5:56am: A startled custodian swivels as a burst of pajama bottoms races past him and up the student union stairs at URI.
5:57am: With A Tribe Called Quest pulsing through his headphones, the DJ crashes into a seat behind the WRIU soundboard and dumps a backpack of CDs, groping for one with a cracked jewel case and no liner notes.
5:59am: The opening notes of “The Way You Look Tonight” hit the airwaves, two musician’s personal differences playing out for the benefit of a dedicated radio audience. He leans back, eyes closed, playing quick matching scales on a fine imaginary trumpet.
At nine years old, Manuel Morales hung his rented trumpet out a bedroom window, serenading the street with wobbly riffs and almost-songs, searching for his sound. They were the early stylings of a dedicated student of music’s primal, open stretches that make jazz so unique and the beginning of a true jazz man.
9am: He’s racing across campus to practice his horn with other seniors completing their Jazz Performance majors, then it’s off to teach young students the basics of jazz, its intonations and styles, subtleties and personalities.
8pm: He pulls a Superman-like clothes change and heads for the city to play Dixieland all night with Larry Brown’s Swinglane Orchestra.
“Why do I play the trumpet?” he asked back at me, “Because it led the band, because I wanted to be the loudest.” He’s a student of Coltrane, Baker, Davis and Jamie Cullum, whom he performed with to close last year’s Newport Jazz Festival. He plays everyday without fail; “If I’m not practicing I’m rehearsing, if I’m not rehearsing, I’m playing a gig.” He always worked hard; in high school, he earned an Eagle Scout badge, bussed tables and rented kayaks to help pay for lessons and college. His mother, Annie, has been there at every step, and he loves his momma. “I’m very grateful for the support of my family,” he smiled. He’s a cool cat.
Manuel has a rare, singular focus on a career as a performer, composer and bandleader, where success is difficult and often decades away. “I’ll fall back on music therapy,” he said, but his life is live jazz. Some nights he’s the John Allmark Jazz Orchestra’s roadie and “once in a blue moon,” gets to sit in and blow that horn. Other nights he plays with the SouthCoast Jazz Orchestra. He’s proud to be from southern RI, but after college there’ll be a move to a bigger city, maybe to play his own compositions in Cuba. “I’ve got to stay focused, no ties other than family,” he says seriously, tapping out Baker’s “Let’s Get Lost” on the table.