Ambrose Akinmusire Soundtracks Black Resistance from Oakland to the World

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Ambrose Akinmusire returned to his hometown of Oakland to write 'on the tender spot of every calloused moment,' an album that captures the grief and hope of the movement for racial justice. (Ogata)

In June, as the date approached for Ambrose Akinmusire’s fifth release on famed jazz label Blue Note Records, people across the country flooded the streets in protest. The Black Lives Matter movement and the long-standing fight for racial justice picked up with reinvigorated momentum, and the composer, trumpet player and bandleader’s stunning new album, on the tender spot of every calloused moment, felt like nothing short of a necessary companion piece to this moment in the quest for Black liberation.

For the Oakland-born and -bred Akinmusire, on the tender spot of every calloused moment is a continuation of the Black art he’s been creating long before this recent surge in civil unrest.

“All of my albums have been released at the time of Black trauma in the U.S.,” Akinmusire says. “But I probably wouldn’t have been doing this had it not been for the Oscar Grant shooting happening at the same time I was releasing my first album. That hit home.”

Akinmusire and Grant were from the same area, were close in age and knew some of the same people. “His uncle and auntie would come to my shows and I talked to them a couple times,” he says. “So I was thrust into this very personal feeling because I know what Fruitvale BART station looks like, I know the sounds and I know what it's like to be on that platform waiting for trains.”

Akinmusire’s ability to make music that speaks to his changing experience in the shapeshifting tumult of America has made the 38 year old one of the most respected creators in jazz. In 2007, the Berkeley High School graduate won the prestigious Thelonious Monk Competition, paving the way for his illustrious career. Now part of Blue Note’s core roster, Akinmusire has also played alongside masters like saxophonist Steve Coleman, pianist Vijay Ayer and bassist Esperanza Spalding. He graced the cover of jazz publication Downbeat Magazine in 2014 and in 2017, and played trumpet on Kendrick Lamar’s groundbreaking To Pimp A Butterfly, appearing on the album’s stirring closing track, “Mortal Man.”


Akinmusire’s journey started in the Bay Area. Born in North Oakland to a Nigerian father and a mother from Mississippi, he first played piano at his Baptist church before taking to trumpet at Santa Fe Elementary School. He eventually became a part of the famed Berkeley High jazz band when his mother—seeing the potential and passion in the young musician—lobbied for an inter-district transfer successfully, with an assist from then-band director Charles Hamilton.

While at Berkeley High, Akinmusire became part of the Monterey Jazz Festival’s Next Generation Orchestra and then attended the Manhattan School of Music in New York. Afterwards, he moved to Los Angeles to get his master’s degree at the University of Southern California’s Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance. After moving back and forth from New York to L.A. for more than 15 years and touring the world many times over, Akinmusire finally settled back down in Oakland in 2016.

“I moved back to Oakland mainly because I wanted to know what it felt like to create from the place,” he says. “A lot of people come from a place that inspires their art, but they don’t return to it and continue creating.”

Since moving back, Akinmusire released the 2018 Origami Harvest EP along with this year’s on the tender spot... The two diverge sonically at times, but converge thematically within the composer’s story arc. Origami Harvest teems with hip-hop sensibility on tracks like “a blooming bloodfruit in a hoodie” and “Americana / the garden waits for you to match her wilderness.” Akinmusire describes the project as his “last bits of optimism” in the discussion of America’s glaringly opposing social forces. on the tender spot… takes a different approach, simmering in the somber blues of an unjust system on tracks like “Yessss” and “reset (quiet victories&celebrated defeats).”

“On the new one, we’re not talking anymore,” Akinmusire says. “It’s about acceptance and, now, action.”

Richmond native Justin Brown plays drums throughout the new album. He forged a musical relationship with Akinmusire at the Young Musicians Program at UC Berkeley. Even back then when they were barely teenagers, the aspiring bandleader was lobbying Brown—two years his junior—to join him at Berkeley High. Brown (who also plays drums with L.A. future-funk bassist Thundercat) has since played across most of Akinmusire’s discography, and the two remain close.

“He’s allowed himself to work at his craft and gain knowledge and life experience,” Brown says. “It's almost like you can hear it throughout his music how his personality is changing. You can see transitions that reflect his life. It's a tough thing already being a Black man in this world, but submitting to being a Black artist can come with a lot of existential dread, and it can come with a lot of insight. I think he’s one that just submitted to that.”

It’s clear that Akinmusire is far from done. When we speak, he’s easy going and often gregarious, but always even-keeled and comfortable in his reflections and intent. He speaks proudly of the masterclasses he taught at USC from 2012–2015 and laments how even before the pandemic, the infrastructure isn’t what it used to be for aspiring musicians in the Bay Area.

He hints at what lies ahead and says he wants to help provide a place for local, young musicians to flourish in their art, just like he learned to do while performing with his mentors at multiple gigs a night on both sides of the Bay Bridge. Those experiences allowed him to share his talent with the world and see firsthand the power of his music.

“Art has the power to educate people,” he says. “For me, Black art gives space for the non-living to live and to affect people and hopefully liberate them from their ignorance.”