Music » Music Features

Herb Smith lends a helping horn to young Black men


Herb Smith and 10-year-old Cameron Terry play together during a Herb's City Trumpets lesson. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE / WXXI NEWS
  • Herb Smith and 10-year-old Cameron Terry play together during a Herb's City Trumpets lesson.
Herb Smith couldn’t sleep the night he spent in Monroe County Jail two years ago. The lights in the holding cell were too bright. To keep himself together until his arraignment the next morning he meditated, practiced yoga, and absorbed the chatter of the men with whom he shared a cell.

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra trumpeter and leader of the jazz group Freedom Trio was being held without bail on two cockamamie harassment charges following a parking dispute — offenses so minor they are not crimes and would eventually be thrown out of court.

Smith, 52, had never been in jail, but he got the impression from the conversations of the men locked up with him that most of them had. Like him, they were Black, but they were much younger, and their seeming familiarity with their circumstances got him wondering how it was he wound up in college studying the trumpet when he was their age instead of in jail.

“It just got me thinking: Why wasn’t I here?” Smith says. “What did I have? What was given to me that maybe these guys didn’t have? It was a real sense of gratitude for myself, but also like, what’s the ingredient, you know? These guys look just like me — Black, male.”

That experience planted the seed for what would become Herb’s City Trumpets — a new music education and mentorship program for young Black boys and teenagers that he operates through ROCmusic, a city-run initiative. The program started in April and now has 17 students enrolled.
Cameron Terry takes direction from Herb Smith during a lesson. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE / WXXI NEWS
  • Cameron Terry takes direction from Herb Smith during a lesson.
On a recent summer day, Smith was at School No. 19 on Seward Street in the PLEX neighborhood giving lessons to 12-year-old Jaidyn White and his brother Cameron Terry, 10. That day, Smith presented them with new trumpets from Conn-Selmer, the company that sponsors him.

“Get to it, these are yours, man,” Smith told the boys. “Go for it. Brand new horns.”

There was a sense of quiet excitement as White and Terry each buzzed their lips together to produce the first notes on their instruments. “I like it,” the aspiring trumpeters said.

Black residents of Monroe County are eight times more likely to be behind bars than white residents, and the rate at which they are incarcerated here outpaces the state average, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York City-based nonprofit that aims to end mass incarceration of people of color. In 2015, according to the organization, nearly 69 of every 10,000 Black residents were incarcerated, compared with about 9 of every 10,000 white residents.

The practical effect of that reality played out in the conversations Smith overheard while in jail that night in December 2019:

What judge do you have?...How many offenses do you have?...This your first one?...Ah, you’re fine...You’ll get off with just a slap on the wrist... How ‘bout you?...How much weed did you have?...Oh, you had that much?...Well, you should be ok. Who’s your lawyer? Oh, that guy sucks.

“They knew the whole system,” Smith recalls. “I’m just like, wow. I’m learning from these guys, you know — kind of stuff I really don’t want to learn — but I’m learning from them. And I’m just like, how can we stop this from happening? And that was my thought.

“And then at that point, it wasn’t like, I’m going to start a trumpet school. It wasn’t like that at all,” he goes on. “It was just like, what can I do that is not, first of all, self-serving, that’s also not looking down on someone, you know, like ‘Let me come in and help you be a better person’?”

Smith had met Armand Hall, the director of ROCmusic — a program designed to give city students access to quality music lessons and additional music instruction — through the Gateways Music Festival. Smith and the Gateways Brass Collective had helped Hall and ROCmusic start its brass instrument program at School No. 12.

Hall says he had often lightheartedly floated the idea of creating a “trumpet mecca” in Rochester to Smith, whom he envisioned as the man to lead it. But it wasn’t until ROCmusic received a grant through My Brother’s Keeper, a foundation launched by President Barack Obama to address opportunity gaps facing boys of color, that the idea of a trumpet education program for young Black men with a mentorship component started to take shape.

“He and I both said, ‘I’ve never been anywhere in the world that my instrument didn’t take me,’” Hall says of Smith. “And that’s what I want for other students.”
Family members are welcome at Herb's City Trumpets. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE / WXXI NEWS
  • Family members are welcome at Herb's City Trumpets.
Hall, who describes Smith as “engaging in every sense of the word,” says that nurturing the students is a vital aspect of Herb’s City Trumpets. The students need to know their teacher and mentor has their best interests in mind.

“That then opens the door for deeper learning, deeper connections and more of — what is the word?” Hall says. “It's not direct mentorship, it's not mentorship for the sake of mentorship. But it's, ‘I'm leading by example, and I'm expecting you to meet this example, and we move along together.’”

