“So we’re messing around with my worst nightmare—and that’s re-harmonizing trad tunes.” Ashlin Parker smiles, his demeanor as bright as the red and yellow paint-spatter design on his t-shirt. He’s seated at a keyboard in his dining room in Uptown, facing the handful of trumpeters who have convened for a Trumpet Mafia rehearsal ahead of their Satchmo SummerFest closing set on August 5. “Let’s do an open voicing,” he suggests, assigning notes to each player for part of “Basin Street Blues.” A sheepish look crosses his face and he almost whispers, “I’m really scared.”
When Lillie Smith, Emily Mikesell and Michael Christie play the open-voiced chord, however, Parker smiles again. “Oh. That’s fine. I’m not scared.” He makes a note about the tweak as the musicians chuckle.
Another trumpeter, Aurelian Barnes, lets himself in the front door, announcing himself with, “I got a trumpet, don’t worry,” and the rehearsal-slash-brainstorming session resumes, fueled in equal parts by discussions about Louis Armstrong’s material and more jokes about too many trumpets.
The trumpet jokes are hardly uncalled for. Parker’s sprawling Trumpet Mafia collective often features upwards of 20 trumpets onstage. It began in the summer of 2013 as a practice group for members of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and other musicians around town and quickly grew as participants invited other trumpeters, including musicians from outside Louisiana and outside the U.S., into the fold. Since then, the group’s annual Jazz Fest sets, which tend to showcase a mix of trumpet-heavy arrangements for standards, hip-hop–driven material and classic New Orleans tunes, have become consistent high points of the entire festival. Though Parker’s not rushing the project, he’s begun recording music with an album in mind. He estimates it has at least 30 trumpeters and four drummers on it already.
The group’s format inherently creates some discomfort for everyone involved. Trumpets, after all, tend to play the lead melody in a jazz band. When the band is comprised of 30 voices, new challenges arise, not least of which is the fact that lots of trumpet players don’t usually shed, or practice, together. Issues like ego and competition add to the underlying problem of making an arrangement for that many of the same instrument work.
But from Parker’s perspective, anxiety can inspire growth, both for the music and for the musicians—particularly when they’re open to learning from each other and committing to a kind of unique united front. With that idea in mind, Trumpet Mafia is built around what its leader describes as a “three-tiered system,” with promising young students playing alongside mid-level pros and established masters.
“This is a learning platform and a performance platform and I want to build a model of togetherness. I want everybody involved,” says Parker.
“All over the world there’s this loss of apprenticeship, so everybody’s trying to be the individual, everybody’s trying to be this solo act. If they could, they would start their own brass band as a solo act,” he adds, laughing. “But no, it’s just togetherness that actually gets this stuff done.”
Trumpet Mafia’s not the only setting where he’s fostering a sense of unity among musicians. The North Carolina native came to New Orleans about a decade ago to pursue a master’s degree in Jazz Studies at UNO. He quickly saw he had some learning to do when it came to New Orleans music, which he discovered by working backwards from Clifford Brown, then forward in history to Miles Davis to Wynton Marsalis to Nicholas Payton, then back again. When he began playing around town here, he realized he’d missed some things. His style began to change, incorporating more Crescent City DNA—including the Armstrong influence.
“I can still hear the Louis Armstrong in Clifford Brown… in Dizzy Gillespie and Freddie Hubbard, in these modern players,” he says. “So even if I decided not to listen to one Louis Armstrong record, we’re so indirectly influenced by him, it’s crazy. And to be influenced by people who were directly influenced by him in this city, I was gonna get caught with it anyway.”
Parker joined the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra in 2008. “I got into some trumpet battles with Irvin [Mayfield] and he said if I kept playing like this he would break my knees and instead he just put me in the band,” he recalls, laughing. “I’m so glad I got a job instead of losing my kneecaps.”
He was also quickly recruited to teach at multiple university programs and is now a guest lecturer at Tulane and an adjunct professor at UNO. In addition, Parker holds down teaching positions for younger players at the Don “Moose” Jamison Heritage School of Music and the Ellis Marsalis Center, where his drive to create a supportive environment for student musicians seems to be just as central to his work as a teacher as it is to his work as a performer himself.
In early July, for example, Parker, fresh off a tour in Switzerland to play Jazz Ascona, was back with his students at Marsalis’ Ninth Ward–based music center. Despite his jet lag, he was leading a horn combo after a full day of classes.
“There are no wrong notes, right?” he asked the group of four boys who looked to be about 8 to 10 years old. As if on cue, the saxophonist, trumpeter, clarinet player and trombonist responded with the other half of pianist Bill Evans’ famous rule: “right… just wrong resolutions.”
They were working their way through an exercise focused on soloing—with each student vying for the Swiss chocolate their teacher promised as a reward. One of the kids was having more trouble than the others. When Parker and his piano-playing colleague cued them to take it from the top, the sax player stopped them.
