Interview with Colin Hancock

Interview with Colin Hancock

I had the chance to talk with Colin about how he became interested in jazz, his view of the genre as a whole today, and just some information about him as a person

Interview with Colin Hancock

I had the chance to talk with Colin about how he became interested in jazz, his view of the genre as a whole today, and just some information about him as a person

Colin Hancock is an Urban and Regional Studies major at Cornell University, but hails from Buda, Texas. He is also a music and law and society minor. Colin enjoys playing and listening to early jazz, as well as the study of its history and influence. He picked up the trumpet after falling in love with the music of Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. He is also an avid record collector and historian in territory and Texas Jazz.

He’s the founder of the Semper Phonograph Company, which records using 100-year-old techniques, and has recorded in LA, on the East Coast, and all over his home state of Texas. He plans on eventually applying to law schools, as well as playing music professionally. His band “The Original Cornell Syncopators” is currently in the midst of a tour that includes stops in NYC and the West Coast. They recently got an offer to record music under a Grammy-nominated label.

I had the chance to talk with Colin about how he became interested in jazz, his view of the genre as a whole today, and just some information about him as a person. Check out the interview below, along with some footage of his work.

"I Wonder What's Become of Joe" - Cornell Syncopators live at the Triad

"The Camel Walk" - Colin Hancock (multitrack recording playing 12 instruments)

"Wheelin" - Me Three (Colin Hancock multitrack recording)

Give us three fun facts about Colin Hancock.

1) I’m not a music major and didn’t come to college to study music. I study urban planning!
2) I play 20 instruments (not including the kazoo or jug). My main instrument is the cornet.
3) I don’t just listen to jazz. In fact, I’m a huge fan of most contemporary music styles. I’ve seen Kendrick twice, as well as Drake, Kanye, and many others.

This is my first time interviewing someone who is a jazz artist/musician, so I’ll be learning as much as the people who ultimately get to read this transcript. What sparked your interest in pursuing this genre?

In short, it was the first artform I experienced that left an impression on me. I was about seven or eight years old the first time I heard it, and something about the energy and personality of each musical part of the puzzle, as well as the rhythmic drive and underlying melodic aspects, which resonated with something in me and stayed there.

Texas is a place with a huge love for music and its culture. Do you draw any influence from where you’ve lived?

Absolutely. Texas is a crossroads of so many things, and Austin, my hometown, is right smack dab in the middle. Historically speaking as far as music goes, the mix of African American music from the South, with rhythms of Latin America and the American West laid the foundation for something unique. Contemporarily, the city has served as a jumping off grounds for several artists in all genres, especially through music festivals like SXSW and ACL. I was involved in the music community in the city from the minute I had my first trumpet lesson, going to shows and eventually performing in them. I still gig there every time I go home. It’s fun and you learn something new in every song!

You’re a pretty well traveled individual. Tell us some of the places you have been and how your worldly experiences have impacted your music.

I have an international family (my dad is from England, and my roots on that side go back to Hungary and India), so I have had the chance to travel a lot throughout my childhood and young adult life. I’ve been as far away as Morocco in Africa, Vancouver Island in Canada, Ireland and the British Isles, and Eastern Europe, as well as many other places. I’m tryna go to South America next. As far as music goes, I’ve gotten to play with some amazing people in my experiences abroad. When I was in High School, my school symphony orchestra went to Bratislava, Slovakia and we played in a hall there from the 1600s which was something really special. I also studied abroad in Europe this Spring and naturally took advantage of the amazing jazz community over there. I played with Mauro Porro in Tuscany for a Balboa Dance Festival, in which the band was billed as “Colin Hancock’s Tuscanians,” my new favorite band name. In London, I sat in with the Vitality Five at Bar Nightjar, which was a dream come true. The level of musicianship that night was something else, lemme tell you.

How do you stay humble despite all you have accomplished so far?

