Trumpet Player, USF Alumnus, and Adjunct Professor James Suggs Brings Global Performance Experience to Students
Wednesday, December 04, 2019
Professional trumpeter and USF music alumnus James Suggs is in his second year of teaching as adjunct professor of trumpet at the USF School of Music.
Suggs brings 30 years of experience as a trumpet player, having played in professional big bands, popular music groups, cruise ship performances, and, most recently, as a recording artist with his solo album. This rich experience, combined with lessons learned from his teachers, informs his teaching style today.
“I try to approach it from both sides, from what my teachers taught me—all the great lessons I learned from all the teachers I’ve had—and also my life, putting it into action,” said Suggs. “It’s one thing to say ‘ok I studied this, I’m good at this,’ in the practice room. But it’s another thing to be like ‘ok, I’ve done this one the road … I did this last night on the gig.’”
Suggs blends his lived experience with the lessons learned from those who taught him, providing a narrative perspective to students that goes beyond technique and theory alone. He directs the Jazz Ensemble 2 and Jazz Combo groups at USF in addition to teaching jazz trumpet lessons—a class open to USF students of all majors.
He is an introspective and experienced mentor for students eager to improve their playing.
Some of the best advice he gives students is to step away from their instrument and listen critically to the music.
“Any chance you can get to listen—really listen to music—that is the most important,” said Suggs.
He recalls the listening sessions he had with friends while he was in college. They would put in a CD and listen to the same track repeatedly, each time listening to a new minute detail of the music: the drummer’s right hand, the drummer’s left hand, the pianist’s right hand. This type of critical listening, Suggs says, is what musicians need to do to take their playing to the next level.
“And immediately you start hearing these nuances, these amazing things that are happening,” said Suggs, “and those are the things that separate an average musician—a mediocre musician—and a really good musician. Those little things.”
Suggs road to being a professional trumpet player began at the age of 9. At the age of 10, he met trumpet legend Wynton Marsalis backstage at a gig in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he received an impromptu music lesson from the jazz great. Determined to become a jazz trumpet player, Suggs went on to take trumpet lessons and attend jazz seminars throughout his youth. At the age of 13, a private teacher introduced Suggs to the music of all the jazz greats—Armstrong, Wynton Marsalis, Dizzy G, and Mile Davis—and to transcribing music.
He attended Ohio’s Youngstown University to study jazz for his undergraduate degree. Upon graduating, Suggs worked as a performer on cruise ships traveling to destinations such as the Caribbean and Hawaii. He worked on six cruise ships altogether.
“That was the first moment that I actually felt like a working musician,” said Suggs. “People were going on vacation to hear me play, basically. I was a part of their vacation. … I felt like I had made it.”
Around the same time, Suggs began to play with renowned big bands the Glenn Miller Orchestra and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. With these ensembles, Suggs experienced the demands of working in a professional touring band. He took on all the duties of playing with a high-caliber professional group: preparing music, waking up early, and preparing his lips.
“It was a good moment to be thrown into the fire,” said Suggs.
Suggs then changed things up by moving to Argentina, where he reconnected with friends who introduced him to the local music scene. He performed with numerous pop groups, most notably Los Pericos, a popular ska and reggae-influenced Latin rock band. He toured internationally with the band, performing in Portugal, London, and all over South America and the United States.
In 2014, Suggs felt the level of his musicianship beginning to plateau. He was busy as a full-time musician in Argentina, however, he yearned to keep growing.
“I felt like I needed to move on. … I wasn’t being pushed anymore,” said Suggs. “I wasn’t feeling challenged anymore. I was having a great time in Argentina, but I wasn’t feeling that push. Plus, I was missing my family. I missed speaking English.”
After 8 years of living in Argentina, Suggs decided to move back to the United States, settling in St. Petersburg, Florida. He connected with the musicians of the Tampa Bay scene, immersing himself in the music opportunities of the area and gradually building up his reputation in the new city.
You can hear about how he established himself in a new city in this interview with fellow USF music alumnus and jazz musician Paul Gavin.
Suggs connected with USF professor and director of jazz studies Jack Wilkins and jumped at the chance to continue his education, completing his graduate studies at USF and receiving his master’s degree in jazz studies in 2018.
In 2018, he also released his debut album, “You’re Gonna Hear from Me,” a recording project of jazz charts and three originals produced by legendary saxophonist and record producer Houston Person. The project came to be after Suggs met Rachel Domber of Clearwater jazz label Arbors Records at a music festival. She liked his sound and wanted to record him. Suggs was interested, but he didn’t realize the scope of this opportunity until later.
He exchanged emails with Domber as they planned the recording project. An important part of the project was deciding which musicians to bring on as collaborators in the project.
“She told me ‘the sky’s the limit,’” recounts Suggs. “I said ‘I don’t know what that means.’ She said, ‘that’s exactly what you think it means. The sky’s the limit. You can call anybody that you want.’”
He started by writing a list of all the jazz musicians he would like to work with. Big names in jazz—his childhood heroes—populated the list. The rare opportunity he had was beginning to sink in.
Person, 84, was one of his heroes to sign on to the project. He became the expert mentor Suggs was looking for, happily taking on the role of producer for the project. Together, they selected music to record, and Person curated an expert band of musicians from the New York scene—Lafayette Harris on keys, Peter Washington on bass, and Lewis Nash on drums. Person also contributed his saxophone playing to the record.
They recorded at the legendary Van Gelder Studios, the place where Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, and Herbie Hancock recorded some of their greatest works.
“Trying not to get freaked out—that was my biggest goal those few days,” said Suggs.
The recording process itself matched the old-school heritage of the recording space. Suggs and the ensemble recorded the whole album in about seven hours, with only a day of rehearsal the day beforehand. This pace of recording, Suggs says, is in line with how Houston has always recorded.
While musicians today might get a week or more to record their project, Suggs felt the fast pace of the recording project to be ideal for him.
“It’s less stress when it comes down to it. … It’s all raw,” said Suggs.
“You’re Gonna Hear From Me” quickly found its way to the JAZZIZ Magazine’s list “10 New Jazz Albums You Need to Know About” for December 2018. He held a well-received album release show at the Palladium in St. Petersburg in March and has continued playing shows locally and around the country. Tracks from the album has been broadcast on radio stations around the U.S. and Canada.
The unexpected opportunities surrounding the album has opened up new doors for Suggs. From playing at large jazz festivals to playing with top-tier jazz professionals, Suggs has learned to trust himself while stepping into the unknown.
“In those moments, you have to step up,” said Suggs. “Those are the learning moments where you can’t think about theory, you can’t think about technique, you just have to trust what you’ve done, what you’ve worked on to this point. It’s scary, but it’s also a natural high.”
Paul Gavin: How to Get Gigs After Moving to a New Scene feat. James Suggs