“Let’s switch directions,” he suggested, offering a way to take the pressure off the musician seated next to him who was struggling. A few more runs through solos and the improvement was audible, as was the struggling student’s confidence boost.
For drummer Adonis Rose, Parker’s devotion to bringing people together has been indispensable in the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, which the trumpeter joined back in 2008.
“It’s just part of his personality,” says Rose, who took over as NOJO’s Artistic Director last year.
“His instrument is a vehicle that he can use to get people’s attention, but he’s like that whether he’s performing or not and that affects the whole orchestra. It affects the band, it affects morale—and I have a lot of support from Ashlin. He was a big reason why I was able to come in with the orchestra and make things happen. Because he can sit down, kind of get the brass players together, get the band to understand things in a way that I can’t.”
“He’s very smart, he knows how to relate to people and he just has a way of bringing new things to the table,” Rose adds.
Those skills also came in handy at Trumpet Mafia’s Satchmo SummerFest rehearsal.
Once a critical mass of players had rolled in, they went through an overall game plan for the festival’s closing performance, which since 2001 has involved a leading local trumpeter’s set dovetailing into the now-annual, multi-horn Trumpet Tribute to Louis Armstrong presented by Popeyes.
Explaining the format, Parker said, “So it’ll still be us up there but it’ll be….” He paused and the sheepishness returned to his face. More laughter erupted around the table. “Yeah. A whole bunch more trumpet players.”
The performance was poised to set a record for the Trumpet Tribute’s trumpet numbers. Or, as Parker put it: “Worst case scenario: Everybody and their mom is up there with their trumpet and we’re gonna do some hella eye contact to figure out how to get out of these songs.”
“I’d say our togetherness will probably keep it together,” he added. “It will be hard for them to battle our organizational skills. They wanna keep playin’ the melody? Alright, well, there’s 20 people playin’ the melody out.”
Everyone laughed again, but agreed. The group seemed more concerned about finding graceful ways to present classic Armstrong material that could be new and interesting without compromising the original spirit of the work.
In Trumpet Mafia’s early days, the group relied on multiple horn sections and thicker, eight- or nine-piece harmonies. Since then, they’ve shifted gears, having discovered they sound stronger using a mix of unison playing and smaller, two- to four-part harmonies. In those settings, the virtuosity of players like Maurice Brown or guests like Nicholas Payton is able to really shine.
The session wound down with talk of playing Armstrong’s rarely-used 1938 “Saints” intro/interlude and digging up the scores for one of Clyde Kerr’s six-trumpet arrangements. There was also a pretty earnest, if giggle-peppered discussion about the logistics of attaching spikes to the musicians’ trumpets, in service of their titular Mafia aesthetic. At Jazz Fest that vibe manifested in multiple players wearing dark shades attached to face-covering bandana-masks, which Parker later described as “the most anti-social sunglasses I’ve ever seen.”
Though just a few of the players slated to perform at the festival made that first rehearsal, it took them less than a week to start locating the hard-to-find Kerr charts. The research process also inspired group-wide ideas for adapting some of Kerr’s other brass band arrangements to an all-trumpet format. Meanwhile, Parker found himself so impressed by his students at the Ellis Marsalis Center, he’d decided to invite a few of them to play with Trumpet Mafia at Satchmo Fest.
Looking ahead, Parker sees Trumpet Mafia as an ever-expanding nucleus of teaching, learning and innovating. “I would have 150 trumpet players if I had the space and money,” he says wistfully.
That would add up. Parker ends up taking a financial hit every Jazz Fest, but even the most expensive gigs don’t seem to tamp his determination to continue extending the Trumpet Mafia model.
“There’s so much I want to do in other communities, too,” he says, describing how bringing a few New Orleans musicians to another country to start practicing, working together and sharing ideas really works.
“The next time they come to New Orleans, they’ve got stuff going and ideas—like we’ve got an arrangement of the Swedish national anthem,” he says. “It’s a win-win, we got places to go. We got organized little practice sessions everywhere we go. I think it’s really cool to see little pockets of people practicing all over the place so that it’s still there. It’s still cooking when we leave.”
Ultimately, Parker’s impetus to bring folks together, whether in the classroom or in the inherently anxiety-inducing Trumpet Mafia format, isn’t just about fostering camaraderie. It’s also fueled by a desire to make something new.
“I’ve always been attracted to liminal spaces, as uncomfortable as they may be—it’s the type of space that jazz was created, performed and innovated in,” he said in a text message in late July. “Passing down knowledge is a great way to do stuff and I’m forever indebted to the masters who taught me, but if that’s the only way we deal with information, it kinda means that everything has already been done,” he explained. “Putting all these creative bodies in one space actually gives us the opportunity to create knowledge, in addition to reinforcing the informational pipeline we have to the masters.”
He elaborated on the idea in a phone conversation later that morning.
“We can always try to take it to an uncomfortable place … it’s a problem-solving kind of network,” he said. Then he laughed. “I mean, you know that first lesson taught on a spiked Trumpet Mafia trumpet is going be difficult.”