Kool & the Gang member shares path to success

By Len La Rocca
Correspondent

Trenton Makes Music and the College’s Department of Music at the College invited Michael Ray, the Grammy-winning trumpet player from funk phenomenon Kool & the Gang, to put on a masterclass that showcased his expertise and passion for the music industry on Nov. 5 at Kendall Hall Main Stage Theater.

The sonically dazzling Ray has earned several lifetimes of top-notch musical prowess in his illustrious career, all stemming from his days as a student at what used to be Trenton State College. At 65 years old, Ray is still a touring artist and has worked with the likes of talented groups such as Sun Ra Arkestra, Van Halen and artist James Brown. Out of those artists, Ray remembered Sun Ra fondly for his musical knowledge, prolific writing and as the first musician to fuse electronic keyboards in jazz. He knew Sun Ra was one of a kind when he first visited his house.

Ray recalls working with a variety of respected artists. (Meagan McDowell / Photo Editor)

“Let me tell you a more personal side of Sun Ra,” Ray said. “When I first went up to his house to rehearse, he had all these keyboards, manuscripts, milk crates, cassettes. I looked in the refrigerator. He had a milk crate of music in the refrigerator.”

No matter how much Sun Ra criticized Ray’s music, Ray knew he had an excellent mentor. 

“He told me, ‘you sound like an earthling, what’s wrong with you?’” Ray said.

Sun Ra constantly put Ray’s vast musical knowledge to the test; such rigorous testing has influenced Ray’s cosmic and spacey sound. Ray recalled many grueling sessions at Sun Ra’s house for the sake of perfecting his craft.

“I remember cats would play until they found the lost chord,” Ray said. “The lost chord is somewhere and you would just play until your fingers get to bleeding.”

Being in the music business since the 1970s, Ray has learned the political side to the music industry in all of its ugliness. He claimed the music industry was a long plastic hallway where thieves and murderers ran free and good men and women died alone.

Looking out at students sharing the special path that the College set forth for Ray, he offered advice that he wished he heard back his days at Trenton State College.

“Just don’t let the lifestyle get you,” Ray said. “I reflect back on my own life about how carefree and frivolous I was as if it was gonna last forever, but as it turns out I’ve got a graveyard full of friends.”

As a celebration of Ray’s career takes place Friday, Nov. 8 alongside the College’s Jazz Ensemble, one special person will be in dedication through Ray’s music and heart.

“I knew about Michael Ray before this and when I heard that the jazz band is working with him, I was beyond excited,” said Chris Cancglin, a sophomore music education major.

Ray said that he will dedicate the jazz concert to his deceased mother.

“She was a trooper to make it to 90 years old…When I was growing up I saw 20 and thought that’s old. I thought I was gonna live to about 35 and now I’m 65. So God has a plan for all of us,” Ray said.

Perspective is a gift that Ray offered his audience a new perspective in what he referred to as a world in peril. Alongside his wife on vocals and Michael Green on piano, Ray delivered a dazzling symphony on trumpet and electric keyboard. He even improvised by playing the keyboard behind his back.

Students were thrilled to hear Ray’s rise to stardom and his electrifying performance at Kendall.

“I thought that performance was great, like really modern jazz,” said Keith So, a freshman music education major. “He also played some standards too, but some of it was really spacey and out there. I really liked that part.”

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