Rodney Block got his start as a trumpeter playing a hand-me-down horn. The trumpet originally belonged to his older brother Otis Jr., who had given it up. That was the first of Block's Sweet Babies -- the nickname he gives all of his trumpets. Well, almost all. He calls his tiny pocket trumpet Baby Sweet Baby.
"My older brother started off on trumpet, but he didn't stay with it. So my parents said 'If you are going to be in band, you have to play your brother's trumpet.' And I was fine with that," he says. "I got the hand-me-down trumpet, but I was excited about it."
His Rodney Block Collective is a quartet that plays a range of genres -- jazz, hip-hop and even a little country. His second band, Rodney Block and the Love Supreme, is known for eclectic hip-hop.
He has shared the stage with many big-name performers including the legendary Earth, Wind and Fire; jazz masters Ellis and Delfeayo Marsalis; hip-hop band Whodini; saxophonist Kirk Whalum; soul singer Lalah Hathaway; and R&B greats Johnny Gill, Eric Benet and one-named singer Joe. He also is a frequent guest artist with hip-hop legend and icon Doug E. Fresh.
He has put out six albums under the name Rodney Block. A seventh album was issued under his alter ego name "Black Superman." The 2016 album is The Last Action Heroes by Black Superman and Themusiq.
Music is Block's second job. His first job is in pharmaceutical and medical sales. But he says maybe -- just maybe -- he might be ready to perform music full time.
"You want to live and you want to have a comfortable life and so you do things as necessary to have that. But at this point, music has surpassed what I do professionally," he says. "So I'm trying to get comfortable with saying yes, I'm a professional musician."
Block was born and raised in Dumas -- one of seven children of Ida and Otis Block Sr. His dad is a brick mason and his mother is a retired schoolteacher. He has three sisters -- Tammy Newburn, Kizzie Martin and Dee Davis and three brothers -- Otis Jr., Tyrone and Steven.
He credits his musical skills to the late Lawanna Hunt-Walker of Dumas, the minister of music at his hometown church, West Dumas Church of God in Christ.
"It's funny when people say 'Man you have a great gift.' It really wasn't a gift. I really had to work hard. But I think the gift was I just enjoyed it so much. And my heart was in the right place. And I just love the trumpet. So I worked really hard when I was in junior high and high school to play it," Block says.
Hunt-Walker taught Block and several of his siblings to play by ear.
"She really gave us a good foundation, learning to play by ear and learning to play with an ensemble," Block says. "She was just really fundamental in our growth."
Block's introduction to music was through church. "My first love would be gospel music. That was what I heard first. Either you were in school or church. That's what my life resolved around -- school and church -- so gospel music was my first influence."
MarQuis Hunt, a noted Little Rock jazz saxophonist, is Hunt-Walker's brother and Block's cousin. He also grew up in Dumas and learned to play by ear from his sister.
"Rodney is a premier entertainer," Hunt says. "He is the Little Rock party maker."
Hunt's father was the pastor of the church where Hunt-Walker led the music.
"Our improvisational talents were honed in the church largely through the tutelage of my sister," Hunt says of himself and Block. "She helped us mold our capacity for improv and our interests in music altogether."
In the sixth grade, Block's parents sent him to band camp at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia. It was his first time away from home. He had to audition for a spot in the band.
"It was nerve-wracking because I had never played by myself in front of somebody. I remember hearing all of these other trumpet players and man, they sound good."
In the audition room, Block found himself in front an older black man "who was probably a band director from somewhere."
"He says 'You look like a trumpet player.' And I proceed to play and I suck. I ended up being eighth band, sixth chair -- right near the bottom. But that stuck with me my whole life. ... He could have said that to everybody, but I received it like he was really saying that to me and I took it to heart."
Block and two of his siblings -- Tyrone and Tammy -- competed in band contests at the regional and state levels. Block and Tyrone are about a year apart and spent a lot of time playing together.
Block earned a music scholarship at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. There he learned to appreciate many forms of music, especially jazz.
In his junior year, Tyrone joined him at UAM and the brothers jammed frequently. Their first paid gig was a New Orleans-style Mardi Gras party at the home of UAM Chancellor Fred Taylor.
"I don't know how much we made, but it was enough that we were excited about it," Block says.
Block looks up to his younger brother Tyrone, who earned a doctorate in music from the University of North Texas. While he says they are each other's biggest cheerleaders, Block says his brother is the better musician. Tyrone is now the music department chair at Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Waxahachie, Texas.
"I disagree with that," Tyrone says. "I tell everyone Rodney is the real musician in the house. I may have the degree, but he is just naturally gifted."
