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Spotlight on staff and faculty musicians: Meet trumpet player Michael Sailors

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MichaelSailorsCreditDuyTran
Photo by Duy Tran
Michael Sailors
Lecturer, Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music
6 months at UT

You might think you love movies, or books, or knitting. But Michael Sailors loves his trumpet.

“It’s hard to explain to people who aren’t super passionate about one thing, but this instrument goes on all vacations,” he says. “It goes with me everywhere. There’s not a day I don’t play it. And it’s been like that since I was in seventh grade. I only wanted to do this for as long as I can remember.”

Sailors started playing trumpet in middle school band in Greensboro, North Carolina, and quickly discovered he had a talent for it.

“In high school, I started listening to a lot of big band music, and I fell in love with it,” he says. “The town I grew up in is pretty cosmopolitan for North Carolina, but it’s a sleepy town. There’s not a lot of jazz going on there. I was probably one of 10 kids in that area that even really played jazz.”

Sailors earned a doctorate at the Butler School of Music. After spending the past eight years in the New York area, he returned to Austin in August to join the faculty of the jazz studies program. He provides trumpet lessons and teaches a jazz appreciation course. In addition to teaching, Sailors tries to play around town when he can and still travels back to New York regularly.

His passion projects — the Mike Sailors Nonet and the New Alchemy Jazz Orchestra — allow him to flex his playing and composing muscles. The latter is a full 17-piece jazz orchestra and was picked up by the Outside In record label and recently released a four-song EP.

Sailors says he’s actually better known and more in demand for his arranging skills than his compositional skills. He has arranged for Lady Gaga and, in September, was hired to be an arranger for the Ralph Lauren fall fashion show, which featured Janelle Monáe.

For a professional jazz musician, it might seem counterintuitive to leave New York, a true jazz city, for Austin. But as Sailors describes it, “My wife and I were looking for a way out of the grind of New York. You can make good money playing music there, but the pace you have to keep up, all the balls you have to keep up in the air, it’s crazy. I was working six nights a week and out late at night all the time because that’s when the gigs happen, and playing Broadway, and it began to feel like we were going to have to maintain that pace forever.”

Sailors says Austin doesn’t yet have a strong, well-rounded jazz scene, but he believes it could.

“It’s not because there aren’t good musicians here, just the infrastructure is not really here yet, like in New York,” he says. “But it could be. When I play here for listening crowds, they love it, go crazy for it. It’s not like I’m a world-class trumpet player, but I do know how to play for people and how to present jazz music for people who are not musicians. The hunger for it is here.”

Sailors has done much work in New York with the nonprofit group Jazz at Lincoln Center, and he says he would love to see something like that in Austin.

“Austin is big enough and culturally sensitive enough, and there’s a lot of arts philanthropy here,” he says. “That’s one of the big reasons I wanted to come back. My large-scale vision is to bring a world-class jazz orchestra to Austin.”

Additionally, he envisions an outlet for high school kids to be able to perform.

“I’d like to give kids that are truly committed to their instruments and aspiring to a professional music career a chance to perform really good music with other kids like themselves,” he says. “They need to realize they’re not alone and feel like they have people in their corner.”