Well, aside from the fact that I have an infinite amount of growth to accomplish as a musician and individual still -- I’m only 22, you know -- I try and remember that while publicity and compliments are great, that’s not what drew me to this art. My love in it lies within the beauty of that which is created, the beauty of the spontaneity in the music, and a yearning to keep it alive and well.

You’re currently still an undergrad at Cornell University and heavily involved. I personally identify with the struggle of doing what you love versus doing what you have to do to succeed in college. How do you find that balance?

The great Paul Merrill, jazz director at Cornell, once said during an especially tough rehearsal during exam season that, “music heals the soul.” I think this is one of the truest things I’ve ever heard. Be it listening to music on records, on my phone, or played by my peers, I just find that no matter how hard times get, I always will have my music. Cornell is an amazing place but it is extremely demanding. Sometimes balancing this music with school can get challenging, but somehow or another it tends to creep up and take over five or ten minutes of my day everyday...although with this tour and all our other shows in the mix, it’s been more like five hours a day!

Was there ever a point in your life where you pondered giving up music for something more realistic?

I always thought I’d do something with it, but I never imagined I’d get this far at all. Part of that lies in my refusal to learn how to read music effectively until high school. When I was a kid, I just wanted to play, and didn’t want to inhibit any chances to ‘cut loose,’ if you will, by focusing on theory. I learned pretty quickly in high school, though, that this would only inhibit creative growth. I guess before this realization, I took music seriously, but not seriously enough. Once I started actually focusing on the technical side of things though, things changed pretty quick. As far as the future, they’ll put me in the ground before I stop playing.

From my understanding, jazz is very popular, but more so on a smaller scale nowadays. It seems like it was much larger decades ago but now it’s really just jazz halls, live local events, etc. Again, I say this with little to no knowledge of the genre. Am I wrong at all in saying this though?

Yes and no. It is certainly not the Roaring 20s, Swing Era or any other similar time period anymore (and as an African-American male, I have no qualms with that). However, there are two things to remember. First, jazz has always been a performance art. One of the biggest problems with listening to early jazz records is that you have to listen to just that, a ‘record’. I was talking about this with Dandy Wellington and the guys in his band in New York a few days ago. Those early records, especially the acoustic ones, only give you a snapshot of how incredible these bands sounded live. Second, jazz is very spontaneous. In the words of my favorite jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke, “you never know what’ll happen next!” A lot of popular music now is all about repetition and familiarity, attributes which exist in jazz too, but not quite so prevalently. Jazz fans often have to be able to sit down and think about what they’re hearing (unless they’re dancers, but that’s another story), and that can be a little weird if you’re not used to it. That being said, there is a huge resurgence in interest in jazz, especially early jazz. I had the pleasure of attending the New York Hot Jazz Festival this Fall, and there were performers there younger than me! I think the social aspects (the dancing, going to speakeasies and cabarets, the clothes etc), and the energy of it all are finding new audiences every day. Instagram also helps.

What do you feel is the future of the genre?

No one can be sure, but I think there is definitely an expanding interest in the music, and new musical ideas and inspirations every day. At the NYHJF I met one hip hop group from Brooklyn that utilized the 2-beat New Orleans jazz feel as the foundation for their rhymes. Unusual? Yes. Innovative? Undoubtedly. My goal in the future is to keep playing it the way it was originally done though, warts and all.

Does it bother you at all that more people don’t acknowledge or appreciate jazz?

No way! I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’d be awesome to play Madison Square Garden with a sold-out crowd seven nights a week, but I’ll stick with an intimate coffeehouse show with seven or eight people who really love what I do, and love the music any time. I think it’s more important to appreciate the music for being musical -- good or bad. Take “Laughing Blues” by Powell’s Jazz Monarchs. The playing and recording quality are awful, but something about how rough it is makes it especially wonderful because it’s real. Maybe I sound crazy, I don’t know. Regardless, anyone who comes at me with some “Jazz is Mickey Mouse music” can catch these hands.

Tell us about your current band and how that came together.

