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The Trumpet Monk

By: Gerard Millman

As a musician in China’s high society social network, Chris was always surrounded by opulent luxury. For up to six nights a week, he would play jazz, blues, and soul music at palatial resorts, exclusive clubs, and high-end function parties in the Shenzhen and Hong Kong metro areas. Chris was the Foreign Music Manager for a multi-million dollar social club and catered to the artistic interests of elite politicians, Chinese magnates and international celebrities. 

Click the pictures for captions

But this life made him feel empty. He saw the differences between the lifestyles of the ultra-wealthy and the extreme poverty every night as he went home after his performances. He said, “there was something that was missing, like an empty void. It was an endless cycle of never being satisfied and always wanting more, and I was never happy." It became more difficult to enjoy the high society music business knowing that people were suffering outside its bounds.

l life.”

"I was never at peace, so I decided to start to pursue a more spiritual life.”

In 2012, Chris abandoned the high society scene and the thing he loved most: performing music.

His last name has been withheld for his safety.

No longer a musician, Chris lived in seclusion for the next few years, traveling throughout southeast Asia in search of inner peace. 

“The spiritual path was pulling me away from the modern society; I had no idea where it was leading. All I knew was that I found myself in various spiritual settings, monasteries, studying with monks, and traveling to different spiritual areas.  At one point, I remember having three homes, one in Bangkok and two in China, and I would travel back and forth, spending time in temples and spiritual areas.”

After nearly a decade in Asia, Chris returned home to Chapel Hill, N.C., in 2015 to take care of his ailing mother, who had cancer. “She was permanently disabled, could not walk, and had gone through twelve rounds of chemotherapy,” he said. “All my other family members had died long ago, and now my mother was alone, so I had an obligation to become her caretaker,” he said.

For seven years he continued his spiritual studies in Chapel Hill by connecting with UNC professors from various disciplines, but also continued his renunciation of music. “I had no interest in performing anymore,” he said. “A lot of my old friends were musicians, and would invite me to perform, or come gig with them, and I would decline all of it.”


But in February 2022, Chris felt disheartened and upset with the state of the world. While Chapel Hill was recovering from the COVID pandemic, Chris chose to recover his mental health. 

He turned to music. 

“Just before the Russia-Ukraine war started, I heard an interview with a Ukrainian singer. She was singing jazz in a club and I could hear music in the background, with an incredible trumpet. The reporter asked her if she was afraid of the imminent war. She said she didn't think about it; she just lost herself in her music. That really hit me, and I decided to think about music again. I had no instruments since I had left all my guitars and pianos in China. Then I remembered one of my best friends in Shenzhen had gifted me with a trumpet. I pulled it out of the closet, and started to teach myself."

A decade after Chris abandoned music, he began to play again.

"I am not a musician, I am a monk that plays music"

Chris performs slow jazz music on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, N.C., Wednesday, January 25th 2023.

With COVID restrictions still in place, Chris practiced the trumpet outside on the steps of the Kenan Music Building of UNC-Chapel Hill before moving to the town’s most prominent thoroughfare: Franklin Street. The sound of his trumpet singing 1920's jazz could be heard throughout the town and people would gather to listen and dance. 


Chris saw that by performing his music he made other people happy, that he was the positive change he wanted in the world. Chris learned that worldly success is empty without spiritual success, but spiritual success is incomplete if you renounce your talents. "My goal is to serve people," he said, "some people bring food to help others and some people bring blankets to help others. For me, the best gift that I could give was music to help others." 


In 2022, The Trumpet Monk was born.


The Trumpet Monk is Chris’ interpretation of a “modern day digital monk." He has no formal occupation and survives on alms, but unlike a traditional monk, the Trumpet Monk uses every piece of technology he can get his hands on if it helps him on his mission to spread joy with music. 


Catch a performance from the Trumpet Monk on Franklin Street on any given night and you will notice the elaborate but portable staging setup he uses. This tech-savvy monk programmed, recorded, and orchestrated backing tracks to play through Bluetooth speakers at the command of his wrist-bound touchpad controller. “The key question is - are you using your possessions, technology and knowledge in a skillful way to improve the world, or are you using them in an unskillful way?” he said. 

The Trumpet Monk 
Digital Exhibit

Below is an interactive 3-D exhibit of Trumpet Monk's belongings.

Each item is accompanied by an audio narration of the Trumpet Monk explaining its significance on his spiritual journey.

The Altar

The Altar
00:00 / 01:23


"The books on my 'Trumpet Monk Altar' are my foundation of artistic and spiritual grounding. These two books represent extremely high-level culture and wisdom, and always keep me firmly rooted in difficult times.

The 'Magic Konghou Book' is a rare, detailed chronology of the history and development of this ancient instrument. One incredible lesson I learn from that book permeates through every part of my music, and that is the awareness of “Musical Lineage”. Music is a language, and that language has a long lineage, and the true artist respects and honors that lineage above herself.

The other book, the timeless classic 'Art of War' by Sun Tzu is a stark reminder of the harsh reality of the world we live in. Although the monk may hope and dream of peace, the reality is we live in a world of never-ending wars that have continued since the beginning of time. I often read random pages from “Art of War” when preparing for worldly endeavors, and some of the brutal lessons in this book are necessary even in my spiritual quest on a path of peace."

The Magic Konghou Book

The Magic Konghou Book
00:00 / 01:40


"I call this book the 'Magic Konghou Book', and this scholarly work symbolizes historic, artistic, and extremely high level musical culture. The book was given to me as a personal gift during a stormy night in Beijing when I was invited to the authentic and cozy music studio of a great musician we called “Phoenix”. We gave her the English name of Phoenix because the top of her instrument is adorned with the beautiful head of that mythical bird of legend.

