When he settled on the trombone as his instrument of choice as an 11-year-old, Ryan Heinlein could not have imagined where it would take him decades later.
These days, Heinlein is a music educator at Johnson County Community College, a graduate of the doctoral in music arts program at the Conservatory of Music and Dance at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and the leader of the jazz septet The Project H, which is among several ensembles bringing new flavors of jazz to new waves of music fans in a variety of venues across Kansas City.
Heinlein recently answered questions from IN Kansas City about his childhood, about how music overtook sports and skateboarding as his first loves, and about the immeasurable value of teaching and teachers in the world of music.
Let’s start at the beginning. What was your childhood like and how early did music become a part of it?
I was born in Hutchinson, Kansas. I had a typical 1980s childhood, I suppose. We didn’t have a lot of money but were in a nice neighborhood with lots of kids, and we were by a big park. You could hear moms yell outside for their kids when it was time for dinner, that type of thing. My dad got a promotion when I was 13, which allowed us to move to a suburb of Wichita. We were outside a lot, playing sports, skateboarding, and just walking around this little town. I also played a ton of video games growing up.
Music has always been around my family. My dad played keyboards in rock bands. He would gig out of town a lot on weekends, but there was always music playing in the house. To this day, I still listen to music really loudly while I clean the house. It’s what we did when I was a kid. I have zero complaints about my childhood and how I was raised.
Who were your earliest music influences?
When I was a kid, I wrote a song called You Dummy. It was to the guitar hook of Everybody Wants You by Billy Squier, so I guess he was my first musical influence? And I’m not ashamed to admit that.
It was really just the stuff that was on in the house. I have an older brother and sister, so whatever they listened to, whatever my parents listened to. Any given day, you could hear Santana, Tower of Power, Michael Jackson, Run DMC, Bob Marley, or Van Halen. And I guess Billy Squier, too. Also, MTV played music constantly back then. When my dad was out of town, MTV was on. We would listen to whatever they had playing.
I started to get into jazz when I was in college at Wichita State. My jazz teacher gave me a [Charles] Mingus record to listen to. Some of my musician friends would get together and play new things for each other until 3 or 4 a.m. We would talk about what we liked about those artists. It could have been Charlie Parker one night, the Bad Plus the next night. We listened to a lot of music then.
What were the first albums you owned and/or bought? Some of your favorite bands/artists?
I remember listening to my brother’s Metallica cassettes a lot; they were my favorite. As far as anything I owned? I remember having Victory by the Jacksons. I was probably 10 or 11 when I started buying my own music frequently: Bell Biv Devoe, Boyz II Men, Black Sheep, Pearl Jam, and Pantera to name a few. I got a CD player when I was 13. Primus, Rage Against the Machine, and Wu Tang Clan had pretty much taken over my musical taste at that point.
When did you decide to start playing the trombone and why? Do you play other instruments?
I started playing the trombone when I was 11. We got to choose three instruments we were interested in playing. In this order, I choose the saxophone, the cello, and the trombone. Trombone was the only one I could make an OK sound on, so that’s what they put me on. I tried learning guitar, but never really stuck with it. I really wish I’d learned to play piano when I was younger. I learned in college, but I had a Hammond B3 in my bedroom growing up! It was the only place in the house where it fit, and I never really messed with it.
Was there a pivotal moment that led you to make the trombone and music your life’s pursuit?
I planned on quitting band my freshmen year of high school. I liked sports and skateboarding, and I didn’t like practicing. I remember getting goosebumps after one of our final performances. I’d never experienced that before, and it really hooked me. Nothing else I had done to that point made me feel that way, so I decided to stick with it.
Every year, I did a little less of the other things I was interested in and a little more music. I joined a ska band called Ophil when I was 16. That’s what you did when you played trombone in the ’90s and wanted to be a rock star.
My parents were super cool about it. As long as I didn’t miss school, I could go play. We would drive to St. Louis or Kansas City or Oklahoma City on weeknights and play. I would get home just in time to take a shower and go to 7 a.m. jazz band. I absolutely loved playing, traveling, and meeting other people who were like me. Once I joined that band, I knew this is what I would be doing the rest of my life.
What teacher or teachers were most influential in your life through high school?
It sounds so obvious, but it was my music teachers. I really didn’t care about anything else for half of my high school career. Once I joined Ophil, music was the only thing I was concerned with. I think they saw that switch in me and my drive to become better and continue. I still talk to them and hang out with them. I wouldn’t be where I am without them.
You have a doctorate in musical arts, the culmination of years of music education. Some musicians discover that conservatories and academia are not for them. What about higher education appealed to and satisfied you?
College for me, regardless of which degree, was a means to an end. It was something I knew I had to complete, and complete at a high level, to get where I wanted to be.