Hall refers to this approach as “the apprenticeship model,” pointing to its success through the growth of American music programs based on El Sistema — the publicly financed music education program that originated in Venezuela in 1975 and famously gave Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel his start as a young music student. ROCmusic is one of 121 El Sistema-inspired programs in the United States.

While teaching the students trumpet and mentoring them were always meant to go hand-in-hand, Smith was surprised by how strong the mentoring component became.
Herb Smith works one-on-one with Jeziah Haamid, 13. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE / WXXI NEWS
  • Herb Smith works one-on-one with Jeziah Haamid, 13.
Smith started playing the trumpet at 9 years old. He began teaching lessons in his early 20s, around the time he graduated from Eastman School of Music and joined the RPO, and has done work in city schools.

But, he says, he has never taught so many Black students as he does now with Herb’s City Trumpets. He says it is the first time that he feels like he’s “helping Black people, lifting them up, giving them music.”

Smith is the only Black musician employed full-time by the RPO. “Sure, by being there I’m kind of opening up boundaries, whatever,” he says. “But that’s not really, really helping.”

For Smith, his mentorship at Herb’s City Trumpets takes on a father-son dynamic — one that he experienced firsthand as a kid growing up in a strong church community in Cincinnati.

“There was always men around me that when you went passed them, you straightened up, there was a respect,” Smith says. “And in my church, it’s like all of the men were your father.”

Smith, who has a daughter, says he thinks of his students as his sons.
Herb Smith works with Richard Burroughs, 57, and his son Colin Burroughs, 16. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE / WXXI NEWS
  • Herb Smith works with Richard Burroughs, 57, and his son Colin Burroughs, 16.
For one student, 16-year-old Colin Burroughs, the program is an experience he shares with his father Richard Burroughs, 57, who sits in on his lessons and learns the trumpet alongside him. For Richard, the goal was to be able to play a duet with his son, but Herb’s City Trumpets has also brought them closer.

“What this has allowed us to do is be more open and communicate just by sharing this experience together,” Richard Burroughs says. “It’s opening up doors, it’s allowing us to converse better, and effectively.”

“I feel like we’ve gotten closer,” Colin says.

Hall, the director of ROCmusic, says he was initially reluctant to allow a parent to join the program because he wanted to ensure that lessons focused on the child. But Hall relented in the case of the Burroughses, reasoning that the father could encourage the son and that their learning together spoke to the community-church vibe that Smith brought to the program.

“He’s fabulous, he’s one of those instructors that loves his craft,” Richard Burroughs says of Smith. “He’s dedicated, motivated, he’s inspiring. He wants the participants to engage, perform, and what he’s doing is leading by example.

“What I mean by that is he’s come and he’s showing up. He’s given us, well, them, the attitude that if they practice they could learn, and not to be discouraged so quickly. Anything in life, people have to start somewhere.”

Hall sees additional value in the father-son dynamic that goes beyond mere trumpet instruction.

“For whatever’s going on in that family’s life, there is now a spot where the father and son are a little more equal,” he says. “And that creates a different dynamic when you feel like they have something to give. If he can play something that his father can’t, and make him work on that together, that's a way deeper relationship. And it empowers both of them to be together more. And so I think that youth voice and youth empowerment is shown in that situation. We try to find ways to do that, so that it's not always direct teaching.”
In addition to trumpet lessons on Mondays and Tuesdays, Herb’s City Trumpets holds a meeting each week in which students perform a tune they’re learning in lessons — “When the Saints Go Marching in,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” or “Hot Cross Buns.”

But it’s not just about playing in front of others. It’s also about communicating with the audience, which is why Smith has the students introduce themselves and their song. The exercise is an essential aspect of performance for any musician — one that some of the students had never been asked to do.

The group also shares a meal from a local restaurant, frequently cuisine they’ve never had before, and Smith is planning future meetings featuring Black men from various professions to provide additional mentorship.

“Whatever your profession is, whatever your vocation is, look around you: Where are there inequities, and how could I personally help that?” Smith says. “And that’s kind of where Herb’s City Trumpets comes in.”

The program recently received a $65,000 grant from the city to head into the new academic year. Smith says his eventual goal is for Herb’s City Trumpets to include 50 students.

Hall envisions students from Herb’s City Trumpets performing prior to an RPO concert.

“I would love to see this self-perpetuating ensemble of trumpet players — young Black boys across ages — as a thing that’s real here in Rochester,” Hall says. “That, you know, some of these kids are going to Eastman or other music schools, and some of these kids are becoming professional jazz trumpet players.”

Daniel J. Kushner is CITY’s arts editor. He can be reached at [email protected].