Tyrone says Block gave him a "gentle, brotherly nudge" to continue pursuing a career in music.
"Without his infectious enthusiasm, I don't know if I would have stuck with it," Tyrone says. "Without him, I probably wouldn't be doing what I am doing today."
And the nickname Sweet Baby? Tyrone says his big brother stole the name from him. "It belongs to me," Tyrone says with a laugh. "He stole it from me. I named my first bass trombone Sweet Baby."
'IT NEVER ENTERED MY MIND'
After graduating with a degree in communications, Block followed a girlfriend to Lawrence, Kan. His first job was as a gofer at a golf course. A few months later he was hired as an admissions recruiter at the University of Kansas.
The university is about 30 minutes from Kansas City, Mo. -- a hub for jazz musicians. There, Block listened to great musicians and heard "how good the trumpet could sound."
"That's where I really started to understand the horn and grow as a musician," he says.
But life in Kansas wasn't always easy. "It was like one of those movies. Lost the job. Lost the car. Lost the girl. Lost the money. It was a real hard time."
For one of his birthdays, a friend gave him a CD of Miles Davis ballads. It was the first time he listened to "It Never Entered My Mind."
"For six months, I listened to that song every night before I went to sleep because it kind of got me through that rough patch, you know," he says. "When I heard the horn and the music, it sounded like hope to me."
By Thanksgiving of that year, Block had to borrow money to get home to Dumas.
"I was just depressed and my dad could see it, feel it. We talked and I said 'Pop. Nothing seems to be working out. I think I'm just going to move back home and I can probably work for you. I think I just want to pack up my stuff and move back home,'" Block recalls.
Block says he knew it was his father's dream for him and all of his children to live on the same block in Dumas.
"He says 'Rodney, I don't think you should move back.' He said 'Whatever it is that's got you down, you gotta go back because if you don't, it beats you.' He said 'You don't want that monkey to beat you.' He said 'Whatever it is, don't let it beat you.'"
Block took his father's advice and returned to Kansas. While it didn't happen overnight, Block did get a new job that paid even more than another job he applied for.
In Kansas, Block and a friend formed a group -- Dark Complexion -- and played on the weekends at a downtown Lawrence restaurant. His future wife, Jean, was in law school at KU and she and her friends would check out Block's band.
Their first date was to Free State Brewery in Kansas City. "I remember she laughs and she has this big laugh. She's so cool so it kind of stuck from that point."
He knew early on that she was "the one" and proposed after four months of dating. They were married after a year of dating.
"I had never been in love before despite having one long relationship. ... We were driving down the street on a Sunday and I suddenly realized that I loved him," Jean says. "It was kind of a shock after a short period of time because I am a right-brain girl -- logical and analytical."
Jean had made plans to finish out her law degree at American University in Washington. She decided to stay at KU because she and Block realized they didn't want a long-distance relationship.
After she graduated from law school with an emphasis on American Indian law, the couple moved to Albuquerque, N.M., where Jean took a job as an attorney for the Isleta Pueblo. Block took a job in pharmaceutical sales and formed the Rodney Block and Friends band.
After two years in New Mexico, the Blocks moved back to Arkansas. She got a job in law and after brief stints in radio and Yellow Page sales, Block settled into medical sales. He also started playing jam sessions at Cajun's Wharf and gigs at Hog Pen BBQ in Conway and a few charity events.
During the day, Block would call on doctor's offices, trying to make medical and pharmaceutical sales. One of those doctors was Gil Johnson of Conway. Block went to Johnson's office week after week without any luck seeing the doctor.
Block was in a store in Conway when he ran into Johnson's stepson, who told him Johnson loves music.
The next time he went to Johnson's office, he dropped off a CD of his music with a note. "And ever since then, I would never have any problem getting in to see him. And we built this great relationship.
"It's interesting how music and medicine kind of go together. ... It's kind of like this joke, you know, all doctors want to be musicians and all musicians want to be doctors."
Johnson, a guitar player, played with Block on AETN's 2008 Front Row with the Rodney Block Jazz Project.
"There's something about the music he plays that you want to listen to," Johnson says. "It's always a party atmosphere for the listener. You are hearing technical music that is not easy to play. But you always want more."
Johnson describes Block as "extremely friendly. He always has something nice to say. He's soft-spoken. He is serious about what he does, but he is very friendly and affable. He is excited about what he does. He takes it seriously, but there is always an element of fun about it."
JAMMING WITH LEGENDS
Block has been called on the spot several times in his musical career. One time, he was attending a show at the Mosaic Templars in Little Rock where Ellis Marsalis and his son Delfeayo were performing. During the show, Delfeayo says they were about to perform a song where they normally have a trumpeter.
