By Shaun Brady | Photo by Katya Krishnan
When trumpeter Alonzo Demetrius arrived at Berklee College of Music in the fall of 2014, he expected to have his musical world opened up to new pathways. What came as a surprise is the way the school broadened his political thinking as well.
The results of both these new awakenings can be heard on Demetrius’ ambitious 2020 debut, Live From the Prison Nation. Incorporating the sampled voices of prison reform activists Angela Davis and Mumia Abu-Jamal, the album simmers with the fierce hope and focused anger that drives political reform.
“When I got to college, it was the first time I was around other young, radical, politically minded people,” Demetrius says. “It was right after Michael Brown was shot and there were riots happening down in Ferguson [Missouri]. I started going to protests and rallies, and that really sparked the flame for me.”
“I started going to protests and rallies, and that really sparked the flame for me.”
The flame of passion for music had been sparked years earlier. Growing up in Plainsboro, New Jersey, Demetrius started out playing piano at the age of 8, but didn’t get serious until he first picked up the trumpet two years later. Opting for instrument tryouts as a way to get out of study hall, he’d almost given up and turned back, reluctantly, to his homework.
“I had tried six or seven instruments, but none of those were speaking to me,” he recalls. “I was walking out and saw some friends trying out trumpet mouthpieces, and everybody was having difficulty getting any sound out of the trumpet. I was like, ‘This can’t be that hard.’ And I got it on the first try, so I figured I’ll roll with this.”
Though Demetrius’ earliest experiences playing trumpet in middle school jazz band involved what he describes as “corny arrangements of rock tunes like ‘Born to Be Wild,’” he soon discovered jazz through encouraging teachers.
“My band teacher, Mr. Woodward, gave me a CD that had this incredible arrangement of ‘Caravan’ by Freddie Hubbard. I’d never heard anything like that before. I listened to that CD over and over and over again.”
Hubbard became a crucial influence, but Demetrius soon found himself drawn to trumpet icons with a somewhat more irreverent approach to the music. “I loved the character Dizzy Gillespie brought to the music,” he explains.
“Freddie is a very intense personality, but Dizzy was always more playful. I remember being 11 years old and hearing a grown man saying ‘Salt Peanuts’ in kind of a funny way – it catches your ear. Then [you realize] the trumpet playing is out of this world. My favorite trumpet player of all time is Lee Morgan, for [a similar] reason. His character is more sassy and soulful, but it’s the character of their playing that draws me in.”
In his junior year of high school, Demetrius met Philadelphia saxophonist Yesseh Furaha-Ali, who invited him to join a group of peers at the Clef Club on Saturdays. Demetrius soon became a regular at the Broad Street institution, joining a cohort of young players who are now all rising stars: Furaha-Ali, saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, drummer Nazir Ebo, and pianist Michael Wooten.
Demetrius, Furaha-Ali and Wooten all made the move to Boston and Berklee together in 2014. While the pianist now tours with the Jonas Brothers, the saxophonist remained in Boston and is a member of Demetrius’ quintet The Ego, which recorded Live From the Prison Nation.
The music that Demetrius creates with The Ego reflects both the classic hard bop that first ignited his passion for jazz along with the R&B, gospel and hip-hop that he was raised on. These connect via more contemporary influences like Terence Blanchard, who influenced Demetrius’ use of a variety of pedals and electronic processing to conjure adventurous, otherworldly sounds from his horn.
“I never want to change the sound of the trumpet,” he describes. “I just use effects to add to that sound, that make it bigger, make it travel more, or make it seem like I’m ten trumpets at once.”
The impassioned album was created as Demetrius’ master’s thesis for the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, which he describes as “examining the [crossroads] of being a socially aware citizen and being a musician. What can you do with that platform? What impact can you make?”
“What can you do with that platform? What impact can you make?”
Live From the Prison Nation is also significant as the first release on Ralph Peterson’s Onyx Productions label, especially meaningful given the influential drummer’s passing six months after its release. Peterson, who taught at Berklee, was “one of the most terrifying teachers I’ve ever had,” says Demetrius.
“I’d never had a teacher that was so willing to let you fail. He was super giving and would always help you pick yourself up, but he was never one to shield you from failure. And for me, that was really important. He really shaped my work ethic and helped me understand the role of a mentor.”
The album became Demetrius’ final project before he moved to New York City in the fall of 2019. That new start was cut short by the pandemic, forcing him to move back to New Jersey and take up a sideline in real estate to weather the trying year. While he’d already begun to make some exciting connections in the city, including collaborations with Dezron Douglas and Terri Lyne Carrington, the trumpeter continues to feel a strong tie with Philadelphia.
“I always felt like the people in Philly look at each other as family and really take care of each other.”
“Once I went to the Clef Club, that cemented Philly as my musical home,” he insists. “I like New York, but Philly always has and, to me, always will have a much tighter-knit vibe. New York always seemed intimidating, but I always felt like the people in Philly look at each other as family and really take care of each other.”