Mixing Grooves and Slathering the Beat, St. Louis Style

Bruce Purse2

With a deep love and appreciation for the jazz figures who have come before him, Bruce Purse is the jazz lover’s futurist: looking ahead and allowing the musical tide to bring jazz to its new evolution.

On trumpet (and sometimes pocket trumpet) his sound is fat, wide; a big and hot hug that stays with you even when the music’s done. The moon influences this guy as well, and in turn, we’re pulled in by his light.

When did you fall in love with the horn? 

I was first entranced by the trumpet when we lived in Alabama, for it was there that I heard music on the radio and at church where there was gospel music, rhythm and blues, jazz, and country music in the air all the time. Louis Armstrong was my first influence through hearing him on the radio and seeing him on television.

How many instruments do you own?

I own several trumpets with two of them being pocket trumpets. I do use digital instruments and keyboards along with a computer for composition purposes.

Was your family supportive of your career in music?

Initially they were as I entered the beginner’s band in high school in St. Louis when we moved from Alabama. I studied very diligently while in high school at Sumner High under William Paul Overbey, who was a legend.  I then went on to college and studied music education and moved to New York to become a professional musician.

I was always told to follow my dreams, but be aware that you may have to be willing to be trained at skills that would sustain you. With that in mind, it was “follow your own path.”

What was the most important thing you got out of your music education?

I don’t know if there is one most important thing I got out of my music education, but I think there are a few gems that have shaped me. One is that music is vast and wide, diverse, and cultural, along with being spiritual and necessary to all humans in some way.

I don’t believe that the study of music only happens in school. It happens through the experience of being involved with sound and vibration along with frequencies that allow us to find that sound that carries us to new and old places, and emotions that help us express ourselves.

How long to perfect your embouchure?

I would say it took me two years to get a good trumpet embouchure and subsequently a lifetime to play the trumpet. It has been and always will be an ongoing process. The perfection of the embouchure in high school was a feat because the trumpet was not graceful to me initially. I was not a natural brass player but I persevered and the rest became history.

How would you define your particular style?

It comes from a few different places. My influences on the trumpet are people like Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Lester Bowie, Olu Dara, Freddie Hubbard and many St. Louis mainstay musicians like David Hines, One Arm Willie, and countless other musicians on various other instruments. Within these styles there are genres like jazz, classical, rhythm and blues, digital music, and all natural forms that influence tone qualities, feelings, information and out-formation of sound spectrums that make me hear things in different contexts to make creative music.

What do you like about the classics like “Body and Soul”?

A song like “Body and Soul” conveys commitment, dedication, and togetherness in one accord. Love is the unspoken bond that blends the aura of songs like this, and the chord structures and form give you a call-and-response release that keeps the song interesting.

Though songs like this are born of a different era, they give us a visual image of the writer’s feelings and the colors of the tonality let you know how serious or happy or sad the song is when we play them.

How would you compare the jazz scene in St. Louis and NYC where you are today? 

I am mainly bred from St. Louis musical traditions and there are similarities and differences that can be mentioned. For example, both are urban musical centers that reflect migrations, industrializations, cultural identities, taste in food, and interactions between diverse groups of people.

Let’s take BBQ ribs St. Louis style as in baby backs with BBQ sauce…many players like to play behind the beat with a slather of emotion that sits on the bass drum and the bass. We call it slop where you make the phrase thick and pronounced without losing time.

In NY they like the beat and phrasing fast and popping, where the notes glide and ride and make you feel the sophisticated presentation of improvised creation. Fast or slow, they both groove, but that laid-back quality says I’m okay with relaxing and still playing and being proactive in developing my improv.

New York has an amalgam of different styles because it’s a center of jazz in the world; however I don’t believe that the average listener understands the language of such evolution because there is little exposure to it as an art in today’s environment.

Do you draw musical inspiration from the moon?

The moon has many dimensions and as we know the tides are high and mighty. It shows us that there must be some type of magnetic field pulling us in the life of earth. Ultimately, music has that type of pull when you find the right vibrations and melodies and I am drawn to that reality.