There were plenty of classes, lessons, and experiences I enjoyed that I would never take back. There were plenty of negative experiences as well where I could have given up, but I didn’t. I used it all as motivation to finish my goal. It’s not for everyone, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
I finished the bachelor’s degree and started teaching. I thought I wanted to be a high school music teacher, until I was a high school music teacher. It wasn’t for me. Those directors put so much time and energy into their programs. I was 25, and it just didn’t feel right. I wanted to keep improving, keep playing, and there’s only so much you could do when you have all the extra obligations that high school teachers have.
You are a teacher again. My two children were in orchestra from middle school into high school, and all their teachers were extraordinarily dedicated and patient. I consider music teachers to be something like saints on earth: patient and committed to the larger cause. What is your teaching philosophy? How do you help make the pursuit exciting and appealing and not so much an obligation? What is the most rewarding part of teaching?
Music is my life. I was fortunate enough to know that when I was 16. I also know that others may not feel the same way about it as I do. My job at Johnson County Community College is to help my students figure out where music fits in their lives. Some want to go on to a four-year institution to study music. They want to teach, they want to perform, they want to produce. I’ve done enough, made enough mistakes, succeeded enough, and met enough people where I can set them on the right path. I can motivate them to find their passion, create goals for themselves and achieve them.
Some students just want to play music while they begin their careers in another field. Those students become the advocates for the arts in schools, and we need those just as much as we need musicians.
I want to make sure they have a positive experience in my program so they can look back fondly at their time with me. The most rewarding part of teaching is watching something click with a student, to see a fire get lit from that lesson and to see where they take it after they leave my program. I’m so proud to have been a chapter in their lives.
It seems that over the past ten years or so there has been a surge in interest in jazz in Kansas City thanks to more venues and more bands like your own, Project H, and like Hazelton’s Boogaloo 7 and Marcus Lewis’ Big Band and Brass and Boujee, ensembles who are giving jazz a more contemporary flair. Is that accurate and are you optimistic about the future of live jazz and jazz clubs?
I think that is accurate to a point. There are definitely musicians in town who are pushing boundaries and crossing over to more of a mainstream audience, but we don’t really get to do that in traditional jazz venues, aside from the Blue Room.
I’m thankful for places like The Ship, RecordBar, Westport Coffeehouse, Corvino Supper Club, to name a few. We’ve had to be creative in finding other venues like art galleries, breweries, festivals, or pop-up venues when the aforementioned are already booked.
But music like Brass and Boujee, Eddie Moore’s projects, The Project H probably aren’t a great fit at places like The Phoenix or the Green Lady, and that’s fine. We had a residency at the Green Lady for 18 months, and it never felt right, it never felt like home. I’m glad we got an opportunity to play there, though.
The traditional jazz clubs seem to be doing fine, and I think that’s awesome. Of course, I’ve barely been out in the past two years. But I hope they continue to book acts that will keep people excited and interested.
We talk so much about Kansas City being a jazz town and how important we are to its history. You go to New Orleans, and you are immersed in their music, their style, their culture. You can’t escape it without leaving the city. I don’t see that in Kansas City as much. I’d like it to change, but I’m not the right person to lead that charge.
Let’s talk about Project H, what your initial intent was, and how it has evolved.
I started writing music for the group my final year in Wichita. It was a release from teaching. If I had a bad day, I would sit at the piano in the band room after school and just mess around. After a month or so, I had six or seven ideas figured out, so I arranged them and got some friends together to play them. It’s grown from a quintet to a septet.
I really wanted the group to be this musical chameleon, and it is to a point. But what really happened was I continued to grow as a composer and found, what I think is, my voice as a writer. I think you can hear a piece now and think, “Yeah, that sounds like Ryan.” You can hear bits and pieces of all those influences mentioned earlier in my music.
Around 2013, I started to write specifically for the main members of the group. I could write to their strengths. I knew I could add bass clarinet or flute to a piece because Brett Jackson is a great woodwind doubler. I could give Clint Ashlock a soulful feature because I knew he would sound amazing every time. The last record, I introduced a string quartet and Peter Schlamb on vibraphone, just to start exploring and expanding musical textures. That trend of expansion is evident in some of the newer pieces I’ve been working on.
What’s the difference between being a band leader and a music teacher?
The biggest difference is that, beyond telling The Project H how I want a piece to go, I’m not really teaching them after that. There’s an implication that if I hire you or want you to be a part of one of my projects that you can already read music at a proficient level, you can interact with a group on the spot and know how to actively listen within an ensemble, that you are trusting as a professional and that you are a good person.
With teaching, I get to dig into the fundamentals of music, which is fun but also challenging. I get to teach my students how to read and listen and be professional. I absolutely love that process. It can be tough, and not all of them learn the same way, so I still get to be creative on how I present a fundamental.
Complete this sentence: “My favorite thing about being a musician in Kansas City is …”
I know that if I want to create any musical project, regardless of genre, I can find incredible musicians to sign on to play, and I can find venues that are willing to host it.