For our November installment of Soggy Po Boys Featuring: We bring you the music of Porgy and Bess with trumpeter Chris Klaxton. The event will take place at Sonny's in Dover on Tuesday 11/24 at 9pm. Chris Klaxton is an in-demand trumpeter and educator (and brother of our own Eric Klaxton) residing in the seacoast. Be sure to check out his website (chrisklaxton.com) and keep an ear out for the release of his second album the weekend of 12/18!
Porgy and Bess is an opera, written in 1935 by George Gerswin. It's songs have been re-arranged and recorded numerous times and have become staples in the American song book. We had a chance to sit down with Chris Klaxton and pick his brain:
What is it about the music of Porgy and Bess stands the test of time?
CK: Gershwin's talents, his time, his place, and his affinity for music across such a broad spectrum, allowed him to be a truly authentic American composer. He got his start writing little ditties and jingles, was heavily influenced by Black music, but also sought to further his study and formidably contend in the world of classical music.
He left such a huge stamp on American music. It's almost impossible to escape his influence. Every jazz band, every film score, and every Broadway since, reeks of Gershwin (delightfully).
Porgy and Bess specifically, I think each tune is fantastic. I'd be hard pressed to find a moment of music I don't like in the entire opera. The melodies are so simple, but the harmonies underneath are beyond rich. The melodies so effective, they've been replicated, adapted, performed throughout the 20th century and after, and never get tired. Some of my favorite artists have covered this music in a variety of ways and it always sounds fresh. I don't think anyone has ever said, "Oh great...another Porgy and Bess record..."
It's also of monumental importance that Gershwin, his brother Ira, and Dubose Heyward chose to tell a Black story. Although there have been detractors that take issue with the way Black characters were portrayed in the opera... from my potentially ignorant, white little bubble, it seems to have been a positive step at an appropriate time towards equality; not so much due to the content of the story, but because a cast of Black operatic performers were able to compete on the world stage, further the genre-bending style of American music, and in some cases, literally break down some segregation traditions that kept black audiences from viewing the opera.
Has Gershwin or those standards influenced the way you write at all?
I would say definitely. I don't write tunes in a similar style, but growing up learning his tunes certainly set the ball rolling. I've always been a bit of a sap, so movie music and Broadway music has always influenced me. I also very much admire his pursuing European classical process, form, textures. I don't think my music sounds like his, but I certainly am inspired by his ability to authentically blend. And I tend to have (which I go back and forth on appreciating) a flair for the dramatic, which I think comes from film music, theater.
As a trumpet player, you live in the world of song and melody. I feel like your phrasing is one of your strengths, could you maybe elaborate on your philosophy on playing melodies?
It's not something I've thought about too much. I do think it's important to have a unified concept of melody, in that: the way you whistle, sing, or tap on the table, should not be obstructed by your instrument. While I often think that I can barely play the trumpet, I tend to feel a bit better knowing you don't have to be a virtuoso to deliver an emotive phrase.
Following up on that, what effect does breathing or even head space have on your playing? What do you do to twist out of a rut where you feel your ideas become predictable?
Generally, taking good breaths helps keep everything in line. And can help you get back to a good space. Usually I freeze up thinking too much when I get in my own way, so the best cure is just to play...anything. I literally will play any note or combination of notes that come to mind and connecting the dots thereafter help put me back into the zone again.
You're a multi-instrumentalist, and pedagogy changes from instrument to instrument. I think of piano having such a regimented teaching history where as guitar is so like a pedagogical frontier. what is the role of tradition in the way you practice and teach?
The trumpet is the instrument that I've had the most experience with, both as a student and as a teacher. Learning that instrument is heavily based on tradition. It is such a difficult instrument for the body to handle, that information is handed down BEST, dogmatically. But the interesting other side to that, is that "this isn't guaranteed to work for everyone" or "modify this and make it your own" are commonly said and understood. I think very few of us have the potential to sort through the physical problems of the trumpet at a young age without fairly intense dogmatic guidance. As a person gets to know their body and mind as they age, practice becomes more intuitive and personalized. And now that I've finished typing all of this, of course, all learning is like this!
I think the material, the categories of practice, are relatively finite. The manner in which a conversation can happen between teacher and student..that is infinite. I find myself constantly teaching the same fundamentals everyday, but the variety of student allows me to express the same fundamentals in a variety of ways.
I also practice that way. Every day I address the same thing. And most days in very much the same way, but as my body and mind change, I'm learning to seek new routes through the same stuff. The biggest challenge is trying to do that when I improvise, with 12 notes! and in real time!!