Sam Hankins’ latest CD is “Do That Thang,” and the headline song by the same name starts with something kind of familiar – a lively, warm conversation among friends reminiscent of the first few seconds of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” In Sam’s case, though, “Thang” is lighthearted, uptempo, a celebration of comradeship.
Wait for the trumpet entrance, like an invite to get on your feet. Flute comes in, rhythm takes over.
This is typical of Sam’s playing; when he comes in, it’s in that comfortable mid-range where the melody gets under our skin and dances around flatted blue notes.
Sam’s an educator who has a strong investment in presenting jazz in the fascinating light it deserves. Student musicians, in turn, respond with more interest than before in the art form, feeding off his enthusiasm. Cycle of jazz, my friends.
Do you come from a musical family?
Yes, my paternal grandmother was a gospel singer. My father and his brothers and sisters all sang in church and with other bands in different venues around Oklahoma. My father was an R&B and blues singer. He had his own band called Sam Hankins & the Ho Dads and sang and played harmonica in the band. He was also a James Brown impersonator.
When did you know you wanted to become a musician?
At a very young age (about 7); always seeing and hearing my father perform with his band. When I started middle school, I knew I wanted to make music my career. I saw an old film of Louis Armstrong playing the trumpet and I knew that is what I wanted to do even though I started with the guitar. My uncle had an old trumpet and I “borrowed” it and that’s what I stayed with. I watched films of Louis Armstrong over and over to learn to play just like him.
Where did you teach?
I started my teaching career in 1995 at Edison Middle School in Champaign, IL, where I stayed for 11 years. It was during this time that I received numerous teaching awards leading a struggling band program to Division I ratings, State and National awards and recognitions. In 1997, I was awarded the Golden Apple Award, recognizing commitment to excellence in education.
In 1998 I received the White House Letter, signed by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, recognizing the Edison Middle School Band Program.
In 2006, I was recruited to teach in the country of Bermuda and stayed there for two years. I returned to the U.S. in 2008 to teach at McKay High School in Salem, Oregon.
My wife and I moved to Chicago in 2010 and I was the band director at Crete Monee Middle School. I am currently the band director at Rich East High School in Park Forest, IL and an adjunct professor conducting the Jazz Band and Jazz Ensemble at South Suburban College in South Holland, IL.
I teach private trumpet lessons at Marty Puzon Music Store in Lansing, IL and also at my home.
How did teaching inform your musical career?
Having the knowledge and understanding of how music itself works, its harmonies and melodies that come together to make great music, helped my career so I could become a better player and entertainer.
What are students most curious about the industry, or about jazz?
Most of my students know that I have a band and play at quite a few venues and events around the Chicagoland area. They often inquire about how hard it is to make a living as an independent professional musician and the obstacles they face pursuing that career path.
For now, they are more interested in improving their playing ability and enjoying making music with their fellow students.
Where does “Band Daddy” come from?
When I was teaching at middle school, it was an affectionate name used by my band students because I always referred to them as my babies. That way I could connect with them on a more personal level and get the best from them.
How many trumpets do you own?
I own two trumpets, two flugelhorns and one piccolo.
Do you play other instruments?
Yes, as a band director, I have to be able to play all the instruments as I have to teach them to the students. I play piano, all brass instruments and some woodwind instruments such as flute, clarinet and saxes.
Favorite venue to perform?
Jazz festivals, House of Blues, award ceremonies and small venues.
Venue on your bucket list?
Cape Town, Montreal, the Playboy Jazz Festival Jazz Cruise and Spaghettini in California.
What’s the story behind “Nothing Between Us” and how it has been received since it debuted?
The story behind “Nothing Between Us” started when we had moved to Chicago and I was without a job. Being new to the music scene in Chicago, I had no music gigs to perform at. My wife suggested that I get back into composing music during that low period of my life. I started off with one song, then another and after that it was like the floodgates had opened. Every day, I would compose about two to three songs a day for about two months. By then, I had composed about 150 songs when my wife suggested that I put some songs on a CD. She really liked the music and was sure that others would also enjoy listening to it.
That’s when my first CD, “Dream Catcher,” was released. I decided to put about 15 tracks of all different genres (R&B, smooth jazz, funk, Latin and alternative) on this CD.
It got great reviews from radio stations and all over social media. Some of the comments that I kept getting back was that I was not playing on this CD. My small base of fans at that time wanted to hear me play the trumpet on the tracks. This first CD was purely to showcase my composition skills, so I wasn’t playing on this CD.
On my second CD, “Nothing Between Us,” I played on all the tracks. This was a time in my life that proved to me nothing was going to come between me and my dreams and that I would always continue to strive for the best. “Nothing Between Us” can mean different things to different people and that’s what I wanted it to be.