The Original Cornell Syncopators came about in the Spring of 2016, because I was having serious early jazz withdrawals at Cornell, after having played three to four nights a week in Austin when I was a senior in high school. I met with the Jazz director and pitched an idea to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the first jazz recordings by the Original Dixieland ‘Jass’ Band, back in 1917. I found some friends in the music department who were also down to do this, and we set about practicing. It was a new experience for me, teaching my friends how to listen through the hiss of the early records and hear something beautiful. My good friend and bandmate Hannah Krall described it as “definitely a team sport,” which I love and think is so accurate. We learned the ODJB sound together, and played that concert so well that after the show we kept playing and expanded our repertoire and band size, first to 9, then to 13. Now we are a full Dance Orchestra (or ‘small big band’ in layman's terms), doing all sorts of wonderful jazz. I’m most proud of the community interest in the music that we have stirred up at Cornell and in the area. We’ve also had the pleasure of working with some incredible people like David Sager at the Library of Congress, Dan Levinson of the New York City scene, Hal Smith from the West Coast, and Wynton Marsalis who needs no introduction. Seeing how far this band has gone has been one of the greatest pleasures of my life. I love each and every one of those guys and gals like they are my family. We recently played our first show in NYC, and me, my drummer Noah Li and my trombonist Rishi Verma (all original members of the group) were talking about how crazy it is how far this group has gone, just off a small idea!

What’s your favorite performance you have done so far?

One night the Original Cornell Syncopators were playing a co-op event on North Campus at Cornell. It was the night before our 100 Years of Recorded Jazz show, which solidified us as a serious band in the jazz scene. That night we were mainly using the gig as a rehearsal and a way to make some extra bucks to buy pizza. But something magical happened. We started one of the tunes we were playing the next evening, but instead of playing it regularly I told the guys to play something that sounded good but not what was directly ‘on the page,’ basically to compose on the spot within the frame of the original song. From the first note, the music was amazing. Amit Mizrahi, my pianist, took the first solo and played a lick that Hannah Krall picked up on and incorporated into her solo. And as the energy of the band picked up, the people in the room started dancing. They were cheering us on and the energy in the place was magical. I think we all knew we were onto something after that.

What’s your favorite piece that you’ve composed?

This is a hard question. I actually haven’t composed a whole lot of songs specifically. My favorite right now is a tune I wrote back in 2017 called “Wheelin’,” which was a tribute to both a wonderful writing colleague of mine, and the wonderful Red Nichols, a cornet player who helped bring jazz into commercial pop music and made over four thousand records from 1923-1930 alone! You can find that one on YouTube as a multitrack recording with guitar, piano, cornet and drums with the faux band name ‘Me Three’ -- referring to the original Nichols group ‘We Three’. I’ve done a lot of arranging too, though, and I think I’m most proud of my arrangement of Mel Stitzel’s “The Chant” for the 13-piece Syncopators. That chart could peel paint off the walls.

Who is your number one inspiration in your music?

The cornet player Leon ‘Bix’ Beiderbecke. He was the first I heard and literally from the first note I was hooked.

What is one instrument you don’t play that you would love to learn?

I can play a little violin and a little piano, but I wish I was proficient on both of these. In fact I would say that I don’t even play violin, I just play ‘fiddle’ if that makes sense. I know my old Violinist Niki Love would get that joke.

What’s next for you after this tour?

We are interested in a couple of projects. One would be with the amazing pianist Ed Clute who lives near us over in Watkins Glen, NY and has played with Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Paul Whiteman, Jimmy McPartland, Irving Caesar and many many more. The other is a potential album, looking into the music of college bands in the 20s and how schools were one of the places where jazz began to be taken seriously as an artform. I’m especially excited to hear how this influence came out of HBCU’s in addition to the Ivies and other institutions. We are also about to release an album of our NYC show too, so stay tuned!

What is the ultimate goal for you with jazz?

Keep this music alive, by any means.