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On the Corner of the Mundane and the Magical: The Baltimore Inspired Jazz of Kris Funn

By Charlie Maybee

Baltimore is a city that can produce a variety of responses when brought up in conversation depending on who you are talking to. Outsiders will likely bring up the hit television show The Wire and subsequently get on a tangent about the city’s high crime rates. But for insiders like Kris Funn, a jazz musician, composer, and teacher (as well as a Baltimore native), the city’s cultural offerings are rich and full of life.

“There probably isn’t a bigger influence on my music than Baltimore honestly,” he reflects. “My first record and most of the songs I have composed and recorded have a direct connection to growing up in that city. My earliest musical memories are of my dad, also a jazz musician, dragging my brother and I to all his concerts. The musicians in the bands were like superheroes to me, all with unique powers and personalities.”

This story of family legacy and lineage is potent among jazz musicians because of its deep roots in the Atlantic Slave Trade. The violent shift from African to African-American identity forced enslaved people to deconstruct their culture into fractured pieces and rebuild it into something unrecognizable enough to hide from white slave owners while maintaining as much of their African heritage as possible.

Kris Funn
Kris Funn & Cornerstone – Jamie Sandel – Courtesy of CapitalBop

Musically, this produced the genre of the blues which then developed into jazz, and both have come to be recognized as quintessentially American music. However, since these traditions were not being written about by historians at the time that they were being developed, they were passed down orally through familial lines. So, it’s no surprise that Funn continues this tradition of passing the buck by continually coming back to the concepts of family and childhood in his own music.

“When I started composing music, I had a hard time finding inspiration until I began to just explore my childhood and all of the memories, which in turn, inspired moods and emotions and that led to sounds and eventually compositions. It’s kind of like therapy. They say music is therapy, but if you ever have done any therapy, you know you always end up at your childhood!”

After graduating from college with a degree in computer science and a passion for jazz music (particularly playing double bass), Funn was at crossroads about what was in store for his future until a special opportunity came along: an international tour playing with post-bop legend Kenny Garrett. Suddenly, his lineage in jazz music expanded outside blood relatives as he found himself alongside a musician who had played in both the Duke Ellington Orchestra and Miles Davis’s band.

Thinking about this time, Funn writes, “I traveled to just about every major jazz festival, and it really presented me with the prospect of starting a career as a jazz musician. I got to really see if this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and it was hard to say no. I have toured with many musicians after him, but him being the first, it really got my road chops together and learning the ins and outs of the music business.”

Kris Funn

After spending some time on the road with renowned musicians like Christian Scott, Joey Alexander, Kamasi Washington, and more, Funn eventually made his way back to Baltimore, and in 2017, he released his debut album CornerStore. It features a robust crew of musicians, including John Lee, Tim Green, John Lamkin III, Quincy Phillips, Janelle Gill, Paige Hernandez, and Allyn Johnson, as they paint a musical tapestry of city life.

“My first album is an ode to the city I grew up in. My earliest childhood memory outside of the house was this magical place on the corner full of candy: “The Cornerstore,” Funn notes. “The album is a collection of songs mostly inspired by memories. I hope the overall message of the music shows that by telling my own personal story, we can all realize that we may have grown up in different environments and dealt with different situations, but when you really get down to the root of it, we share mostly the same stories.”

The first song on the album, titled “Welcome,” acts as a roadmap for what you can expect to encounter throughout the album. As the only track with lyrics, it starts with a smart, thoughtful intersection, “The cornerstore on the corner of bebop and hip hop / hard rock and hard knocks.” From there, we are lead through a series of instrumental vignettes inspired by some of Funn’s intimate memories with a scale of topics ranging from mundane to magical.

“I have a song about a noisy neighbor and discovering music for the first time…  a song about my mother telling me anything to shield me from something that scared me, simply to get me to go to sleep…. A song about sibling rivalry…. While the details of these stories may be different from yours, who hasn’t had these same experiences in their life?”

Kris Funn

Since releasing CornerStore, Funn has continued to tour internationally while also making space to give back to his community as part of the prestigious jazz faculty at Peabody Institute of John Hopkins and other ongoing projects. “We are putting the finishing touches on an album I did with a group called The Baltimore Jazz Collective. The group consists of Sean Jones on trumpet, Todd Marcus on bass clarinet, Brinae Ali on vocals and tap dancing, Alex Brown on piano, and Quincy Phillips on drums.”

With a tentative release slated for 2022, this project is also seeped in the cultural history of Baltimore. “We were commissioned to contribute music of a Baltimore composer and make our own arrangements of the songs,” explains Funn. “I actually chose a Baltimore Club song which I loved growing up. ‘Dance My Pain Away’ by Rod Lee. It was a lot of fun pouring jazz all over it. I hope the idea resonates with the listener.”

As things have begun to pick back up within this new pandemic world, Funn has a few shows planned for March, including concerts with Joey Alexander in Pennsylvania and New York, and Sean Jones at the Savannah Music Festival. He is also hopeful about the possibility of recording the follow-up to CornerStore, which we will have to wait for in dire anticipation. For information on all things happening in the world of Kris Funn, be sure to check out his official website and follow him on Spotify, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Charlie Maybee

Charlie Maybee is a dancer, musician, educator, and writer based in Charleston, South Carolina who currently teaches with the Dance Program at the College of Charleston. His primary work as an artist is with his performing collective, Polymath Performance Project, through which he makes interdisciplinary performance art that centers tap dance as the primary medium of expression and research. He also currently plays rhythm guitar for the Charleston-based punk band, Anergy, and releases music as a solo artist under the name Nox Eterna.

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