How the Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt Became a Chronicler of Black Jazz History

The trumpeter Jeremy Pelt was sitting on his couch, browsing YouTube, when he decided to become an author.

It was 2018, and Pelt, by then a fixture on the New York jazz scene for two decades, came across a 1994 interview with the jazz drumming great Arthur Taylor, conducted by a fellow percussionist, Warren Smith. “It could have been ‘Batman,’ or something,” Pelt recalled during a recent conversation in his Harlem apartment. “It was like an hour and 45 minutes, I remember, and I just was transfixed the whole time.”

Pelt was especially taken with a section where Taylor discussed “Notes and Tones,” his landmark book of musician-to-musician interviews, first self-published in 1977 and later reissued more widely. In it, giants like Miles Davis, Nina Simone and Max Roach spoke with often bracing candor about race, the music business, their feelings about the term “jazz” and more. Pelt had first come across the book more than 20 years earlier at the Berklee College of Music library.

“This is way before internet and all that,” he said, so listeners had no idea what their musical heroes’ “comportment was, how they sounded, anything. So what you have is these words that gave you this peek into their personality.”

Pelt often found himself wishing for a sequel. Taylor noted in the 1993 paperback edition that he had recorded more than 200 interviews and intended to publish a follow-up; two years later, he died at 65. Watching the conversation between Taylor and Smith, Pelt made a resolution: “After wondering how come somebody hasn’t done such and such, I said, you know what? I’m going to go ahead and do it.”

He started conducting interviews with elders, peers and younger artists, accelerating during the pandemic, when it was easy to reach musicians via Zoom. In 2021, he self-published the first volume of “Griot,” settling on that title after seeing the term — meaning a West African storyteller-musician who passes down the oral history of a tribe — in an old social-media handle used by the bassist Buster Williams. “I looked it up, and that’s when it hit me,” Pelt, 47, said. “That’s exactly what this project is, is really passing down the culture. It’s these stories.”

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