Kenyan artists on it or Kenyan sounds?
We will be recording everything that we do at Ankole Grill from January 12th to the 16th. On certain days we have special guests like Jacob Asiyo on Saturday and the Nairobi Horns Project on Sunday and we will record those performances as well. The album will be the most solid and musical material from the whole week. I am very hopeful that some of our collaborations will make the cut! And that those artists represented will agree to appear on the record. It still a work in progress. We have learned a few East African tunes and will be working them into our repertoire in our own way. At this point in the life of the Tin Pan Trio, we have over 90 songs ready to go. We’ll pick the ones that best suit the moment and the audience.
It is hard to find a professional Jazz performance that’s free. What inspired you guys to have free performances?
As you know, I am proud to be one of the part owners of Ankole Grill. I came on board because I wanted to be part of something exciting that an old friend was putting together. Because of my background and talents, I have been tasked with everything sound related to the new restaurant. I designed and helped install the sound system, I created and selected the music playlist that plays during the days and through dinner, and I helped to curate Ankole’s Wednesday Night Acoustic African live music series.
We figured that bringing the band to Ankole for a week-long run would do wonders to draw attention to this fabulous new restaurant and also cement the notion that Ankole is the place to go to for passionate, interesting, music as well as delicious food, gorgeous drinks and a quality hang. So, to answer your question quite frankly, the gesture is to pack the place full of music and food lovers. If we do that, the event pays for itself.
What advice would you give beginners who are nervous about performing? Also, those who want to make a career out of music but are not sure about following their heart?
This is advice that comes from some of my teachers. The main problem with young artists in any discipline is that your taste is more developed than your skills. This means that you know what good music or art is but you don’t yet have the skills or means to produce work as good as you can see or hear in your head. The result: insecurity because your work is going to be pretty terrible to YOU for a long while. Here’s the advice, remember that this distance between what you know to be quality and what you can produce right now is exactly why you need to be an artist. You need to keep trying until you can produce exactly what your vision inspires in you. It takes a very long time to narrow that distance. To do this you need to work constantly. Make art all the time. It takes years and years. Some neuroscientists have said that it takes 10,000 hours to attain mastery in any discipline. That’s 3 hours per day for NINE YEARS!!! Work hard, young artist. Eventually, your presentation will match what you know to be possible. Trust that your vision is what the world needs to see and hear. That’s why that vision was given to you.
What are your interests outside of music?
I love food, obviously – I helped start a restaurant. I also really like golf even though it doesn’t seem like a cool thing to like these days. Here’s why I think. In life, things are very complicated most of the time. You make a decision and it takes months or years to see how well that decision has helped you or hurt you and how. In golf, it’s a full body experience that is pleasantly simple. You make a plan, you execute the plan and you immediately see the results of how you did and you learn and grow from it. Simple. I also really like the sea and the ocean, swimming, yoga, meditation, being in love…
You are a part owner of the Ankole Grill. What made you invest in this? Are you a foodie?
I think I answered this partly earlier. I wouldn’t consider myself a foodie because I know some people who are REAL FOODIES and their passion and excitement for it far surpass my own. Nonetheless, I am very appreciative of the finer things in life especially food, wine and cocktails. I’m even a bit of a snob when it comes to cocktails. Happily, I have full trust in our managing partner and his genuine genius when it comes to food, service, beverages, design and presentation.
I see one of the signature dishes is Texas barbecue meat. Can you throw down in the kitchen?
I am more of an improvisational jazz cook! Ha! What would be fun for me (and probably tasty for you) is if I came into your kitchen and created something on the spot out of what was in your fridge and cupboard. I almost never follow a recipe but it generally comes out OK (professionally back in my college days I was a pastry chef – cakes, pies, breads, some savoury stuff – and that professional experience makes me fast, have attention to detail, and I know how to clean up after myself!). Actually, that exact job was how I met my good friend who is now the managing partner of Ankole! Ok – all that aside – I leave the cooking at the restaurant to the real professionals – I’m just an excited amateur.
What’s your favourite Kenyan meal?
Give me some ugali and some soupy stew (goat, please!) and I’m elbows deep.