Officially, Paul Giess hasn’t been a student since he earned his Master’s degree at Louisiana State University and moved to Philadelphia in 2013. Quite the opposite, in fact; as an instructor and now Education Coordinator at the Clef Club, the trumpeter is helping to educate new generations of Philly jazz musicians.
Despite the change in roles, Giess insists that he hasn’t stopped learning just because he’s become a teacher. “I always try to keep myself in student mode,” he says. “I always want to be growing my music.”
The West Chester native has done that in a variety of ways since moving back to PA. His elegant, supple trumpet lines have graced recordings by local favorites including Yolanda Wisher, Monnette Sudler, Erik Kramer and V. Shayne Frederick, as well as bands like the Abstract Truth and Outside Sound.
He’s also released two soulful albums under his own name, 2015’s U Suite U and his latest outing, Hymns Vol. 1; along with the inventive electronic project Good Morning 2020 – 62 Vignettes to Start Your Day, a wide-ranging series of solo experiments captured during the Covid lockdown.
Hymns Vol. 1 features a stellar band of Giess’ peers including keyboardist Will Brock, guitarist Jeff Scull, bassist Erik Kramer and drummer Matt Jernigan, with vocals by V. Shayne Frederick. The album was produced by the legendary bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, who helped shape not only Giess’ sound but his look.
“Being on stage with Shayne Frederick, you really start to look at what you’re wearing,” Giess explains with a laugh. “I did not have it together like Shayne does on stage, so I decided I needed some direction in that department. Jamaaladeen is very into fashion and he has a little store called the Redd Carpet Room, so I started going there every couple of months to get a new jacket or a new shirt, and our relationship developed out of that.”
The album reaches back into Giess’ upbringing in the Unitarian Universalist Church of West Chester, comprising a kaleidoscopic set of arrangements of songs from the church’s hymnal. The trumpeter reimagines these songs from a variety of perspectives, filtering one through the lens of classic New Orleans jazz, another as taut organ funk, others as a grungy blues or a soaring spiritual jazz piece. The multi-faceted styles reflect the openness encouraged by the church itself.
“The Unitarian Universalist Church gave me a certain license to explore spirituality and what it meant for myself,” he says. “I always felt like that gave me a unique perspective that was different from other people’s church experience. I always valued that ability to explore and make my own definitions.”
The hymnal approach expands on an idea Giess first attempted on U Suite U, which was bracketed by a pair of hymns: “This Little Light of Mine” and “I Take Delight in the Peace,” which had opened and closed typical services in Giess’ church. The remainder of the album consisted of original tunes written throughout the trumpeter’s school years, and included several friends he’d known since high school.
Giess started taking piano lessons at the age of six, switching to the trumpet in elementary school. Initially he was less than enthusiastic. “I didn’t like waking up early,” he recalls, “but my mom said she’d give me a dollar allowance a week if I went to jazz band in the morning. That gave me the motivation to get out of bed.”
“I didn’t like waking up early,” he recalls, “but my mom said she’d give me a dollar allowance a week if I went to jazz band in the morning. That gave me the motivation to get out of bed.”
He discovered his passion for music in high school, where he re-discovered jazz. He was equally drawn to the high-note pyrotechnics of Maynard Ferguson and to the more long-lasting influence of icons like John Coltrane and Miles Davis.
“Miles was playing trumpet in such a different way than we learned about in school,” Giess marvels. There was a mystique about it. Honestly, Miles still has that mystique for me.”
Giess did his undergraduate studies at James Madison University in Virginia before moving to Baton Rouge to continue his education at Louisiana State. While he entered the Master’s program with a penchant for the avant-garde, the communal nature of jazz’s deep roots in the region altered his perspective.
“It’s hard not to fall in love with that music,” he says. “It’s so infectious, and being around it definitely influenced my practice and my study. I spent a lot of time looking at Louis Armstrong and wanting to emulate the energy and joy that he brought across in his prime.”
Doing that has meant more than just performing since Giess returned to Philadelphia. Soon after the move he began teaching at the Clef Club, eventually taking on a more administrative role to help program founder Lovett Hines realize his vision. He also works as Music Coordinator at the Center for Creative Works in Wynnewood, which helps adults with intellectual disabilities to develop their creative potential.
More recently, Giess launched the Phound Sounds podcast in order to help bring more attention to his undersung colleagues in the region. Guests since the launch have included Monnette Sudler, Micah Graves, and Mervin Toussaint.
“I love checking out what other people are doing around the city,” Giess says, once again turning on his student mode. “It gives me an opportunity to be a fan rather than being the person on stage.”
“The trumpeter reimagines these songs from a variety of perspectives, filtering one through the lens of classic New Orleans jazz, another as taut organ funk, others as a grungy blues or a soaring spiritual jazz piece.”