My fans loved it and I received so many positive and awesome comments from my fans all across the world. “Nothing Between Us” has won numerous independent music awards and continues to be played on radio stations all around the world.
How chill is it to record by the ocean – or was that just a staged photo?
All those pictures were taken in Cape Town, South Africa, where my wife is from. A friend of hers is a photographer and those pictures were taken at Sea Point Beach in Cape Town when we were on vacation there.
What was it like to receive SEVERAL awards from the Indie Music Channel Awards?
All I can say is that it was an AWESOME feeling to be recognized for all my hard work. No words can describe the feeling, receiving so many distinguished awards from the Indie Music Channel Awards. It was just so great to know that my music was recognized by the best in the music industry. It’s truly a blessing!
What’s your advice to young musicians just coming up?
If you’re not taking lessons, I suggest you find a good private teacher who will help you navigate the ins and outs of playing jazz. Playing in as many ensembles that you can also helps, as you will learn from the more experienced musicians.
Go to as many concerts as you can and see and listen to how the professionals play their instruments and how they entertain the audience.
Be hungry for more and more knowledge about your instrument and learning how to play jazz. Never stop practicing your instrument. There are going to be many times you will hear the word NO, but when the word YES comes around it will be worth the wait. Never give up on your dreams.
Current projects: does your upcoming CD have a name yet? What inspired it?
I am currently working on my next project, but I don’t have a name for it yet. My theme is going to be more inspirational. Seeing, hearing and feeling how the world needs healing and more love at this time when everything seems so chaotic, filled with hatred and hopelessness.
Favorite track (of yours) ever?
Wow that is a hard one to answer, as each and every one of my songs means something special to me (a time, place or feeling in my life). I would say “We Come Together” from my “Nothing Between Us” CD. Because I feel we all need to come together as one and unite to make this world a better place for everyone.
What’s “Five Guys Named Moe”?
It’s a musical. I was contracted to play in the band for it. My band is called The Sam Hankins Jazz Band and I have five additional members in this group (sax, bass, guitar, keys and drums).
How would you characterize your style and your sound?
My style is very melodic and flowing. I like my sound to be soulful and pleasing to the ear that people can enjoy anywhere.
What is the definition of success to you?
That would be to live my music. To be able to wake up every day and compose, teach and perform. To go on tour with my band to different countries where my music is being played and to meet my fans in those countries.
What is the jazz scene like in Chicago?
The jazz scene here in Chicago is very active and enjoyed by many, but the jobs are restricted to who you know. It took me a while to get into the jazz scene here, but I have yet to play at the Chicago Jazz Festival. When you are contracted to play at some of these venues, the pay is not very competitive.
What will it take to get jazz out as more mainstream- played in TV ads, shopping malls, etc.?
I think the kids are the future to getting jazz out on a more mainstream level. This needs to start at the grassroots level by encouraging kids to join the jazz band at their school and promoting jazz via social media where it appeals to kids.
In that way, these kids will use jazz music when they start working for promoting their products in TV ads, businesses, etc. There should be more encouragement, support and exposure to jazz in schools.
Talk about the blending of genres…how do jazz and R&B intersect?
I would have to say jazz and R&B are interchangeable. R&B is derived from jazz. Yes, the tempos may have changed; you the feel the back beat, but R&B would be considered the son of jazz. Rock ‘n’ Roll, Country and Western and Big Band Swing all stem from the very basic foundation of jazz.
Where do you think jazz is headed, compositionally?
I feel the art of jazz is still evolving.
Every day there are so many artists and composers pushing the boundaries in melodies, harmonies and chord structures. We are all looking for that new sound and that new feel; something different but yet familiar enough to be called jazz.
When it comes down to it, there is still that basic fundamental aspect of jazz, the core that started this American music art form. I think jazz is heading upward, sideways and any which way you want to take it. Jazz touches people in so many different ways. As long as people grow and have appreciation for all types of music, jazz will be with us for generations to come.
This is where I would like to take the opportunity to thank my wife, family, friends and fans for their continued support and love of my music. To my fellow musicians whom I have had the privilege and honor of collaborating and playing with on my CDs or yours, or on the music stage, thank you for your support, advice, constructive criticism and making more awesome music. To my students, continue to strive to reach your dreams, whether it is in music or not. The world is your oyster. God Bless!!!
For more information, visit http://samhankinsmusic.com/.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist. Beach photo (c) Gary Apodaca.
(c) Debbie Burke 2017
Awesome interview. Debbie, you are one of the best in the biz!
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Thank you, Christian!
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