Jazz trumpeter Darren English. Picture: Gregory Franz

Trumpeter Darren English’s journey started at the age of 14 when, instead of presenting his oral comprehension in his English class, he boldly chose to go against the grain and play Oh When the Saints on his harmonica.

“My class cheered me on and applauded,” he recalls. “I finished playing it, and my teacher smiled and said I got 8/10. He then told me to come after school the next day to see if I want to pursue music.”

English went after school that day and was told that he could not play the harmonica in the band, but could play the tambourine, which he ended up playing in the band for six months. Soon after, English was prompted by his teacher to give the trumpet a try.

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“I remember blowing through it and asking: ‘Where do you switch it on?’ Well, I ended up staying every single day after school and would practise the cornet, and soon I was trying to play along to Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis records.”

English was spurred on to pursue a career in music by small juvenile incentives, like the thought of being able to buy his own takkies from the money he earned playing small gigs. And he’s done just that and more, a lot more.

At the age of 22, English became the youngest artist to sign to Atlanta’s Hot Shoe Records. His debut album, 2016’s Imagine Nation, features the likes of Russell Gunn, Carmen Bradford, Greg Tardy and Joe Gransden, and sees English paying his respects to the late Nelson Mandela.

Darren English. Picture: Supplied

“I had mentioned to the CEO of the label (when I signed) that I had been composing a suite for Nelson Mandela, and he was totally on board with me making that the main focus of the album and gave me full liberty,” English says.

“Coming from a coloured family in Cape Town, I remember my dad telling me that he owes everything to Nelson Mandela. Because it was only once he became president that my dad could have the rights to start his own business. 

I grew up right when he was elected president, so I don’t have a real concept of what it was like, but hearing my parents and grandparents’ struggles influenced me, too. So, to me, this was my ‘Thank You, Madiba’, not only for me, or for my family, but for what he did for the world.”

Imagine Nation was recorded over two days at Murray Sound Lab in Kennesaw, with his quartet featuring Kenny Banks jr on piano, Billy Thornton on bass and Chris Burroughs on drums and cymbals. The album also features a number of distinguished guests: vocalist Carmen Bradford, trumpeter Joe Gransden, saxophonist Gregory Tard and Grammy nominated trumpeter Russell Gunn.

English has had the distinction of playing with Gunn on a number of occasions. “I remember performing in front of about 30 000 at the Atlanta Jazz Fest with Gunn for his debut of his new orchestra, The Royal Krunk Jazz Orkestra, and that for me was a concert that just showed me why I’m on this journey. 

Gunn is very influential to the entire music scene, and not only to trumpeters, or in jazz, but across the board. I recall him mentioning me after my featured solo with his band: ‘English,’ he said. ‘He may be young, but he’s no joke. He’s a killer.’”

His career highlights thus far include being the young featured Artist of the Year at the 2015 Sitka Jazz Fest in Alaska, making the best-of-2016 in the Huffington Post USA and his recent partnering with Shado Twala, who’s now his manager.

Since moving to Atlanta, English has immersed himself in its rich cultural scene. He’s also made a point of dedicating himself to education and is currently on a scholarship to complete his Master of Arts degree at Georgia State University, a move he describes as his most influential to date.

In-between his studies and musical commitments, English makes a point of coming to South Africa about twice a year. “I feel that I haven’t or won’t lose the South African aspect, regardless of location. Whether I choose to live in the US or Europe, the South African in me will still be prominent.”

Now English is set to hit the stage at the Cape Town Jazz Festival on Saturday along with his US group, his second performance following his appearance at last year’s show as part of Nduduzo Makhathini’s Listening to the Ground project.

“We are all extremely excited to be performing at the CTIJF. It’s really special too, as this will be the first time for everyone in the band to travel to Cape Town, actually first time for them traveling to Africa. So you can imagine the excitement among the group.”

Darren English will perform at the CTIJF on at 6pm on Saturday.