You grew up more in the jazz world. How did you first come in contact with electronic music? Do you remember when you first heard the phrase "house music"?
I've never really fully embraced the term altogether, to be honest with you. But I came in contact with uptempo, soulful dance music through my brother. He was a big influence on my life. He was a really flamboyant gay guy, really good looking, life of the party type fella, and he passed away early on in his life. He was shot in a robbery. It changed everything. It devastated me. He was the only male figure I had, and he had a huge influence on me.
Yeah. Before that it was trombone, and that was something that I thought was a bit too easy for me. I wanted something that was a bit more complex, physically.
Why did you think the trombone was too easy?
Because I felt really comfortable with it. There was very little that I questioned with it. I thought that there was something wrong with that. I was in a place of learning...and I wasn't learning anything. That always bothered me about certain things. If you're listening and feeling something to such a degree you're no longer interested in it, then maybe it's not the thing you should be speaking through. It's probably not the thing you should be speaking with.
Did the trumpet give that to you?
It did. It gave me that higher range [that I didn't have with the trombone]. I like female singers, and it was kind of like having one with me. I started working with actual singers later on my career anyway. That trombone and trumpet transfer was a lot harder, though, because the mouthpiece was so small. I had to learn how to breathe through the trumpet, which took a little while.
Was Betty Carter the first female singer you worked with?
She was the first person that reached out to me that was on that high of a level. That was simply because I had been playing around town. I sat in with Ray Hargrove, and his drummer, Greg Hutchinson, mentioned me to her. She was looking for young musicians that had that extra something. If he hadn't done that, I never would have had played Carnegie Hall later in life.
What was about her singing that was so special?
I could try to describe it, but I think I would fall short. It's now just something I feel and wear on my person from day to day. She put her personal stamp on me. For a teacher to have that sort of influence on a student... it's all you can hope for. Just being able to hear the degrees of talent she had, and the ways she could use her voice. There was no shortage of being amazed when I played with her. It was one of the most amazing things that ever happened to me.
The Marsalis brothers were also a major influence. You've said in the past that they taught you how to be a man. They were tough on you, in a way.
Yeah. You put it exactly the way it was. I can't say I prefer any style or philosophy of how you raise or teach a person, but now I do see that what they were saying was correct.
What were they saying?
The paths that they were making for themselves were paths that they made singularly. There are a lot of things that you have to go through as an adult male, a black adult male, that you have to understand before you can really know what it is that you're doing.
Was it a hard choice for you, going out on tour with Betty and the Marsalis brothers or to music college?
Hell no! [laughs] That was an easy one. I went on the road at first with a professor that had just left the very school I was going to. So it was kind of like, "You're going to get on this train with me, kid, and leave the rest of these chumps behind." And I said, "I'm getting on the train. I'm with you, boss." [It was] two or three years of awesome learning from those two brothers. They have two very different styles. You'd never think they were brothers until they played together. When they played together, though, there was this eerie harmony. It was really something.
Have you ever gotten that harmony with someone?
Yeah. I'm working now with this singer Billie Jewell, and she's got a voice that captures lots of places that haven't been looked into musically. Also, a lot of places that people seem to like over the past 80 years or so too. Staple voices that have linked artists to artists. We look at it now, and it's what we call history. I mean, if you can figure out your space, you can have a lot of harmony. Once you know, you'll have an easier time finding harmony with a specific artist and be more articulate about finding that artist.
I feel like your career has been a study in contrasts, where you're navigating this space between jazz, house and soul... that maybe you haven't found that enormous mainstream acceptance because you're doing all these different things at once. Is that how you feel?
Well, I think the interesting thing about music is that when you write a melody, you can take that melody and put it in any genre of music. That entails having appropriate teaching, though. Once it's all focused in, it becomes more of an endorsement of the being, rather than the genre that they're speaking to. If they're a true artist, they'll be able to speak through any genre with a degree of prolificacy. It will be understandable to any listener. It's your job as a musician to be well-rounded. Being well-rounded is priceless.
I haven't fought with it. More particularly, the fight is whether owners will take the chance to hear what it was that I wanted to do. Either you trust and realize there is some risk in being an investor [in a club] or you try to minimize your risk and only book "sure things." To do away with that risk, though, is to do away with the idea of investment and what people regard as talent. You're getting rid of the talent from the equation when you minimize risk. Right now, though, it's really about where I'm playing, when I'm playing and whether or not I'll be prepared for that particular performance and whether I can provide a product for the audience that's watching.
So I guess it must be your worst nightmare, then, to be playing with a mystery headliner at the RA X party in New York.
[laughs] I think it's alright. I think "Peven Everett" is a chameleon in the true sense of the word, where there is no necessity for translation. Is he really playing that trumpet? Is he really playing that harp? Is he really playing that...what is that...a bottle that sounds like a trumpet? Wow! It works...he's doing it. That's the magic of what talent really is, and I think that people are missing that. That effect of what Gene Kelly could provide, what Miles [Davis] could provide, what Cab Calloway could provide, what Michael Jackson provided. They all brought across the idea that this is something that regular folks can not do, and it's happening right in front of your face.
You keep coming back to this idea that you need to know, that you need to have an education. Do you think that's imperative?
Yes. Education is an interesting thing, because it's based on your interest, and having a direction. If you're interested in having a direction, you'll want to go to the next step, whatever that next step may be. It might be in the wrong direction, it might be right. It may be left field or right, east or west. I don't know, but it's a step nonetheless, and it's different than the place that you were. The more steps you take, the more choices you have. Then you can go in any direction you want to go.
But there's still genre, still categorization, and that doesn't make any sense to me. It's like saying Dali isn't a painter because he didn't do it like Picasso. I mean, are you serious? If you can get to a point where you have the knowledge—where you're free—the options are so vast. You don't have that stress anymore. It's like you're on top of the world.