Where do you go in your head when you play?

It stems from an unknown feeling or the expression of an inner thought of being that wants to come forward. I usually won’t write for myself until the thought wells up inside me to come forward. When I write for plays or other artists or do arrangements for musical works, I try to get an image of what the music should convey and that’s what drives me forward.

What themes inspire you when you compose?

All types of music serve as a backdrop to all my compositions because I have been fortunate to be able to listen and find favor with all genres regardless of where they come from.  I love Henry Threadgill, Stravinsky, Miles, Duke, Count, Amy Winehouse, Brazilian music, Indian music, blues, and an infinite list that brings a different angle to a new creation of thought.

What’s the biggest challenge in the music industry today?

How to integrate technology with human emotion and capabilities that allow us the freedom of expression, without being in a competition to prove who’s the best and in what classification of music. 

Machines have helped us master the technique of playing but the creation and the emotive elements are still in a void somewhat, because of the lack of human interrelated social togetherness. The commerce of music has changed drastically and people don’t visit venues as much as they did in the past. The CD is an ancient form now and downloads and freebies are the future. The question of how can you put value on something you can get for free changes the whole paradigm.

Maybe we are in a place where the value is in the creation itself, and we are in the quest for how we take care of ourselves in a new way. I’m no authority on this subject, but it’s the $64 million-dollar question.

Talk about your band personnel and how you all mesh together.

In today’s times it has not been feasible to keep a band together as in previous times, but when we do perform we have Vincent Henry on all the reeds, guitar, harmonica, and anything that he chooses to play – truly an outstanding musician in every way.

Damon Due White on drums from Philly is one of the brightest stars on the instrument and for me, my rock of rhythm the way I like it.

There are two bass players that I use religiously: Al MacDowell and Kim Davis. Both of them are well-accomplished and widely known on their instruments. Al was with Ornette Coleman for many years and Kim Davis has made many recordings with me as part of the band. Marcus Persiani on keyboards and piano is one of the first-call jazz and Latin players on the scene in New York, and he is a code of chords and moods.

Billy “Spaceman” Patterson is a renowned guitar player who has played with many of the greats in several genres of music.

Kelvyn Bell who is another guitarist of musical legend and has played and performed with such notables as Arthur Blythe and Joseph Bowie along with Lester Bowie. I might add he is my homeboy and best friend from St. Louis.

The list is very long and I believe that to speak of all of them at this time is too many to name humbly. I hope to put out some of the old music for historic reasons and I do believe the jazz public will be surprised and inquisitive.

Why did St. Louis inspire you to write “The Big Easy”?

As a center of music, St. Louis matches toe to toe with New Orleans in terms of its traditions and mergers of sound and perspectives in jazz literature and performance. As I said earlier it’s all in the culture of the food and the way people live and all that mixture of grooves. A different gumbo from the middle of the country.

The music of “The Big St. Louis Easy” was conceived many years ago and because of many life reasons we never put it out. However, I am in the process of releasing that record and one that I did live with John Hicks, John Mixon and Phillip Wilson from a live session at a club in St. Louis. We had to re-master that recording and unfortunately the other three gentlemen have transitioned, but this music deserves to be heard in St. Louis tradition.

My music on YouTube allows me to share my mind, heart and soul as it relates to the world and I hope reflects my own humanity. I would want it to touch the humanity of others who have not heard it. Who knows, maybe there is something that can inspire and progress the magic of music, not just jazz.  

What’s your favorite track on it?

It is very hard for me to say I have a favorite but if I have to pick two I would say “Arthur’s Theme” and “Blues for U.” On the side, a moment of thought can be experienced with “Love’s Nest.” To make it clear though, my share of emotion in this music is one that I feel proud of and blessed to be able to convey.

Favorite venue?

