Ernest Melton’s latest album, released in late 2018, contains multitudes. First, the title—The Time of the Slave Is Over—is striking, but even the name has many layers. You might jump to conclusions and try to connect it to the current sociopolitical climate in the United States, which isn’t incorrect, but for Melton, the name is something much more personal.

“I know what people are going to think it means, but that’s not really what I’m talking about,” the saxophonist and bandleader says. “It’s really just a reminder that I don’t have to do stuff that’s not productive. As an introvert, I need to make time for myself to do analytical things, and I realize that there’s a lot of harm people do to themselves, without knowing it, simply to entertain or just out of habit.”

Beyond the album title, the songs are thoughtfully named to be multifaceted. “PBS,” for example, clearly brings to mind public television, which is intentional to evoke imagery of children’s programming, but to Melton, it also stands for “Pushing Boundaries Simply.” The actual compositions are also all complex, unveiling layers of influence and inspiration.

Echoes of jazz greats, from Pharoah Sanders to Miles Davis, can be heard throughout the fifty-four-minute al-
bum, and Melton intentionally composed songs that were inspired by other artists. For example, he had John Coltrane in mind when he came up with the central phrase for the song “Rising Sign.” However, Melton never pursued music because he wanted to be like someone else. It’s something ingrained.

He comes from a musical family. Before moving to Kansas City at age ten, his early youth was spent in a small town in North Carolina where his father was a preacher and where he was surrounded by gospel music.

Melton feels the need to communicate in a way where words fall short.

“It’s something that goes beyond the English language,” he says. “It’s a pure thing. You can’t really ruin it. You can only ruin people’s perception of it.”

At age fifteen, Melton decided to leave high school. He took the GED so he could make more time for music.

“I really have to thank my very lenient mother for letting me do that,” he says, laughing.

Joining various jam sessions throughout Kansas City in the evening and practicing during the day, he began to hone his craft. Practice is still essential to his routine.

“I’m a practicer; I’m not a prodigy,” he says.

By age seventeen, he was regularly playing paying gigs and becoming a staple in the Kansas City jazz community.

Then he was accepted to the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston, but he made a tough choice. He opted to continue working as a musician instead of studying to become one.

Now, six years later, The Time of the Slave Is Over is earning him recognition throughout the wider jazz community, with positive coverage in the renowned JAZZIZ magazine. He’s also touring the world, playing shows in all the major American cities as well as Europe, and he’s setting the bar high for himself.

Even so, Kansas City is the place for him to be—especially right now, he says.

“We’re in an extreme urbanization era, but living here is still simple. There’s still grass here,” he says. “You can still grow ideas here. You can still take a breath of fresh air.”