Nine years ago, Giveton Gelin picked up a trumpet for the first time as a 10-year-old. Today, he’s in the middle of what he considers one of his biggest accomplishments to date – playing his horn in front of sold-out audiences at the historic New York City jazz club, the Village Vanguard, as a part of Jon Batiste & Friends with Batiste, the bandleader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
That’s a far cry from his youthful days growing up in The Bahamas, in a culture that reveres almost all forms of popular music, and where appreciation for jazz isn’t the norm; the community that loves the music is small, but growing. Despite this, Gelin thrived, so much so that he’s now pursuing jazz studies at the Juilliard School of Music.
But the trumpet wasn’t his first instrument of choice. As a member of the Sadie Curtis Primary School marching band he originally played drums. The bandleader asked for volunteers to play trumpet because there weren’t enough. Gelin volunteered, and – to use a cliche – the rest is history.
Now 19 years old and a jazz musician, Gelin says he likes to play good music – music with substance, music with deep spiritual content and music with a lot of emotion. He says these qualities are important to him, and he hopes people listen to him play without any preconceived notions.
“I think it’s more about the feeling that you get when you hear the music. That’s more important than to put music into a box. Of course, I have a foundation in jazz music, but I feel it’s come to the point where I’m a composer as well, not just a musician.”
This all stems back to his early days with the horn and trying to understand how to play it. Through years of practice and meeting the right people and being in the right environment, he met double bass player Adrian D’Aguilar, The Bahamas’ trailblazer in jazz. D’Aguilar took the young Gelin under his wing and guided him.
Gelin also became ‘rabid’ for information on great trumpet players and did his research. When he saw what could be done with a trumpet, he was amazed.
“I never thought trumpet could sound so good. I just thought the trumpet was just a loud, brassy instrument and thought it was for celebrations and parades and stuff. I didn’t think it was an instrument you could go and be expressive on… and really play the instrument. Hearing the greatest musicians on the trumpet, that kind of really amazed me. I wanted to take it seriously after that.”
By age 13 Gelin was “dabbling” a lot in jazz music and gravitating toward the sounds of the likes of trumpeters Clifford Brown, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw and Chet Bake. At the same time, he was an anomaly amongst his peers, as he listened to jazz musicians while they were listening to what was popular.
“Most of my peers at the time didn’t even understand what I was listening to or into,” he recalled. “It’s a good thing I met Adrian [D’Aguilar], because he was the only one that actually lived in New York and played on the scene, so he really understood what jazz music was and how to get there.”
D’Aguilar was the first person to give him albums to listen to.
He also came to the realization that the essence of the music took understanding and maturity to be able to play it properly. At Gelin’s impressionable age, D’Aguilar was the first person to get him to understand that and how to play the music the right way.
Gelin began hanging out with D’Aguilar and trying to learn his music as well as that of the greats, by emulating what he heard. He began trying to learn the solos and sound like them on his instrument by understanding their harmonies and rhythms.
“I think back on the years I spent with Adrian… those were so crucial to my development,” said the second-year student.
And while he’s gigging with Batiste this week, he also has his own band in New York, which is making a name for itself – the Giveton Gelin Quintet – comprised of some of his fellow Juilliard schoolmates, and they’ve been playing in notable jazz clubs around the city.
As far as his music is concerned, Gelin says there are no limits.
“I take music very seriously, and my dreams are very big. I really want to be playing around the world, touring and touching people through the sound of my horn.”
Looking back, he said from the first time he played the instrument he felt a level of expectedness, and that now, after approximately 10 minutes of breathing and blowing into his horn, there’s a certain state of mind that he can get into which he said is akin to a spiritual transcendence and almost meditative.
“I grew up in church and I’m a believer, so for me when I play it’s like very spiritual. That’s how I always heard music. Most of the people I’m playing with, most of us grew up in church and we all have this sort of spiritual connection. I feel like at the end of the day, I’m coming out of church and gospel music. Most Bahamians grew up in church, and know the feeling you get when you feel the Holy Spirit is present, I think that feeling is not so different when you hear jazz music.”
In the final analysis Gelin said music is about being expressive and getting to touch people’s hearts through an instrument. He said anyone who perceives their instrument as just an instrument won’t necessarily touch people.
“It’s deeper than that. The music is more spiritual and it has to do more with emotions. When you think about the instrument like that, then you start to get deeper into the essence of humans.”
According to Gelin, when he plays, what comes out is the sum of everything he’s gone through and his experiences.
There’s one other cool fact about the young musician: He’s got the ear of the great Wynton Marsalis, a trumpeter and composer, whom he met at age 14 when he first visited New York with D’Aguilar.
“He [Marsalis] talked to me and said he thought I had a certain seriousness about me and told me to come to his house the next day. From there he heard me play, and he congratulated Adrian and told him that coming from The Bahamas he really developed a player. From then, every summer when I visited New York we would have dinner and go over to his house.”
Marsalis has been director of Juilliard Jazz since 2014 and is the managing and artistic director of jazz at Lincoln Center.