Al Strong is very late.
For the last 90 minutes, while tucked in tight at a corner table at the downtown Durham club and restaurant Beyù Caffè, the trumpet player has talked about the first three decades of his life and how jazz has guided him.
How he started playing trumpet when he was 8. How his grandparents piqued his interest early on with records in their Washington, D.C., home, but how he wanted to be a pathologist. How he used to watch the city's go-go bands and how he attended D.C.'s fabled Duke Ellington School of the Arts. How that program and its traveling bands introduced him to Wynton Marsalis and other modern gods of his chosen instrument. And how it moved him to pursue a jazz degree at N.C. Central, a master's at Northern Illinois and onto a cruise ship that routed him and his horn through the Gulf of Mexico for six months.
But then his phone rings, and he realizes just how long he's been talking about the past. Over in N.C. Central's jazz studies department, there's a kid down from Maryland, horn in hand, waiting to audition to enroll in Durham. Less than two decades ago, Strong was in exactly the same position. He understands how pivotal the moment can be for the young player. In Strong's absence, the kid's simply been warming up, waiting for one of the names that lured him to Durham. Strong doesn't want him to wear himself out, so he asks for the check.
"But we're just getting to the good stuff, the fun parts," says Strong, his generally stoic face breaking into a smile. He counts his cash, stands up beside the table and sets a time to meet in a few hours. "There's a lot more to talk about."
Strong hustles back across town to campus.
In fact, lots of what's left to talk about stems from Strong's travels in and between downtown Durham and N.C. Central. During the last decade, he's worked as a professor at Central, occasionally teaching general courses on music appreciation but largely mentoring and training successive waves of aspiring trumpeters. He has become what department director Ira Wiggins calls "a role model."
During the same decade, he's also become one of the Triangle's busiest musicians, flitting in and out of clubs and sessions as a sideman and support player for most anyone who needs the sound of valved brass. Alongside Cicely Mitchell, his former romantic and current business partner, he co-founded The Art of Cool Project, a nonprofit that's wedged jazz, soul and R&B into Triangle rock clubs and conversations by presenting a steady stream of shows and, for the last two years, a major spring festival. Mitchell calls Strong "a connector within the music scene." In fact, he's become a linchpin of it, an organizational, artistic and educational force with few peers.
And, at last, Strong, now 35, is taking care of his own recording career. Though he's led occasional ensembles under his own name since those graduate school days in Illinois, he released his debut album, the wonderfully versatile and volatile LoveStrong Vol. 1, only last week. All of those experiences, enthusiasms and associations power its 10 tracks, as he leads a cohort of contemporaries and N.C. Central students and alumni through spirited updates on standards such as "Blue Monk" and originals he's been hoarding since his undergraduate days in Durham at the start of the millennium. As much as an album, it's a showcase for the nexus Strong has become—and the possibilities his position presents.
"In many senses, I feel like I'm a late bloomer, as far as music comes. I didn't really start studying until I was 15," Strong says several hours later, just as the late-afternoon shadows start to grow outside of the downtown ice cream shop The Parlour. He strokes his thick black beard, pushing stray gray hairs back toward his chin, and fidgets with the stocking cap keeping his shaved head warm.
"I could have put out something years ago, but it wouldn't have necessarily been something I felt good about. It would have been for posterity's sake," he says. "But this is big. It's a humble offering, my first."
Better late, at least, than never.