Justin Kisor Pt. 1: Siouxland Public Media's Artist of the Month

Dec 15, 2016

Credit Ally Karsyn

“I didn’t really pick the trumpet. The trumpet kind of picked me,” he said. “My older brother was very good at a very young age and he’s five years older than me. I was always hearing him play. It’s easy to say he’s been my biggest influence.”

That’s make you wonder, though — how do two brothers, two talented jazz musicians get along?

“There’s never really been that rivalry,” he said. “I’ve always considered him the master.”

His older brother Ryan Kisor was signed by Columbia Records, and he has been a member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra since 1994.

In a way, both take after their father, Larry Kisor, who led the North High Jazz Band and sparked students’ interest in a musical tradition known for its soulful, swinging rhythms.

He grew up around music and took hold of every opportunity presented to him. That included jazz camps led by world-class swing and bebop trumpeter Clark Terry, who started his own music school at the now-defunct Teikyo Westmar University in Le Mars, Iowa.

“He brought in Snooky Young from the Tonight Show band and the Count Basie Orchestra and Marshal Royal and Louie Bellson one year and Ed Shaughnessy, and then, Clark would sometimes invite students up to play over a blues or something like that,” he said. “Getting to go up on stage and play with Clark Terry, yelling in my ear when I played something good or halfway decent, that was pretty exciting because he was such a legendary musician and trumpet player.”

Kisor is carrying on that tradition and working to inspire the next generation of jazz musicians. He teaches trumpet at Morningside College, where he also has a private studio and offers lessons to students in junior high and high school. Another thing he’s doing is working with Ron and Gia Emory to establish a jazz program at the Sioux City Conservatory of Music.

For the past few months, he’s been performing at the adjoining Blue Cafe almost every weekend.

He’s happy to find an audience.

Jazz gained widespread popularity in the 1920s. Its upbeat tempo filled dance halls, roadhouses and speakeasies, setting a soundtrack to the counterculture movement of the Roaring Twenties and its rebellious youth. But now ballrooms collect dust instead of dancers, and the big bands are part of a bygone era.

Nielsen‘s 2015 U.S. Music Year-End Report found that, after children’s music, jazz is the least-consumed genre. It tied with classical music, representing just 1.3 percent of total music consumption while rock takes the biggest piece of the pie at nearly 25 percent.

“When I find a student that seems to have it, you know the ‘it’ thing, it’s really exciting, and it’s fun to think about, ‘Oh man, what can I do with him?’ It’s really important to me to pass on this language, and if it doesn’t become a career, it at least ensures an audience for me someday,” he said.

While Kisor developed an appreciation for jazz from his father, that might be lost on his 9-year-old son.

“He told me, ‘Dad, don’t be mad, but I don’t think I want to play the trumpet. I want to rock.’”

So, drum lessons it is.

Going back to the days of his youth, the trumpet played his siren song. At 13, Kisor got an offer to play with the Eddie Skeets Orchestra, a local dance band.

“From that time on, I was playing about every weekend, at least two gigs a weekend with that band. That’s when I really decided that this is for me. The next youngest guy was my dad, who was in the band. Everybody else was in their 60s and 70s, so it was quite the education.”

Kisor graduated from North High School in 1997 and got a full-ride scholarship to the New School of Music in New York, but he dropped out after three semesters.

“I kind of got busy playing a little bit and lost interest in school for a while. I did a lot of touring in Europe with a dance company, which was pretty fun because I was the only musician, so they’d be rehearsing all day, and I’d be riding a scooter around Italy.”

He got his education back on track in 2001 when the Juilliard School started a tuition-free jazz studies program. He was one of four trumpeters admitted.

After graduation, he joined the Commodores, the Navy’s premier jazz ensemble, based in Washington D.C. He played solo trumpet in the big band and occasionally played taps for funerals at Arlington National Cemetery.

Kisor moved back to Sioux City in 2011 when his son was starting school. It’s comfortable, he said. Living in New York again still holds an allure, but he has to be realistic.

“That’s a tough move. It was the first time when I was young and adventurous, and now I have a 9-year-old son, and that’s kind of my main focus right now.”

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Justin Kisor performs live at the Blue Cafe, at 1301 Pierce Street, almost every Friday from 6 to 7 p.m. There is a $5 cover charge.