When you ask a musician what makes a good leader and at the top of the list is, “Welcoming others to take the spotlight and share credit, reflecting the needs and desires of the community you’re leading instead of your own personal vision, also the confidence to pursue the things you think your community needs even if it hasn’t been expressed,” then you know you have a leader on your hands.
Trumpeter Paul Geiss is exactly that musician, and he’s part of the inaugural cohort of Jazz Philadelphia’s CORE Cooperative. In addition to being a composer, producer, and educator—he’s the Education Coordinator at the legendary Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts—Geiss has also worked for the last seven years with adults with developmental disabilities, a job he’s loved and has stepped down from. “That community is dear to me and I’m looking for ways to work with them again, or to earn enough in other parts of my life that I can give time to them as a volunteer.”
In 2018, Geiss completed a McKnight Visiting Composers Residency, awarded through the American Composers Forum. For the residency, Geiss collaborated and performed with MSS, a community of artists with disabilities in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. Paul’s debut album “U Suite U” was self released in 2015, opening and closing with the hymns that opened and closed his church’s Sunday services.
He’s been planning and building up the business side of his career, and has high hopes for others as well. “I hope for Philadelphia’s jazz scene to cultivate enough of an audience in the city and the surrounding suburbs that it will provide real financial support for established and up-and-coming artists,” says Geiss. “I see three things in the way of audience development: Financial investment, industry support, and artists development. With all three, the jazz scene in Philadelphia will surely be booming.”
“I hope for Philadelphia’s jazz scene to cultivate enough of an audience in the city and the surrounding suburbs that it will provide real financial support for established and up-and-coming artists.”
He speaks highly of his colleagues at the Clef Club, and as soon as he brings up “Mr. Hines”—for the uninitiated, that’s Lovett Hines, its long-time education guru—Geiss gets a broad smile. He says he’s been studying just what it takes to produce stand-out jazz performers such as Christian McBride and Immanual Wilkins so that he can develop that “special sauce” in order to support young players as much as possible himself. “Mr. Hines’s students are always head and shoulders above other players,” says Geiss.
The toll on musicians who are trying to make a living both through playing and teaching can be high. “I feel pretty stretched thin in general on different educational fronts,” says Geiss. “Even with the logistics around gigs, it can feel like actually playing music is the last thing on the list.”
But music is still what it’s all about. His most recent album,“Hymn’s Vol. 1” was released in August of 2021 on Ropeadope Records. Produced by Philadelphia’s own Jamaaladeen Tacuma, the album is a collection of Geiss’s lovingly crafted arrangements of hymns and spirituals from the Unitarian Universalist hymn book of his youth.
WRTI’s Matt Silver says, “The music’s sourced from the hymnal of the West Chester-area church Giess grew up attending, but it’s infused with a Crescent City sensibility. The opener, a Giess arrangement of ‘We’re Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table,’ struts with all the peacocking panache of a musical procession down Magazine St.”
Lest anyone think that all the magic is in the recording process, Geiss is just as adept onstage. “Paul Geiss is an emerging original voice in Philly’s jazz scene,” says Philadelphia jazz community stalwart Homer Jackson of the Philadelphia Jazz Project. “He’s a patient teacher, a tireless composer and an aggressive improviser—it all becomes evident when you see him play.”
Geiss says he “aims to use music and performance as a tool for community building and bearing healing messages,” and he loves playing as a sideman with Yolanda Wisher and the Afroeaters. He says that he looks up to Wisher and her leadership, and that it’s his favorite creative collaboration. “I occasionally get to write for the band, and she loves my trumpet playing! She also has a vision and a voice that I feel is extremely important and I really enjoy being a supporting part of sharing her message,” he says. “She’s also an amazing role model. I hope to have a clarity of vision and professional expectation on par with Yolanda one day.”
He’s particularly interested in supporting women in the community. “I hope to find gender balance on stage. The imbalance is stunning!” says Geiss. “Many things contribute to the gender imbalance, but opportunity and role models are obstacles to overcoming this reality. A variety of perspectives is inherently interesting, and good for audience development. So more women artists need to be given opportunity for that fact alone. But we also need to have intentional programming to support the young women and girls in our education programming.”
Positivity in the scene is something else he’s got in his sites. “I also hope for the jazz scene to find a more welcoming posture,” Geiss says. He realizes that there are pockets here or there that might feel negative or unwelcoming to people, and he wants to change that so that all players feel welcome, and that the audiences feel welcome as well. “The jazz scene’s insular nature is an obstacle to a more welcoming culture. This can be overcome with cultural exchange,” says Geiss, and he wants to see more jazz musicians playing joint concerts with bands who come from other genres or cultures and for them all to think about playing each other’s repertoire.
He says that as white musician in a Black music tradition, he tries to find ways to connect and support. “I think about how I can use my position to uplift others a great deal. I think about my position working in some Black communities and how I need to reflect and make sure I’m working in a supportive role to give the community what people are expressing to me as it’s needs.”
As he matures as an artist and leader, he wants to continually meet a high bar. “I hope to be able to produce high level artistic albums that express the diversity of culture in my relationships, and create ways to create real earnings while doing it,” he says. That includes expanding his circle. “I hope to create work with musicians and artists who inspire me and maybe even with some of my idols. I hope to eventually get more into film music as well!”
“I’m hoping the CORE Cooperative will help me to understand ways to increase my earning potential in the variety of skills I do have to help give me the time to focus on developing my artistic career, “ Geiss explains. “I’m also hoping the CORE Cooperative will help me to understand more specifically what I need to do and who I need to meet to help advance my career so I’m not wasting my time spinning plates.”
“I’m hoping the CORE Cooperative will help me to understand ways to increase my earning potential in the variety of skills I do have to help give me the time to focus on developing my artistic career.”
As he adjusts the time he spends directly on his own music, on other business endeavors, and on his education goals for his students and the larger community, he knows that sometimes he just needs to slow down and think. “Sometimes I take a break because I know I need some space and time for my brain to wrap my mind around a situation,” he says. “In complete honesty, there are some things that are hard that make me scared, and I avoid them. So I’ve been working on developing the confidence to face them more head on.”
The devastation that Covid shutdowns have had on the industry has been particularly hard to weather. “I’m looking to leverage my current situation to find more lucrative playing opportunities. Since the pandemic has made it especially necessary to rely on other forms of income to support myself, it’s hard to find the time to do all the things needed to support my performance and recording career.”
But since “tenacity” and “emotional intelligence” was also on Geiss’s list for what makes a good leader, he’ll likely hit his goals.
“Sometimes,” he says, “things getting hard is motivation in itself, and makes me more determined.”
Find him online at paulgiessmusic.com
Jazz Philadelphia is proud to have Paul Geiss in the inaugural cohort of the CORE Cooperative, an entrepreneurship, leadership, and wellness program for jazz artists and advocates. For more information, visit Jazz Philadelphia.
“Sometimes things getting hard is motivation in itself, and makes me more determined.”