Pianist Ahmad Jamal lays claim to authorship of the term "American classical music" as a way of referencing jazz, but the spirit it represents has transcended the efforts of any one artist.
Trumpeter Sean Jones spent more than five years at what might fairly be termed the epicenter of efforts to institutionalize jazz once and for all as highbrow American art: the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, founded and led by Wynton Marsalis.
Jones had been a featured soloist with the ensemble -- no small distinction, considering Marsalis himself is a trumpeter -- before leaving in 2010 to pursue his solo career. A hands-on jazz academic as well, Jones will perform in dual sets at Williams College this evening: first, sitting in for several Duke Ellington compositions with the student Williams Jazz Ensemble, and then with his own quartet. The concert follows a two-day residency at the college.
The concert, featuring the Williams Jazz Ensemble and the Sean Jones Group, is at Williams'Chapin Hall, and is free and open to the public.
"I think that the jazz orchestra is America's orchestra," Jones said in a telephone interview from his home in Pittsburgh.
"The orchestra format for America is the jazz big band. People write piece for those instruments to come together and create a certain sound and play in a unified format.
Jones' work with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra did not
preclude release of a string of small-group solo albums, but his step away from that prestigious gig had broader implications.
He decided to leave New York City and head back to Pittsburgh, where he felt he could make more of an immediate impact in an effort to grow the city's jazz scene. He is also a professor of jazz studies at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, and professor of jazz trumpet at the Con servatory of Music at Oberlin College in his native Ohio.
"New York is just fine (without me)," he said. "There needs to be a group of people in every city that keeps the arts going in a really meaningful way. I decided to come back home and it's been fulfilling."
He also said it was an important move to allow him the artistic space to continue developing as a bandleader.
"I think every artist wants to grow. I think that after several years of performing in an ensemble it was time for me to expand my horizons as a leader and as a writer," he said. "In order to do that, you just have to take time. If you're on the road fulfilling someone else's vision, then you're not going to be able to get to your own vision because you're working for somebody else."
Pianist and educator Andy Jaffe, the director of jazz performance at Williams, said the 17 students in his Ellington course will have the chance to quiz Jones on his technique, and the trumpet players in the Williams Jazz Ensemble will work with him in a rehearsal setting as well.
"They find out what it's like to play that music at the highest level that they can," Jaffe said. "He's going to be sitting in with the band and trading solos with our students and all that kind of thing, so it will be a real first-hand experience."
Jones' belief in an academic underpinning to jazz technique is well-grounded. As an undergrad himself he pursued a degree in classical trumpet performance and followed it up with a master's degree at Rutgers University.
He said his own understanding of music is bolstered by his work as an instructor, as it causes him to codify in his mind what might otherwise be the mysterious workings of the creative spirit. In discussing his own composition process with students, for instance, he said he gains clearer insight into what works best for him when he sits down to write.
Even the skills of improvisation, that ephemeral but so-important element of jazz, can be sharpened in the classroom, Jones said.
"When you improvise you're drawing on a palette of information that you already have, and you're putting that information together in the moment-- that's the spontaneity of it.
"Painters spontaneously compose art," he said, "however they know what colors they're going to use. They know what colors create certain shades and bring out certain forms and they have a variety of techniques to draw from in the moment. It's the same with musicians. We're not inventing the notes. We're not inventing an E-flat. But we'e taking all of this information and we're putting it together in a solo or a composition from our experience in our own way."
He said his decision to formally study classical trumpet rather than jazz trumpet lies in the roots of the instrument, and his desire to bolster his technical proficiency as much as possible.
"If you want to be pedalogically sound on an instrument, and understand what's behind creating a good sound, a good tone, being technically proficient on the instrument, I think it's important to study the music from the European classical standpoint at least a little bit."
Jones will have a chance to showcase both sides of his work -- the accomplished student and professor of trumpet, and the busy jazz bandleader -- in Williamstown this week.
Follow Jeremy D. Goodwin on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin.
If you go ...
Who: Jazz trumpeter Sean Jones with Williams Jazz Ensemble and Sean Jones Group
When: Tonight 8
Where: Chapin Hall, Chapin Hall Drive, Williams College, Williamstown
Concert hotline: (413) 597-3146; music.williams.edu