I was amazed that she had planned a private concert just for me - the 'visiting American Musician'. At that time, it was my understanding that the book was never published, and instead, only a limited number of copies were given away as gifts.  

For me, this extremely rare book has always been a priceless treasure which chronicles the development of this ancient instrument, into the modern version we know today. I have been around some amazing musicians and artists in my life, but Phoenix was a remarkable, world class musician, and her book, as I understood, was written when she was only somewhere around age eighteen. Her music, focus, dedication, and scholarly high level artistic commitment is quite uncommon. I will always cherish that friendship, and because of our brief interactions, her energy pushed me into an entirely higher artistic level than I ever was before."

The Trumpet

The Trumpet
00:00 / 02:27


"When I hit the street I always set up the trumpet first, leaving it propped up in the backpack case, so this way the people will know what is coming up on this corner. Although I was formerly a guitar player, singer, and multi instrumentalist, there is something in the breath, full of life and mystery, that allows the trumpet to deeply connect with the soul. This simple brass instrument is ancient, and it’s sound has stirred emotions in a plethora of people since I brought it out into the world.  

This particular trumpet was gifted to me from a close friend in Shenzhen who was also the owner of the multi million dollar club where I worked for years. My instrument is nothing special. It’s kind of old, and definitely not clean and shiny anymore. I am sure most college students have more expensive and newer horns that are clean and glimmering.

For me however, this horn has a lot of memories and sentimental value. It was a gift from a close friend in China, from a past time period when our two great countries had much better relations. At that time, there was so much excitement and hope in China, and it seemed more possible than ever that our two worlds, although very different, might actually enter an era of peace. That has all changed now, and relations between China and the USA have been at their lowest point in recent years. Even still, this trumpet reminds me of a different time, when there was more cross-cultural friendship and greater hope around the future of our world.

I do not really consider myself a great trumpet player, since I am self-taught, and only seriously began studying the instrument around the spring of 2022. However, I can now hit the high C6, and sometimes even a high D6!  I can play a nice ballad and fill the street corner with mellow songs of love from the golden jazz and classical eras. Since I am merely a monk, and not in the music business, that is good enough for me."

The Green Dragon

The Green Dragon
00:00 / 02:15


"The Green Dragon is my primary mode of Zen transportation, and this high-tech electric bike forces me to live in the slow lane. I do not judge anyone who drives cars, I get it. I used to drive a car daily, and I was constantly in the middle of the modern transportation madness.  Even now, sometimes life happens, and I must take an occasional Uber, but my primary mode of daily transportation is my bike. In fact, just realizing that we are now in the year 2024, I remember it has been around twenty years that I have not driven a car!

This decision to move away from cars started in part with the fact that I was living in China with a very advanced public transportation system, and in fact, in that environment, there was no need for a car. There was also the aspect of striving for a clean air lifestyle, since living in Beijing was so heavy with air pollution that on some days, we had to wear masks just to go grocery shopping. When I returned to the USA, at that time, I had become so used to not driving, that my life just naturally integrated with alternate transportation, and that is how my bike lifestyle evolved.

I have also realized what a unique journey this “no car” lifestyle has offered me, and I am blessed to learn things that I could never learn any other way.  Now I am much closer to nature, can sense when the rain is coming, deeply feel the minute temperature changes, and I am aware of every pothole in my little college town! I also have a more calm and relaxed daily rhythm, which I feel definitely translates into my music, since every aspect of a person's lifestyle is reflected in their art."

Music Performance Gear

Music Tech
00:00 / 03:20


"A lot of people ask me about my music technology gear, and every piece of gear was handpicked, and programmed or configured by me in order to effortlessly remotely control all my sounds in a live setting. I put all this together into a cohesive and high tech music experience which I transport via my bike, and I call this portable setup my 'AI Orchestra'. I have performed with countless 'live musicians' since I was a young kid, so I have been there and done that. At this point in my life, I feel technology allows me creative freedom, and independence, so that I can focus on the music. I prefer not to be distracted by other musicians' egos, artistic temperaments, or their different vision of sound. My spiritual journey demands a distinctly disciplined daily life flow, which is mostly in solitude, so having other people involved in my music distracts from the greater goal of my monk life.

I build a lot of my own backing tracks and record different instrument parts using my two pianos and digital workstation keyboard in my home studio. Sometimes I even write and compose original songs and tracks, and lately I have been inspired to create even more originals!  For me it’s all about the stark reality of bringing music out into daily life. This means you do whatever it takes and use whatever technology necessary to bring the high-level music onto the streets, night after night after night. That goal of consistent nightly performance would be impossible if I waited on corralling a five-piece live jazz band, or classical chamber group. Instead, I prefer to use my technology skills to bring out the music, and not depend on other live musicians.

I have been asked if owning my tech gear, or owning possessions in general, conflicts with my monk life and spiritual path. In my view, the accumulation of material possessions and wealth is not an issue for the Trumpet Monk, since I live by my own rules, and vows. From what I observe, many nations regularly spend billions to develop greater and more sophisticated weapons that have the potential to destroy humanity.  In response, I feel I have every right, even an obligation, to use any technology, and any amount of financial resources to spread peace and joy thru my music. My only concern is - are you using material possessions, wealth, and resources in a skillful way to make the world better, or in an unskillful way that creates more suffering."

“The mission is to build a world where

people break free from the illusion of separateness,

and are more focused on what they have in common.”

The TMONK Photo-62.jpg
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