Hometown Hero: Wallace Roney

By Suzanne Cloud

Trumpeter Wallace Roney died from complications of the COVID-19 virus on March 31, 2020 at the age of 59. But his life in Philadelphia and beyond will always make him a Hometown Hero.

Born on May 25, 1960 in Philadelphia, Roney would become one of the leading lights of The Young Lions Movement in the 1980s. When he was 4 years old, his family discovered he had perfect pitch, so he was packed off to Settlement Music School to develop his talent and be tutored by Sigmund Hering, trumpeter for the Philadelphia Orchestra. A prodigy, Roney became the youngest member of the Philadelphia Brass Ensemble at age 12 until his parents divorced and the young teen trumpeter went to live with his father in Washington, D.C.,  where he immediately enrolled in the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a top high school for promising talent. Before he even graduated high school, he made his debut at Ali’s Alley, a loft space venue opened by Philadelphia drummer Rashied Ali to showcase veterans of the free jazz movement and encourage up-and-coming jazz musicians.

Within a few years, Roney’s star was rising and he moved to New York City permanently in 1981, where he played with Dollar Brand, McCoy Tyner, Cedar Walton, Jay McShann, Slide Hampton, David Murray, Curtis Fuller, Junior Cook, and Frank Foster’s Big Band. 

Then came his big creative break—he became a member of the Tony Williams Quintet and took the place of Terence Blanchard in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the late 1980s. Once Roney released his first album as a leader, Verses, in 1989, he was an established jazz luminary.

Profiling Roney in The Washington Post, novelist James McBride declared, “His name is Wallace Roney III. He is 27 years old . . . and he is one of the best jazz trumpet players in the world.”

“His name is Wallace Roney III. He is 27 years old . . . and he is one of the best jazz trumpet players in the world.”

Wallace Roney was often accused of being a Miles Davis imitator by critics, and he never refuted that Miles was a huge influence on him. But Roney was immensely proud of what he learned from Miles, especially after they became fast friends. And Roney was always quick to point out that he followed his own muse. 

Roney, interviewed by JazzTimes, said, “Man, it takes a lot of knowledge to know how to open that door, to get that type of freedom within the form, to be able to take a chord and make that chord go anywhere you want. The reason John Coltrane played the way he played was because forms were nothing anymore. But they were everything… Then he got past that, where he could reduce it down to one chord and get the whole cycle in. Then he got to a point where you didn’t know whether he was playing ‘Resolution’ or ‘Bye Bye Blackbird,’ because what he was trying to say was the most important thing. . . That’s what people need to respect, not the licks.”

Wallace Roney won the Downbeat Award for Best Young Jazz Musician of the Year in 1979 and 1980, and at the end of that decade, he won the DownBeat Magazine’s Critic’s Poll for Best Trumpeter to Watch. Roney won a Grammy in 1994 for his participation in “A Tribute to Miles,” and he never tired of telling the story of when he met his idol. While appearing in an earlier tribute at The Bottom Line.

“He [Davis] asked me what kind of trumpet I had,” Roney told Time magazine, “and I told him none. So, he gave me one of his.”

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