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Justin Kisor

Justin Kisor playing his trumpet.

If there is one family name that is synonymous with jazz music in Sioux City, it's Kisor.

For years, Larry Kisor was the band director at North High School, leading his jazz bands to competition victories all over the tri-state area; even taking some bands to national competitions. He has three sons, each extremely gifted in music. Ryan was the oldest and has spent many years playing trumpet with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in New York City. Justin was in the middle, and also took up the trumpet, eventually playing with The Commodores (the U.S. Navy’s jazz band), and the likes of Norah Jones, Wynton Marsalis and Wycliffe Gordon. The youngest is Lance, who also plays trumpet, but focuses on his rap music under the name, Kisor Flowsay.

Justin sometimes forms impromptu jazz quartets and plays around Sioux City at places like Rebo’s, The Marquee and the Betty Strong Encounter Center.

“It’s a struggle to be a jazz trumpet player in Sioux City, Iowa,” said Kisor. “Not many people pay to see live music, period; definitely not jazz trumpet. I’m not closed-minded about other music, that’s just the language I speak. I still listen to the same records I listened to while in high school.”

He has had a passion for playing since he was a small child seeing as music was his family’s legacy.

“I grew up around it because my dad was a high school jazz teacher,” said Kisor. “I used to go to his rehearsals, and even go to gigs with him sometimes. I was always around it. Of course, my older brother was a childhood prodigy on the trumpet, so I heard him play at a very high level from a very young age. Trumpets were always laying around the house, and I could always get a good sound. I wanted to be a saxophone player, but my dad brought one home one time and I definitely didn’t have any natural talent on that. I think he knew it, because he told me they were too expensive, anyway. I always asked myself if I was really supposed to be a trumpet player or if I did it because of my brother, but at this point of my life I know it’s in me.”

What draws Kisor to jazz? What does it mean to him?

“At first, as a trumpet player, I’d hear guys like Maynard Ferguson or Wynton Marsalis…just the energy and power of the trumpet blew me away,” said Kisor. “There’s no amplifier; there’s just you and three valves. The sound comes from the person. There’s something about the blue notes; the sound of the blues…I just identify with it. And then you get deeper into the harmony and you get into Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker who take those blue notes and incorporate them into the harmony. The rhythmic feel with the harmonic thing struck me. The first record I heard that I wanted myself to sound like was ‘Blues Moods’ by Blue Mitchell. The track was, ‘I’ll Close My Eyes.’ When I heard it, I felt like I was listening to me if I could play that way. It felt like I was listening to my soul.”

While Kisor still gets gigs around town, it is always tough to pull in a crowd for a jazz set.

“I don’t know if it’s ever been really great crowds since the big band era,” said Kisor. “Guys came down to five-piece bands because there wasn’t enough money in it to put big bands together on the road, except for a few. They made dancing in the clubs illegal. If you can’t dance and party, you are cutting out 90 percent of your audience right away. I don’t know if it’s gotten harder, it’s probably been about the same since the end of the big band era. The people who aren’t into it now are probably farther away from it than the people who weren’t into it before; but that’s just on-the-spot speculation.”

How and why would people want to keep a dying music genre alive, especially when the money isn’t there?

“I may be a little pessimistic, but the people who gravitate toward jazz, the music will come into their lives,” said the trumpet player. “It will always be there for the few and far between. There is a certain kind of personality that likes that sound…likes that feel. As far as making it popular and having kids pull up their pants and start wearing zoot suits again…I just don’t know. It’s a tough thing. With hip-hop artists, you hear a lot of rebellion; I hear the same rebellion in Thelonious Monk, only in a different way. I think if more young people saw it that way, it might be more popular.

“I would like to have a venue where I could play once a week. If we had money or grants to bring in top musicians, that would be great. Mediocre jazz kills jazz because it lulls you to sleep. The only thing that’s worse than bad jazz is mediocre jazz. If jazz were to get popular again it would need regular exposure and we would need guys that just get up there and hit. If it’s done right, you will be blown away…with all the improvisation and melodies, you will never hear the songs the same way twice.”

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