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Jean Toussaint : Jazz Messenger

by Robin Kidson




Jean Toussaint


Has there ever been a more fertile proving ground for stellar jazz musicians than Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers? The list of players who went through Art’s hands forms a Jazz Hall of Fame on its own: Horace Silver, Lee Morgan, Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Keith Jarrett, Wayne Shorter, Wynton Marsalis….Another name to add to this illustrious roll call is Jean Toussaint, the London-based American saxophonist who has recently released Brother Raymond, his latest album on LYTE Records.

Toussaint was born in 1960 in the US Virgin Islands. Raised in New York, he attended the Berklee College of Music before joining the Jazz Messengers in 1982. He toured extensively with the band and played on three studio albums including New York Scene which won the 1985 Grammy for Best Jazz Group Instrumental Performance. “Art”, says Toussaint, “was one of the most inspirational band leaders rated amongst some of the greatest. Names like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Miles Davis come to mind. They all had an inclusive way of band leading that made each member feel a part of the family. Through the music, Art encouraged us to strive and reach beyond ourselves and work as one to create musical excitement while never losing sight of the audience.”


Jean Toussaint with the Jazz Messengers


The Jazz Messengers in concert at Plougonven (Bretagne, France) in 1985 with Terence Blanchard (trumpet) and Jean Toussaint (tenor saxophone).



Jean Toussaint in action with the Jazz Messengers back in 1985:




Jean Toussaint moved to London in 1987 to teach at the Guildhall School of Music and has based himself in the UK ever since, one of a growing band of American expat jazz musicians. Brother Raymond is his eleventh album as a band leader but he has also worked as a sideman with the cream of British jazz such as Julian Joseph and Cleveland Watkiss. He is often the go-to saxophonist for US musicians touring Europe, playing with the likes of Eddie Henderson and Jeff “Tain” Watts, for example. Toussaint has continued to teach at the Guildhall as well as the Birmingham Conservatoire, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, and occasionally at the Royal Academy of Music. This teaching and mentoring role is one Toussaint takes seriously – “As one who was fortunate to have been mentored by the ultimate mentor that was Art Blakey,” he says, “one lesson that we all took from that experience was the importance of fostering as many of the next generation as possible”. His teaching was recognised in 2017 by a nomination for the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Jazz Education.

As part of that mentoring role, in 2015 Toussaint set up “Roots and Herbs: The Blakey Project” to mark the 25th anniversary of Blakey’s death. The idea of the project was to put together musicians just beginning their careers – “Young Lions”, Toussaint calls them – with older, more established musicians to play the music of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.


Here are members of the Project playing the old Blakey standard, Moanin’ at the Swanage Jazz Festival in 2015:



On his latest album, Brother Raymond, Toussaint is joined by his “Allstar 6tet” which is made up of musicians who played on the Blakey Project, including “Young Lions”. All eleven tracks are Toussaint compositions and different musicians play on different tracks. The core players, though, are Toussaint himself on tenor, Byron Wallen (trumpet), Dennis Rollins(trombone), and Daniel Casimir (bass). Piano duties are shared between Jason Rebello, Andrew McCormack and young lion, Ashley Henry. The drummers involved are Mark Mondesir, Troy Miller, Shane Forbes and Williams Cumberbatch Perez. Other musicians who appear include Alec Dankworth (bass), Tom Dunnett (trombone), Mark Kavuma (trumpet), and Tom Harrison (alto sax).

The album is dedicated to Toussaint’s older brother, Raymond, who died in 2015. Its vibe is a Blakeyish hard bop with all of the musicians at the absolute top of their game. Toussaint is no hogger of the limelight and gives plenty of room to the other players to strut their stuff. His own playing and improvising is in a most attractive, almost conversational style.

However, the real glory of Brother Raymond is in the quality of the writing and arranging. On the evidence of this album, Toussaint is incapable of writing a bad tune. Take Track 2 for example, Doc, which is structured around a hooky riff beautifully played by Byron Wallen, channeling his inner Miles on muted trumpet. Once heard, never forgotten. Or Amabo which again has an extremely catchy tune and calypso rhythm with a touch of Toussaint’s native Caribbean about it. Or the title track, Brother Raymond, with a cleverly composed main theme, foot tapping beat, and an absorbing arrangement.


The sextet playing Brother Raymond, live at the Pizza Express in 2017.




And here, finally, is Toussaint on Blakey once again: “Art used to say: '“it doesn’t matter how complex you want to play as long as you swing and play from the heart', then he’d cite the great John Coltrane as an example. I owe it all to the great Art Blakey and I’ll be a Jazz Messenger for life”. In his multiple roles of performer, composer, educator, mentor and all-round propagator and populariser of jazz, Jean Toussaint has remained faithful to the spirit and legacy of Art Blakey. He is truly a Jazz Messenger in all senses of that phrase.

More information about Jean Toussaint is on his website - click here, although at the time of writing some information is not up to date. Brother Raymond was released on 18th May (click here for details) and is being formally launched at Ronnie Scott’s Club in London on 4th June 2018.


Jean Toussaint is touring with his Allstar 6tet in the autumn – dates are:

Jean Toussaint Brother Raymond album


Thursday, 27th September: Hidden Rooms, Cambridge Jazz
Friday, 28th September: Hermon Chapel Arts Centre, Shrewsbury
Sunday, 7th October: Herts Jazz Festival
Friday, 12th October: Crucible Theatre, Sheffield
Friday, 19th October: RWCMD, Cardiff
Thursday, 1st November: Trinity Laban Masterclass
Friday, 9th November: Duc Des Lombards, Paris
Saturday, 10th November: Duc Des Lombards, Paris
Thursday, 15th November: 7Arts, Leeds
Friday, 16th November: Leeds College of Music Masterclass
Friday, 16th November: Hull Jazz Festival
Saturday, 17th November: The Blue Room, Lincoln
Sunday, 18th November: National Centre for Early Music, York
Friday, 23rd November: The Lighthouse, Poole
Sunday, 25th November: Hen & Chicken, Bristol
Saturday, 1st December: Calstock Arts Centre
Friday, 7th December: Eastdown Jazz Club, Birmingham
Saturday 8th December: Jazzlines Workshop, Birmingham
Thursday, 13th December: Bonnington Theatre, Nottingham
Friday, 14th December: Progress Theatre, Reading



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