Hitting That Long Mental Note

For Hugh Ragin, the mind is a terrible thing to waste on narrow conceptions of jazz.

Trumpeter Hugh Ragin could tell stories for days -- if he didn't have so many people to see and places to be. But press him a little, lend him an ear and Ragin -- both an educator and accomplished performer -- just might make some time to relay a tale or two about his thirty-plus years as a jazz musician.

There was the time, for example, when Ragin's junior high ensemble in Houston wasn't giving a Duke Ellington medley the swinging treatment it deserved. So the band director instructed his charges to listen and learn when the Duke came to their town. At the performance, Ragin and his classmates met Cat Anderson, the famous high-note trumpeter.

"That was probably my first street lesson," says Ragin, now 48 years old. "I call them street lessons, when you go out there and just ask guys for information. There were eight of us sitting around in a circle with him, guys from junior high, high school, college, professionals, and somebody said, 'Cat, what was the highest note you hit?'

Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy: Denver trumpeter Hugh Ragin uses his head.
Sean Hartgrove
Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy: Denver trumpeter Hugh Ragin uses his head.

"He said, 'Triple B natural.'

"We all said, 'Whoa!'

"Somebody said, 'Cat, give me some of those chops' -- he was talking about the lips -- 'give me some of those chops so I can hit the high notes.' He was joking.

"But Cat took that real seriously. He said, 'You know, I would give you some of these chops if I thought they would help you with the high notes. But I get all my high notes from here.'" Ragin points to his temple.

It's a lesson Ragin could relate to even as an adolescent: Discipline, curiosity and concentration are among the traits that have served him well since he gave up football for the trumpet in eighth grade. In the meantime, Ragin has combined both street smarts and classroom training to make his mark. Though his reputation, at least among the listening public, may not reflect his wide-ranging accomplishment, recent signs indicate that may be changing. Earlier this year, Montreal-based Justin Time Records released An Afternoon in Harlem, and more than one nationally published critic has earmarked a place for it on their annual top-ten lists.

Yet An Afternoon in Harlem isn't Ragin's only release this year: the duo CD, Gallery (on the Creative Improvised Music Projects label), recorded with Denver pianist Marc Sabatella, is a fine accomplishment of a different sort. It's a quieter, more spacious encounter for the duo, who trace their friendship to Fort Collins, where Ragin once taught at Colorado State University. Gallery has an avant edge just beneath the contours of its melodic moments -- and vice versa. And should anyone doubt the versatility of the classically trained Ragin, they need only listen to last year's Soft Soul & All That Jazz from Fort Collins' Linden Street Records. On Soft Soul, Ragin and vocalist/keyboardist Walt Jenkins mix originals and standards with an entertaining R&B vibe.

Though the list of releases on which Ragin assumes a leadership role is relatively short, his extended credentials arguably make him the most esteemed player among Colorado's active jazz musicians. When not composing, teaching or performing on his own, Ragin furthers his long-standing relationships with some of the giants of modern jazz. On stage at Iridium in New York in early October, for example, he held the lead trumpet position for the David Murray Octet. In the midst of a week of performances celebrating the music of John Coltrane, the ensemble mesmerized a packed house with its renditions of "Mr. P.C." and "Acknowledgement." Ragin also appears on more than a few Murray records, including the recent Speaking in Tongues.

Flutist James Newton, an active performer and professor at the University of California at Irvine, where Ragin recently led a series of "well-received and inspiring" master classes, admires Ragin to the degree that he insists on bringing him to Los Angeles for his big-band concerts. "What for me makes him so exceptional," says Newton, "is that he has such a firm grasp and understanding of the tradition and is, at the same time, very much a modernist. To me, that's the mark of a true traditionalist, because all of the people that we emulate in the music, they all changed it. And I think Mr. Ragin has the capacity -- and has sort of changed the set of possibilities on this instrument. For me, the range that he has, the control, the series of exquisite ideas and emotionalism of his playing -- all of those things really set him apart from other players."

"Hugh is definitely one of the front-runners of the trumpet," agrees saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, a founding member of both the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, with whom Ragin has recorded and collaborated for nearly twenty years. "He's a great man and a great musician. He works hard at it. That's what it takes." A recent reissue, More Cutouts, presents the imaginative interplay of 1980 sessions that feature Ragin, Mitchell and drummer Tani Tabbal. Ragin also shines on this year's Nine to Get Ready, an orchestral recording with a surprisingly nimble feel, released by Mitchell and the Note Factory.

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