Conrad Herwig was imprinted for life on his 12th birthday. His parents took him to the Hanohano Room, a revolving restaurant at the top of the Waikiki Sheraton in Hawaii, to hear trombonist Trummy Young.
“I thought all jazz quartets were led by trombone players,” Herwig said. “I had never heard any other jazz quartet.”
Herwig, 57 is a poet, a mystic, a salsa man, a lifelong student of the fine art of breathing and the latest in a series of stellar guest artists in Michigan State University’s jazz studies program.
He told his origin story in a rare quiet moment Monday after kicking off a hectic week-long residency with a concert at the MSU Federal Credit Union headquarters.
Back in Hawaii, Young, a stalwart of Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars for many years, dedicated a tune to young Herwig. Almost immediately, Herwig announced to his parents he wanted to be Trummy Young. He patiently waited out the inevitable backlash — “But what are you really going to do?” — and never looked back.
At MSU, Herwig is prodding the students to approach music from unexpected angles.
“I’m a big fan of yoga and tai chi,” Herwig said. “When we play a brass instrument, we play a cold piece of metal, yet we give character and life to it. Our breath is our life force. It seems so obvious. The one thing we have to do now, in the moment, is breathe.”
Director of jazz studies at Rutgers University since 2003, Herwig started his career touring with trumpeter Clark Terry, put in several years with Frank Sinatra’s orchestra and has long been part of the Mingus Big Band, centered on the music of the brilliant bassist and composer Charles Mingus.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, he was as much a salsero as he was a jazzman, playing hundreds of gigs with iconic Latin bandleaders Eddie Palmieri, Mario Bauzá, Tito Puente and Paquito D’Rivera. Since then, he’s had a lot of critical success, including a shelf full of Grammys, many of them for recordings that re-imagine the music of John Coltrane, Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter in a Latin style.
At Rutgers, Herwig collaborates with Sue Mingus, the widow of Charles Mingus, to bring in musicians for Mingus-centric residencies, but he admitted he’s “jealous” of MSU’s jazz studies residency, funded by a $1 million grant from the MSU Federal Credit Union.
“This is the way the arts are supposed to be presented,” he declared.
Herwig and MSU students and faculty played at Detroit’s Carr Center Arts Academy Saturday and are scheduled to visit high schools in Royal Oak, Spring Lake and Alma this week. Friday, Herwig and MSU jazz orchestras will strut their stuff at a gala concert at the Wharton Center’s Pasant Theatre.
Monday, a row of fascinated students listened from the back of the room as Herwig and MSU trombone professor Michael Dease sauntered through Dizzy Gillespie’s “Ow” in an outrageously slow tempo, as if they were daring the tightrope to sag under them.
Dease’s sound was thick gold; Herwig’s a ductile silver. Trombonists often default to showmanship, but the gears never seemed to stop turning in Herwig’s cranium. In a series of searching solos, especially on the classic “Lover Man,” he sounded like a man locked in a luxurious room of melody, now enjoying himself, now looking for ways to escape.
“He straddles traditional jazz and cutting-edge harmonies,” Dease said. “His voicings are often simple but raw, the best of both worlds.”
Among the students watching Herwig carefully was Jordan Davis, in her first year in jazz studies. Davis was already working on a Herwig tune, “Morning Shades,” before playing it with Herwig and the Jazz Orchestra III Friday.
Davis is amazed at the caliber of artists the residency has brought to MSU.
“They’re phenomenal players I get to meet and learn from and interact with,” she said.
Dan Parrish, a trombone student and MSU freshman, binged on as many of Herwig’s recordings as he could before Herwig hit town. There are a lot to choose from — over 20 as a leader and 200 as a sideman.
Herwig gets a lot of his inspiration outside music. One CD, “The Tip of the Sword,” was inspired by Taoist writings.
Others were inspired by poems of the Persian mystic Rumi, Pablo Neruda and the works of Umberto Eco.
He tells students that there is a process for creativity, “just like there’s a process for melody and harmony and rhythm.”
“He’s already exceeding our expectations,” Parrish said. “I’ve been listening to his records, but in person, it’s such a different experience altogether.”
“He has a very colorful and personal way of relating life and music together,” Dease said. “He’s a heavy thinker and passionate player. He’s stamped two or three different sounds on the instrument as his own, and not many people can say that.”
At Friday’s concert, Herwig and the student bands will perform tunes from his latest sextet album, “Reflections,” and a set of arrangements chosen to reflect troubled times. These include a re-harmonization of George Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and Mingus’s “Prayer for Passive Resistance.”
Herwig’s version of “Prayer” finished a job started by his close friend, the brilliant post-Coltrane reed player John Stubblefield, who handed the unfinished arrangement to Herwig before he died in 2005. Mingus’s music was a volatile cocktail of love and rage at the treatment of African- Americans in the mid-20th century.
Herwig doesn’t shy away from discussing its ongoing relevance.
“Mingus was the Nostradamus of jazz,” Herwig said. “Everything he was dealing with in the ‘50s — we’re back again. Sometimes it feels like one step forward, two steps back.”
Herwig urged the audience to support the arts at Monday’s concert, but after the gig, he suggested that the music will find a way to survive, with or without institutional support.
“Jazz has a life of its own,” Herwig said. “It always has. Sometimes it’s a little more in the shadows, sometimes it’s a little more in the light. But it’s always been a music of freedom and struggle and we’re not going to give up.”