Once exposed to the life of a performer, Newton native Jacob Webb knew he was meant for it. Starting out in the live music circuit — playing both in Newton and Wichita — as a teenager, Webb just kept building on the opportunities he was given.
"Being able to perform on a weekly basis at a young age, such as 15, you mature very quickly and at that age you're more so a sponge. It was probably the biggest period of growth in my entire life was the three years I had with (Wichita guitarist) Jerry Hahn, from age 15 to 18. That was probably the biggest growth because I just learned what it was like to be a professional musician, do it at a young age and learn from somebody who is actually doing it," Webb said. "If you play with Jerry Hahn, you're going to want to be a professional musician."
After graduating from Newton High School in 2007 (of which he called his band experiences the "backbone" of his musical career), Webb went on to major in Jazz Performance at William Paterson University in New Jersey. There, the bassist/pianist met saxophonist Todd Schefflin with whom Webb partnered to form the contemporary jazz group The JT Project.
This year, Webb entered into a new chapter of his musical career — releasing his first solo album (and seventh total), "I'm Coming Home," in July. Currently, his lead single ("Belmont Avenue") is ninth on the Billboard Smooth Jazz charts. It is his third time appearing on that list — and first solo — and Webb said he can still trace a lot of that success back to his formative years.
While performing with Hahn helped helped shape Webb's evolution as an artist, his inclination towards music began even earlier than that. Having an exposure to many musical resources at a young age while attending Second Baptist Church in Newton with his family, Webb got his start playing drums and that eventually led him (and his brother, Nathan) to take lessons from longtime NHS band teacher Keith Woolery — where his musical influences continued to grow.
"Keith Woolery introduced us to the concepts of jazz," Webb said. "So, we had this Gospel background with traditional Gospel music from the church and then Keith Woolery was showing us concepts of jazz and that's kind of where that whole thing started."
Additionally, Woolery pushed Webb to get involved in the school music programs (i.e. jazz band), which eventually led to the opportunity for he and his brother to perform with Hahn — starting out with weekly gigs at Moka's (which formerly occupied the current Under 701 Cafe space) in Newton.
Hahn, a "treasure of the Midwest," remains a big influence on Webb's professional pursuits — as do contemporaries such as bassist Christian McBride, pianist Mulgrew Miller (the late Instructor of Music at William Paterson) and saxophonist Kenny Garrett.
In terms of writing music, though, Webb noted the experience is very personal as he tries to create a specific narrative for the listener with each piece.
"Music for me is all about telling a story, even in instrumental music because I focus primarily on instrumental music, but the objective is to take the listener on a journey, some kind of journey," Webb said. "When I write a song, I'm in a very closed space. I put myself in a very quiet zone and I try to paint a picture in my mind. If I don't see it, if I don't see the picture, then I can't write. It's as simple as that."
Striking out on his own this year was a different experience, Webb admitted, especially having had so much previous success with The JT Project (which received the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers Foundation "Reach Out and Touch" award in 2014).
For Webb, the decision to record a solo album went back to the personal process of music-making and wanting to tell his story through music.
"As I'm nearing my 30s ... I have the desire to express myself on a very personal level in addition to the group. I just saw a vision and I had a feeling that I need to get this music out and to express it in a way that only I can express it with my vision," Webb said. "I took a leap of faith and just did it. There's a lot of work that goes into it obviously, but I just had that feeling, that urge to want to kind of just branch out and see how far I can go as a musician and artist."
Uncertainty existed given how well the group was doing and while Webb said he felt more exposed as a solo act, the emotional reward was greater — though the potential for himself and The JT Project to be featured on the Billboard charts at the same time makes him even more excited.
Part of the artist experience, Webb said, is always seeking out the next accomplishment or goal. Having released his solo album, Webb is now looking to help develop other independent artists — filling that Jerry Hahn role for someone else — and just signed one, James Gibbs III, to his label (Next Paradigm Records) to help form a signature sound and make a mark as a cohesive brand.
Webb is constantly trying to improve individually as a musician as well, and performing comes with that territory. Though he is often playing gigs around his home base in the New York metropolitan area, he has made it back to Kansas (Wichita specifically) to perform in the Bradley Fair concert series the last two years.
No matter what he is doing, he is glad to have the continued support of his hometown where it all started and intends to keep trying to pay that forward.
"It's beautiful and rewarding to see, when I'm on social media posting about whatever success that I have, there's always the Newton crowd that are cheering and rooting me on, which is a beautiful thing to know that they see me grow and they're continuing to follow what I'm doing. It makes me feel like I'm obligated to try to take it to the next level, try to inspire people," Webb said. "I believe we get one shot at this life. You get a certain amount of time here and it's very imperative and crucial to maximize whatever you're into and just be able to enjoy it — find that joy, find that love, find that passion, find those things that correspond with another in a positive way and just give it your all, whatever it is."