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Arts Desk

Jazz Philadelphia's Hometown Heroes: Spotlight on Drummer Justin Faulkner

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Courtesy of the artist
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Justin Faulkner

Jazz and community. Jazz and activism. Jazz and family. These aren’t just words for West Philadelphia drummer, composer, and educator Justin Faulkner. They’re life lines, ideas on which to act, interact and intercede, to work toward, play with, and pray for.

Ask him for a motto to which he lives, and Faulkner quotes Psalm 1:3 

That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.

Not yet 30, this West Philly native—a drummer who could rage and thunder, who could tickle and traipse—has played with the likes of Kurt Rosenwinkel, Jacky Terrasson, and Jamaaladeen Tacuma. Most famously, Faulkner has been a part of saxophone colossus Branford Marsalis’ Quartet for 12 years. More familiarly though, Faulkner is but part of a music bloodline, a familial heritage that includes the activism of his mother, Carol, the classical pianist. Of Nazir Ebo, his brother, a multi-instrumentalist, and their passion-filled West Philadelphia-focused Community Unity Music organization. 

Back in 2009:

Ask Faulkner how he got to jazz and to the drums in the first place, and his answer is it’s all in the family.

“The mature aesthetic, taste, and style of the men in my family, my father and grandfather, led me to love the past,” said Faulkner. “The elegance, grace, and virtue of the women in my family—my mother and grandmother—brought an early understanding of integrity and a sense of occasion. Hindsight being twenty twenty, I find that anything connected to those four people made its way into my life in some form. Jazz entered second after Classic Men’s Style, when, at age ten, I saw a jazz chapter in my drum method book, and asked if we could check it out. There was a new font used for the notation that initially drew me in. All of the jazz heard in the house led me to that moment as well. Kind of Blue was my entry point. That album changed everything for me. Jimmy Cobb was the first drummer to inspire what is now my artistic path. Who knew that picking up a Fisher-Price drum at nine months of existence would lead to this life? I can’t see the future, but I feel like most of my early childhood foreshadowed the things to come.”

"The mature aesthetic, taste, and style of the men in my family, my father and grandfather, led me to love the past," said Faulkner. "The elegance, grace, and virtue of the women in my family, my mother and grandmother, brought an early understanding of integrity and a sense of occasion."

The Faulkner family—his extended family (“the scene”), as well as his spiritual family—account for the drummer’s continued dedication to jazz musicianship and spirit. Working with many Philadelphia greats across four generations, Faulkner is quick to riff on local legends such as Bootsie Barnes, Sam Reed, Odean Pope, Lumpy King, Sid Simmons,  Byron Landham, Mike Boone, Marc Johnson, Orrin Evans, Craig McIver, Denise King, Nina Bundy, Michelle Beckham, Luke Carlos O’Reilly, Ernest Stuart, George Burton, Korey Riker, Dahi Divine, James Santangelo, Erik Kramer, Jordan Williams, Immanuel Wilkins, Dylan Band and Yesseh Furaha Ali.

While jazz served one part of his soul, activism came early for young Justin as well.

“My grandparents raised and provided for a lot of the children in our family and my neighborhood. That was my first understanding of advocacy. My father used to have community reading time on our steps and porch with the neighborhood kids, brothers, cousins, and me. My mom always mentored the young women in our family, in my friendship circles, and in our neighborhood. Outreach and helping young people transition into adulthood have been passions since my youth pastor Ernest Daniels Jr. changed my Christianity perspective.

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I will always believe in apprenticeship and mentorship for younger people. It’s one of the best forms of education one can ever experience and is often a part of the process of learning in the world’s most important career paths. Social currency is essential to the artist, especially for outreach. Kim Tucker is an extended family member but also a member of the advocacy group Jazz Bridge. Rhoda Blount is the ex-VP of Education and Community Engagement for the Mann Center and the reason I connected with Branford.”

“Teaching flight is the responsibility of anyone who has learned to fly,” he is quick to say. “My community supported me from the beginning. Words of encouragement, scholarships, resources, extended practice time allowance, support, and so many other actions showed the young man of that time his role in society.”

Always a part of his mother’s Community Unity Music organization and festival, and currently an instructor at Temple University’s Boyer College of Music and Dance, Faulkner does not look at  himself as an advocate. “Teaching flight is the responsibility of anyone who has learned to fly,” he is quick to say. “My community supported me from the beginning. Words of encouragement, scholarships, resources, extended practice time allowance, support, and so many other actions showed the young man of that time his role in society.”

Along with drumming for Marsalis, one of his principle life roles is leading his own group people with whom he connects and shares pages. Gentlemen with whom he has evolved, such as saxophonist Tim Warfield and pianist Neil Podgurski. And like everything else in his life, his band is a community, an extended family.

Just like the community of which he finds himself front and center, Faulkner centers music as what sustains and inspires him.

“The music I am actively creating is informed by the past and filtered through my imagination,” said Faulkner. “I connect sound to the expression of emotion. That promotes the translation of music to the human effectively. As a song feeds me, it is also supposed to provide for others.”