When trumpeter Alonzo Demetrius arrived at Berklee College of Music in the fall of 2014, he expected his musical world to open up to new avenues. What came as a surprise was how the school also broadened its political thinking.
The results of these two new revivals can be heard on Demetrius’ ambitious debut in 2020, 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 concentrated anger that motivates political reform.
“When I got to university, it was the first time I had met other young people, radicals and politicians,” says Demetrius. “It was right after Michael Brown was shot and rioted in Ferguson [Missouri]. I started attending protests and rallies, and it really kindled the flame for me. “
The flame of passion for music had been kindled years earlier. Growing up in Plainsboro, New Jersey, Demetrius started playing the piano at the age of 8, but didn’t become serious until he started playing the trumpet two years later. Opting for instrument testing as a way out of the study room, he had almost given up and reluctantly turned back to his homework.
“I had tried six or seven instruments, but none spoke to me,” he recalls. “I was going out and saw some friends trying out trumpet mouthpieces, and everyone was having a hard time getting the sound of the trumpet out. I was like, ‘This can’t be that hard.’ And I got it on the first try, so I thought I was going to roll with this.
Although Demetrius’ early experiences playing the trumpet in a college jazz band involved what he describes as “cheesy arrangements of rock tunes like ‘Born to Be Wild’,” he soon discovered jazz by encouraging his teachers.
“My orchestra teacher, Mr. Woodward, gave me a CD that contained this amazing arrangement of ‘Caravan’ by Freddie Hubbard. I had never heard anything like it before. I have listened to this CD over and over again.
Hubbard became a crucial influence, but Demetrius quickly found himself drawn to the icons of the trumpet with a somewhat more irreverent approach to music. “I loved the character that Dizzy Gillespie brought to the music,” he explains.
“Freddie is a very intense personality, but Dizzy has always been more playful. I remember I was 11 and heard a grown man say “Salt Peanuts” in a funny way – it catches your ear. Then [you realize] trumpet playing is out of this world. My all-time favorite trumpeter is Lee Morgan, for [a similar] right. Their character is more sassy and touching, but it’s the character of their game that appeals to me. “
During his freshman year of high school, Demetrius met Philadelphia saxophonist Yesseh Furaha-Ali, who invited him to join a peer group at the Clef Club on Saturday. Demetrius quickly 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 moved together to Boston and Berklee in 2014. While the pianist now tours with the Jonas Brothers, the saxophonist has remained in Boston and is a member of the Demetrius The Ego quintet, which has recorded Live from the prison nation.
The music Demetrius creates with The Ego reflects both the classic hard bop that sparked his passion for jazz as well as the R&B, gospel and hip-hop he grew up with. These connect via more contemporary influences like Terence Blanchard, who influenced Demetrius’ use of a variety of electronic pedals and treatments to evoke adventurous and otherworldly sounds from his horn.
“I never want to change the sound of the trumpet,” he describes. “I just use effects to add to this sound, which make it bigger, make it travel more, or make it feel like I’m ten trumpets at a time.”
The passionate album was created as Demetrius’ master’s thesis for the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, which he describes as “examining the [crossroads] to be a socially conscious citizen and to be a musician. What can you do with this platform? What impact can you have? “
Live from the prison nation is also significant as a first release on Ralph Peterson’s Onyx Productions label, particularly significant given the influential drummer’s death six months after his release. Peterson, who taught at Berklee, was “one of the most terrifying teachers I have ever had,” Demetrius says.
“I’ve never had a teacher so willing to let you fail.” He was super generous and always helped you up, but he was never the type to protect you from failure. And for me, it was really important. It 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. This new start was interrupted by the pandemic, forcing him to return to New Jersey and retire to the real estate to overcome hardships. year. While he had already begun to forge exciting connections in the city, including collaborations with Dezron Douglas and Terri Lyne Carrington, the trumpeter continues to feel a strong connection with Philadelphia.
“Once I went to the Clef Club, it made Philly my musical home,” he insists. “I love New York, but Philly has always had and, for me, will always have a much more cohesive vibe. New York has always seemed intimidating, but I’ve always felt the people of Philly look at each other like family and really take care of each other.