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Ambrose Akinmusire Is Skipping the Grammys to Honor His Music Heroes

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Black man in baseball cap plays trumpet with eyes closed
Ambrose Akinmusire pictured in 2019. Akinmusire, who received his second Grammy nomination in November, will be skipping the award show in favor of his own residency at SFJAZZ, Feb. 3–5 and Feb. 9 at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. (Peter Van Breukelen/Redferns/Getty Images)

Oakland-born jazz trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire received the second Grammy nomination of his career in November. It was for Best Improvised Jazz Solo, with the song “Rounds (Live)” on Terri Lynne Carrington’s pivotal New Standards, Vol. 1.

But Akinmusire won’t be in Los Angeles on Feb. 5 for this year’s awards ceremony. Instead, the acclaimed musician will be in the Bay — where he’s based — paying tribute to his musical mentors, with a new residency Feb. 3–9 at SFJAZZ.

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Described as possibly “the most distinctive, elusive and ultimately satisfying trumpeter of his generation,” by the New York Times, Akinmusire is a master improviser whose original compositions blend influences beyond classical jazz, including poetry, blues and hip-hop. And while his talent and accomplishments regularly send him to venues all over the world, there’s still no place like home.

“I believe that Oakland, specifically, is sacred ground,” says Akinmusire. “I think it’s a place where you can come and replenish yourself. And that’s something that I see in the culture. It’s something I hear in the music. It’s something that I hear in the way we talk.”

The series of four performances will cap off his role as one of SFJAZZ’s 2022-23 resident artistic directors. “I told [SFJAZZ] I just wanted to find creative ways of saying ‘thank you.’ Showing gratitude,” says the musician of the opportunity.

He kicked off the role last March with a residency titled “Porter,” after his first jazz trumpet teacher, the late Robert Porter, and featured guest performances by some of the Bay Area musicians and mentors who shaped him as an artist, like bassist Marcus Shelby.

“There was a lot of older cats that were here that mentored me that nobody knows of. Like Ed Kelly or Robert Porter or Khalil Shaheed … a drummer named Hi Fi — all these old-school cats who were just around,” says Akinmusire, who played in the jazz ensemble at Berkeley High School. “And some of them were ex-Black Panthers and all these other things. But they played jazz and they were really instrumental in developing me and a lot of the younger musicians.”

The tribute to his musical heroes continues with this new run of performances, which will feature artists like drummer Thomas Pridgen, formerly of the group Mars Volta, and saxophonist Joshua Redman, a fellow Berkeley High alum.

Akinmusire will perform as part of a quartet, trio and duo at the SFJAZZ Center’s Miner Auditorium and then conclude with a solo performance at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, giving a cool “countdown” structure to the performances — 4, 3, 2, 1 — for which Akinmusire gives credit to outgoing SFJAZZ founder and executive artistic director Randall Kline.

For the duo performance, Akinmusire will be joined by legendary double bassist Ron Carter — which is a dream come true for the trumpeter. “At a young age, I wanted to — and I still want to — be Ron Carter. I want to grow up and have the integrity that he has. I mean everything he says, every note he plays has so much integrity and beauty in it,” says the musician, pointing out that Carter doesn’t typically perform with artists of Akinmusire’s generation.

The final, solo performance at Grace Cathedral carries special meaning, says the musician, who notes that he recorded a solo album about a year and a half ago that has yet to be released.

“Playing solo has just been something that’s been in the back of my head,” he says. The appeal, he adds, is the beauty that lives in sitting with oneself — and that being enough.

“I think when you have a lot of technique and you can play almost everything that’s in your head, it’s hard to commit to beauty. It’s hard to not do the flashy stuff,” says Akinmusire. “So I wanted to do a solo project that is just about sitting in the center of the beauty. The center of self, which is, for me, beauty. And so that’s why I’m doing the Grace Cathedral [show].”

And that’s likely why so many music lovers will relish the opportunity to experience it with him.

Ambrose Akinmusire performs nightly from Feb. 3–5 at the SFJAZZ Center and Feb. 9 at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Details here.

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