How to build an empire with Gumbo

Matthew Harnet

In order to find your own path, looking over the maps and roads that were created by those who went before us is a huge help. Matthew Hartnett knows what it is like to start with nothing and make something great. In addition to that he has mentored a lot of up and coming musicians to find the same success he has found. This week we want to highlight Matt's achievements by sharing this recent article about him in the Houston Voyage (you can read the full article here).


Matthew, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far. Hailing from Houston Texas with proud Louisiana roots, I come from a family of educated educators. An athlete turned musician, I found myself more and more amerced in the arts as I matriculated through school. At Texas Southern University, I discovered music as a career path. I moved to New York City, where I really began to sore as a musician. Climbing the ranks in a few years playing with artists like Cheryl Pepsi Riley, Talib Kweli, Harry Belafonte, Lauryn Hill, Dave Chappelle and so many more, I became a first call for a lot of my industry peers. In the process of achieving local and national success, I started a jam session in New York called The Gumbo. Simultaneously, I started a Gumbo food business, selling the dish to restaurants in NYC to add to their menus. The goal was to pass on my on-stage and professional experience to other musicians around the city who aspired to do what I did in the business, while also providing a cultural experience through food and music.

The Gumbo was always meant to be an on the job training ground for musicians to get that real-life experience playing with a band artists. As a horn section leader, I especially focused on the horns. I always felt that no one in the education world ever bothered to teach horn players how to be a section. It was my personal mandate to do so. As the session grew to multiple locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan, the crowd evolved as well. I don’t know when I noticed it, but non-musicians were becoming more of the crowd ratio. The Gumbo had become a place of not only acceptance for musicians regardless of skill level, but a safe place for people of all walks of life to come and be themselves. It felt like family.

After moving back to Houston, I noticed the need for that type of Jam session here. There were Jazz jams, RnB open mics, and plenty of shows happening around town, but there wasn’t a place where Hip-Hop, RnB, Jazz, Funk, and Poetry all came together in freestyle form. Mostly everyone here does covers. That’s cool and keeps audiences comfortable, but it doesn’t push art forward. Musicians and singers get caught in the cycle of repetition and ultimately stagnate. Originality and uniqueness counts for so much in the world of commercial and pop music. The creative spirit has to be fed to get to the level that so many of us want to get to. I knew I needed to bring The Gumbo to Houston. I eventually shut down The Gumbo NYC and The Gumbo BK to solely focus on The Gumbo Houston, now called The Gumbo Jam. With help of my Houston band, partners Nicole Pierre Louis, Alii Michelle, and Blu I’ve been able to keep the jam going for seven months now. The Gumbo food business is now vending festivals and events around Houston too. Its all about The Gumbo now.

Has it been a smooth road? No path to success is smooth. The pitfalls are what make success worth having. In 2010 I moved to NYC with nothing. I had rice for breakfast lunch and sometimes dinner. I knew no one and spent 20 out of 24 hrs a day working on studio production. I wasn’t known as a trombone player but I had enough studio know how to engineer sessions, make tracks, mix, and all kinds of stuff for other artists. Eventually, I left that alone to focus on playing more. With the help of food stamps, I was able to feed myself around 2011. I remember coming from Houston back to NYC one time with nowhere to go after I got off the plane. I was legit homeless. A couple of craigslist room for rent adds and a lot of praying later, I got a spot. I didn’t land my first tour until 2012 with former Prince band member, Andy Allo.

I then went on to tour with The Crown Heights Affair. Hitting a glass ceiling in 2013 and 2014, I watched all my friends get Grammy awards and get all the great jobs. I knew my time had to be coming. After a hyper-focused year in 2014, where I fasted almost 1/3 of the year, recorded my own record and got married, it finally happened. 2015 was like a rocket ship. I had TV show after TV show, tour after tour, and lots of money. I also got divorced and lost the house I bought in Brooklyn. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” – Tale of Two Cities. I was 30, on top of the world musically and under the biggest rock of my life personally. As I get ready to celebrate my 34th birthday, I can say this to anyone on their journey. Success is an ever moving mark. There is no arrival. Part of the reason you will be successful is because you figured it out despite the odds.

So, as you know, we’re impressed with The Gumbo – tell our readers more, for example what you’re most proud of and what sets you apart from others. I am a trombonist, section leader, musical director, chef, and business owner. I specialize in taking raw materials and molding them into their greatest potential. I am most proud of the space I’ve created for others to be seen, heard, and loved. My love for the community I feel makes me different from others who wear the same hats I do.