May 7, 2015
By Ken Waxman
For trumpeter Hugh Ragin, 64, the touchstones of his long career have been performing, teaching and pivoting. Considering that as part of what he describes as his “360 degree musicianship”, over the years the trumpeter has been a member of bands led by the likes of Roscoe Mitchell and Maynard Ferguson; that Ragin has taught at locations ranging from Colorado secondary schools, Ohio’s Oberlin and the University of California San Diego jazz camp, the first two are obvious. Swiftly moving or “pivoting” from one part of the country to the other and from one genre to the other though, is how he has kept his career lively during those years. And he’s done this all while remaining based in Aurora, Colorado, a Denver suburb, where he moved in the mid-‘70s.while studying for his masters in trumpet performance
The idea of “pivoting” initially came from Mitchell, Ragin’s long-time friend and inspiration, who he studied with in 1978 at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, N.Y. At that point Mitchell was living on a farm in Wisconsin, but that didn’t stop him from gigging all over the world. As to prove the point, a few weeks after Woodstock, Wadada Leo Smith phoned Ragin and asked him to join his Creative Orchestra for an extended European tour.
Ragin was already experienced player at the time, having started out as a key member of the Houston All-City High School Orchestra in his home town. Long before he received his undergraduate degree in music education at the University of Houston, while playing with a variety of bands, his life-long interest in musical education and originality was sparked when at 15, following one of Duke Ellington’s concerts, he and other aspiring trumpeters got to meet the band’s high-note trumpet specialist Cat Anderson. One student asked Anderson what was the highest note he could play. On being told, the students said he wished he had Anderson’s lips. “Cat said ‘I could give you my lip but it wouldn’t do any good’,” recalls Ragin. “He then pointed to his temple and said ‘I get all my high notes from here’.” Combing that insight into originality with consistent dogged practice (“There’s an exercise that Cat taught me that I still do every day,” he adds), has been the bedrock of Ragin’s adaptability. So was familiarity with the fundamentals. “One thing you learn, especially in classical study is to be a good ensemble player, and that helps in big bands.”
In fact Ragin’s adaptability has long made him an in-demand group player, starting in the ‘70s and ‘80s when he logged considerable time in the large bands of Smith, Anthony Braxton and David Murray. “With David it was sometimes friendly competition,” he recalls. He’s say: ‘you got me the last set, but I’ll next you next one’.” Somewhat surprisingly, this adaptability also led to an extended mid-‘80s gig with Maynard Ferguson’s big band, preserved on the Live from San Francisco disc. “We worked on average six nights a week and also did clinics. When we finished the spiritual level of the playing in the band was four times higher than at the start and so it was with Maynard,” Ragin recalls. “He was also all about the fundamental and practicing yoga. He used to spend 20 minutes before the show just breathing. Later when people asked if he used circular breathing to hold those high notes at the end of songs, he’d quietly tell them about was yoga”.
The musician with whom Ragin has had the closest association with over the decades is Mitchell though, and he has been featured on the latter’s discs, ranging from Snurdy McGurdy and Her Dancin’ Shoes in 1981 to 2013’s Duets. Ragin will be part of Mitchell’s Ensemble at New York’s Vision Festival in July and, because of his association with so many members of the organization, will be as part of the AACM big band at the Chicago Jazz Festival in September. The trumpeter will also be in New York at Mannes College music school next month, with the Pittsburgh Collective big band led by David Sanford, which will perform his composition “Prayer for Lester Bowie”.
The Sanford affiliation relates to Ragin’s other main concern: teaching. He met Sanford, another academic, at an educational conference, where the idea of collaboration came about. Plus teaching also led to his participation in another recent CD. The Sky His Own by the California-based Slumgum quartet. One band member, drummer Trevor Anderies studied with Ragin when he lived in Colorado. Since he considers the trumpeter his mentor he wanted him and his music on Slumgum’s new CD. Still insisting on the fundamentals Ragin will be leading a band of gifted high school students through a program of Ellington compositions at a local jazz festival in Denver this month. (“There will be some Butch Morris-like conduction though,” he adds). Plus and in late June he’ll be part of the faculty-instructors at the University of California San Diego’s one-week Jazz Camp.
Because of these many activities, Ragin has recorded sporadically under his own name. One anomaly and a stand out is 2002’s Sound Pictures for Solo Trumpet put together while Ragin was playing regularly with Israel-based saxophonist Assif Tsahar. Although it was the saxophonist’s idea, the trumpeter says it wasn’t a strange concept, since familiar with solo discs by Braxton Smith and Mitchell. On it he salutes figures as some disparate as Miles Davis, Braxton and even plays “Variations on a Theme by Paganini”, while still maintaining his originality.
“When I had a lesson with Dizzy Gillespie in the ‘70s he showed me one of this famous licks and I said ‘wait I’ll get paper and write it down.’ But he said: ‘don’t do that, you have to put your own thing in it’.”
That originality mixed with knowledge of the fundamentals is what Ragin has maintained during his more than four-decade professional career, performing, teaching ... and pivoting.
Roscoe Mitchell and the Sound Ensemble – Snurdy McGurdy and Her Dancin’ Shoes (Nessa 1981)
Anthony Braxton – Composition 98 (hatART 1981)
Maynard Ferguson – Live From San Francisco (Accord Jazz 1983)
Hugh Ragin –Sound Pictures for Solo Trumpet (Hopscotch 2002)
Roscoe Mitchell –Duets with Tyshawn Sorey & Special Guest Hugh Ragin (Wide Hive 2013)
—For The New York City Jazz Record May 2015