When you ask jazz musician John Lumpkin to describe the music that drives his life he says, “It’s literally you. There’s no other simple way to say it. It’s unscripted; it’s something that you follow internally. It’s challenging yourself to bring out yourself.”
Lumpkin is a producer, arranger, musician and instructor. Throughout his career, he has shared the stage with greats such as Delfeayo Marsalis, Wycliffe Gordon, Marcus Roberts, Rufus Reid and David Baker, just to name a few. He has served on staff at the University of North Florida and Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, has a masters degree from Florida State, runs the John Lumpkin Institute, performs with his band The Covenant and he is the founder of the Jazz Discovery Series at The Ritz Theatre in downtown Jacksonville. Music runs his world.
Lumpkin grew up surrounded by musical talent. His mother went to Julliard and sung opera and gospel music, and his cousins were drummers, an organist and a trombonist. “There was a lot of music around me. My grandmother was a pastor. She had a church. My mother was always singing, and we were performing,” he says.
It started with gospel, but his love of jazz came later in life when he was going to school here in Jacksonville. “In high school, I didn’t know you could get a degree in music. Early in community college, while attending FSCJ’s south campus, that’s where I discovered jazz. It was there that I received a lot of training in music and music theory. I threw myself in there listening to artist like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Chick Corea, just trying to listen to the language. College put me on the path for finding jazz.”
Through his studies, Lumpkin found that there is a deep history of jazz in Jacksonville. “Where do you want to start,” Lumpkin says with a smile. “Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, all the way to James Brown. A lot of jazz musicians came from the south and migrated up to New York and Chicago… The Ritz and LaVilla were known as the Harlem of the South. There are a lot of musicians who came through there. Jacksonville literally was the spot.”
Times have definitely changed; unfortunately the options to hear live jazz music are slim to none. Grape & Grain Exchange in San Marco host a jazz night once a month, and a new spot is opening up downtown called Breezy Jazz Club that plans to have jazz music.
Lumpkin saw the lack of jazz music in the city and started the Jazz Discovery Series, which features young artists emerging onto the national jazz scene. “I’m basically finding and presenting Ella Fitzgerald before she became Ella Fitzgerald,” he explains. “You’re going to start hearing about the artist I bring in, after I bring them in. I would love to see the city of Jacksonville support it.” His main goal is to bring jazz back to Jacksonville. “Family, good music and good rich heritage with the music we call jazz,” he says.
This month, a great opportunity to dig on our jazz heritage is the Jacksonville Jazz Festival. The festival returns May 25th through the 28th. Three stages of live jazz music, and 15 blocks of downtown Jacksonville packed with food, drinks and entertainment. Lumpkin has had a number of roles with the festival, from performer to organizer and sees it as an opportunity to put the city back on the map as a music destination.
“This festival is respected around the globe. It’s one of the largest festivals around the world, on top of the fact that it’s free to the public. The Jacksonville Jazz Festival has prestige,” he says.
For the lineup this year, he said there is one person you can’t miss: Jazzmeia Horn. “She can do things with her voice that most vocalists can’t do. Her voice is an instrument.”
The Jacksonville Jazz Fest is May 25th – 28th this year.