Many years ago it was Mikells, Visiones, and Sweet Basil’s. Now it is places one would never imagine like concert parks in Upstate New York, arenas in South Africa, soccer stadiums in the Philippines, clubs in Senegal, and concerts in The Cave in Germany. Those are venues I will always remember. I also like playing for kids and families that have never heard my music before and schools, churches, and dance halls. It’s been a real ride to imbibe.

Most influential mentors?

This is another one of those too many to name. First Lester Bowie, Baikida Carroll, JD Parran, Clark Terry, Olu Dara, Henry Threadgill, Arthur Blythe, Cecil McBee, Joseph Bowie, James Jabbo Ware, Bob Stewart, and the line just gets longer and longer. Once again, I’ve been blessed.

Where in the world would you most like to perform?

Contrary to my own peer group, I think that I would like to stream my music to the world first and then travel to those places that appear to have an audience with a taste for the music. It makes sense in today’s world especially with so many situations to sift through. 

Sometimes in the comfort of one’s dwelling can be the best place to hear music. Sign of the times.

Fortunately, I have traveled across the world making music, and that’s very special to be able to do in one’s lifetime.

Why isn’t jazz more in the mainstream, like TV, movies, advertising? Has jazz been snubbed?

I tend to look at jazz as if it is a foreign language where people just don’t know how to understand it, because they haven’t been exposed to it. Jazz has had glory days as have classical music and other periods or eras of music, but in order for anything to have popularity there must be a desire for what people get from the art and what the art gives to the people.

It can’t just exist and be an entity that says you should understand me when I don’t know your language.

Education is a vital step to understanding the codes of what jazz gives us and how it has birthed many different styles of freedom with the improvisation of a moment’s creation. Jazz has been looked over in terms of its existence, but it can never be looked over for its essence, because it is a form born of the culture of living. It is a gift to the American diaspora and it can never be taken away. 

How has the jazz scene changed the most (besides the use of technology) from when you started?

We are not coming together as a social group experiencing music together. This is a very listen-to-me individual player time of expression, much like most groupings of society today. If there is one master player or singer, the supporting cast rarely gets its due.

Clubs are not the mainstay for music as they once were. However, maybe we have evolved as all things have, and we need time to see what will manifest in a new environment.

Music itself was the technology of my time because of its magical qualities. Now we simply have more to think about.

Why does “Are you Going with Me?” resonate with you so deeply?

I love the ostinato, the melody, and the harmonic rhythm that undulates across the piece along with the subtle dissonance that comes in and out to make the song a dreamer’s dream.

I once went to see Pat Metheny play at Radio City Music Hall in New York and I couldn’t believe how much he and his group mesmerized the audience with this song and how simple it is but so effective and sinuous. The version I love the most is with the Metropole Orkest with the orchestra and the technology of fresh sounds. Great piece.

Do you feel music, especially jazz, can unify us?

It is said that music is a gateway to the soul and to our hearts that unify us in vibration. Jazz has done something very wonderful for the world in its creation of a highway of improvisation and vision that unlocks new pathways to the inner and outer realms of reality.

Travel the world and see how audiences who love jazz give reverence to its beauty and its progression of musical soundness. It acculturates everything it can take in and reveals a new creation that we all can admire. What if we all could truly use the background of music for our mind’s unfolding of new thoughts and actions that progress humanity?

Where will you perform for the rest of 2017?

Life must now unfold for me in a different way and I believe it will come forward when it’s time. Right now I invite you and your audiences to go to my YouTube channel and a forthcoming website to hear the thoughts of my mind and my hope for a new and fresh musical future.

Plans to grow your music in 2018?

I will emerge with a merger between new and traditional elements that will involve kids to grownups and elders to futurists. I do believe we have more potential than ever.

Other comments?

It is so important that we grow our creativity and not become staid with how things have been, because we are in a new age and we need new constructs to overcome the maladies of life’s new demands.

Music has always been that sound, vibration, and emotion that has connected us to the universe so wonderfully, and I hope that it always will. Namaste.

For more information visit https://www.youtube.com/user/BrucePurse/videos.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.

© Debbie Burke 2017

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