Block had many friends in the concert. "The room erupted. They said 'We do have a trumpet player -- Rodney Block.' Delfeayo says 'Is he here? Do you have your horn?' And I say 'Yes. It's in the car.' And he says 'Well, what are you waiting on?'"
"I am on stage and I'm really nervous, but I do my thing," Block says. "And then I go over and meet Ellis Marsalis because that's jazz royalty. That's Ellis Marsalis."
Block always has a trumpet in his car -- even during this interview -- "just in case." His father taught him "a carpenter never goes anywhere without his tools" and he should always be prepared.
"My dad says 'You should take that trumpet with you everywhere you go just in case the angel decides to visit. He can take a good report back to the Lord,'" Block says. "And he says 'I imagine the report may be something like this -- I went to go visit Rodney today. He didn't make 100 on his test. He didn't do what he was supposed to do. He was in a bad mood but at least he had his trumpet.'"
Another musical surprise happened in the Bronx during his first concert with Doug E. Fresh. The hip-hop giant asked Block if he knew any Latin music.
"My answer was yes. I pulled from my data bank this Latin song I knew would go well," Block says of his musical memory.
The song was "Mas Que Nada," recorded by Sergio Mendes in 1966. Block had last played the song years ago during his days in New Mexico.
Fresh was so impressed he hired Block for a number of other gigs. In 2017, Block did a series of dates with Fresh, Bobby Brown, Erykah Badu and Babyface.
"I'm a music fan first, so it was like the best of both worlds -- I get a chance to perform and then I get a chance to be in the company of these great musicians.
"The journey, up until this point, has been great but it's just as rewarding to play someone's birthday party or someone's wedding and they send you an email or a text and it says, 'We had a great time' because it's really about the experience. It is really about creating a memorable experience no matter if that's in front of a large group or a small, more intimate group."
The Rodney Block Collective is made up of Andre Franklin on keyboards, Joel Crutcher on bass guitar and Jonathan Burks on drums. Bijoux Pighee steps in when the Collective needs a vocalist. Block says all of them are good enough to start their own group.
"If other opportunities pop up, I am the first to understand and let people be great," Block says. "If you look at Miles Davis' journey, you know Herbie Hancock was in his band and John Coltrane was in his band. All of these famous people who went on to become superstars and they all started with Miles."
Block performed more than 130 gigs in 2019 -- on the road about a third of the time. When he is in Little Rock -- even if he has been up late the night before -- he makes it point to attend the Sunday service at Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in North Little Rock.
"The journey has been a lot of fun. I'm proud to be from Dumas. I'm proud to be from Arkansas," Block says. "I'm proud to play at my little Baptist Church on Sunday."
Jean, who is now the chief legal officer at the Little Rock Reclamation Authority, says what makes her husband special is he is kind and genuine.
"He is still that way, no matter the opportunities or successes or the really exciting things he has been able to do," she says. "He remains warm and fun and none of it goes to his head. I respect that and, as his wife, I appreciate that."
• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: April 9, 1970, Dumas
• MY IDOL IS: My dad. My dad is a cool dude. He's a self-made man. He works hard. He's a brick mason -- a stone maker. He's done that for 50 years. For the last few years, I've been trying to get him to retire, and he says 'I'm retiring,' but he doesn't. ... He's always been a great provider. He's just a cool individual.
• ONE BIT OF ADVICE MY FATHER GAVE ME: You should always be prepared. He says a carpenter never goes anywhere without his tools.
• MY PET IS: CiCi the cat
• I LIVE IN: The Quapaw Quarter
• I DRIVE A: Hyundai Genesis
• MY FAVORITE VACATION SPOT IS: Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
• MY MUSICAL ICONS ARE: Miles Davis and Roy Hargrove. Roy passed away about this time last year. He was maybe a few months older than me. But he was, hands down, my favorite trumpet player outside of Miles Davis.
• MY ALL-TIME FAVORITE SONG TO PLAY IS: "It Never Entered My Mind" by Miles Davis.
• MY FAVORITE MEAL IS: Fried chicken, twice-baked potatoes and broccoli. My favorite dessert is banana pudding.
• I AM CURRENTLY READING: James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time
• THE ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Grateful
“It’s funny when people say ‘Man you have a great gift.’ It really wasn’t a gift. I really had to work hard. But I think the gift was I just enjoyed it so much.And my heart was in the right place.And I just love the trumpet. So I worked really hard when I was in junior high and high school to to play it.” - Rodney Bernard Block
High Profile on 01/05/2020
CORRECTION: James Baldwin’s book is entitled The Fire Next Time. The book’s title was incorrect in an earlier version of this article.